Ulster Unionist leader calls for ‘Bog Child’ to be removed from schools reading list

North’s Curriculum body says teaching notes for award-winning book for teenagers are balanced

Ulster Unioninst leader Mike Nesbitt

Ulster Unioninst leader Mike Nesbitt


An award-winning book for adolescents has triggered controversy in the Northern Assembly.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt complained at Stormont that the teaching guide for Bog Child was evidence of bias and the worst kind of “politicisation of the classroom” under Sinn Féin’s direction.

Mr Nesbitt called for the book by the late London-Irish author Siobhan Dowd and the teaching notes supplied by the North’s Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) to be removed.

In response, the CCEA did not directly criticise Mr Nesbitt but said the book was not on the curriculum. It said it was one of a list of suggested books that teachers could use in the classroom for 14-year-old students.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education in the North added that neither the Sinn Féin Minister of Education John O’Dowd nor the department had any role in issuing recommended reading lists.

Bog Child is set in the 1980s and tells the story of a teenager called Fergus who discovers a body in a Northern bog and whose brother is on hunger strike. It won the Carnegie Medal for children’s writing.

Mr Nesbitt said the teaching guide encouraged children to study the hunger strikes, challenged children to put themselves in the shoes of Bobby Sands, to treat the writings of former Sinn Féin publicity chief Danny Morrison about the strikes in which ten men died as “factual writing”, and to accept children felt shame that their fathers worked as prison warders.

“Let me be clear, this is not an attack on the book,” said Mr Nesbitt. “I have not read Bog Child, so have no opinion on its value as a piece of literature. But I have read the teaching notes, as endorsed by the Department of Education and I am stunned by what I read,” he added.

“One of the many shocking aspects of this official teaching aid is the testimonies, allegedly from people who lived through the Troubles, one of which quotes an unnamed source as expressing how she ‘often felt deeply ashamed’ that her father was a warden in the Maze Prison. The Department of Education uses one unnamed source to try to discredit the prison staff population!” said Mr Nesbitt.

“This book and the related teaching guidance should be removed from the Northern Ireland curriculum immediately. Then an independent review of curriculum content must be instigated forthwith,” he added.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said Bog Child was not on the Northern Ireland curriculum. “Teachers can choose to teach whatever novels they think are suitable for their class,” she said.

A spokesman for CCEA, which compiled the suggested optional reading list, said the teaching notes were balanced. He said they also raised issues such as the disappeared, what were the then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s views of the hunger strikes and referred to former republican prisoner Richard O’Rawe whose opinions on the hunger strikes were directly contrary to Danny Morrison’s.