5 Aug

Why words matter in the language of politics

Words matter and clarity about what words
really mean also matters.

In May, the first and deputy first ministers announced how they intended to progress building a shared future in Northern Ireland. First Minister Peter Robinson said the proposals were the most ambitious ever brought forward on the issue. (more…)

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5 Jul

How do you make peace permanent?


When Ronan Curran,  a year 10 student at New-Bridge Integrated College, entered an essay competition to mark the visit of President Barack Obama to Northern Ireland, he never envisaged that not only would the President read his piece of creative writing but would invite Ronan and 10 fellow students to the Waterfront Hall on Monday 17th June.  Ronan received praise from the White House for his entry into a competition open to students aged 14-18 in Northern Ireland, in which they were asked:  How do you make Peace Permanent in Northern Ireland?

This is Ronan’s essay:

Northern Ireland used to be one of the most diverse places in the whole world. The troubles held Northern Ireland in captivity for many, many years. Religion fought religion, culture fought culture. I very much doubt that any person would wish to live their life in this manner. Would you like to live like this? Many people did, when the troubles were most predominant in the 1970s. When we say a peaceful society we mean a place where the people are safe and peaceful towards each other. It’s a place where conflict is at a minimum.  A quote from Albert Einstein, “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding”. Very few people truly understand peace. How do soldiers killing each other resolve global problems?

In recent years, Northern Ireland has become a much more peaceful country. Not all hatred and violence has been removed from the streets, it is highly unrealistic to think that it would be possible to discard the hatred and violence. We can only aim to reduce it, little by little, bit by bit. The Good Friday Agreement has provided Northern Ireland’s divided society with a political framework to resolve its differences. A model of governance based on ‘parity of esteem’ has replaced the old divisive system of majority rule. The two political traditions of unionism and nationalism have agreed to proportional inclusion of each group in government. Legislators in the Stormont Assembly designate themselves as unionist, nationalist or other and the voting system works to ensure that unionists and nationalists cannot vote against each other’s group interest. The Agreement respects the right of each political tradition to pursue its goal to remain part of the United Kingdom or to join the Irish Republic.

There are many other ways in which we can make Northern Ireland a more peaceful place, like introduce more connective learning projects or activities between a Catholic school and a Protestant school. I believe that every non-integrated school should have a linked school to arrange learning projects for the students. Roughly, only 7% of the schools in Northern Ireland are integrated, this must change if we hope to make any further progression with peace in Northern Ireland because the school that you go to as a child will determine the way you look at other religions and cultures. The government has to stretch itself to try and build more integrated schools. They could perhaps give extra help and benefits to draw children in to integrated education. The assembly at Stormont has a large role to play in keeping peace in Northern Ireland, it is a much more practical way of staying in control of the country rather than fighting. I believe that the main disruption of peace in Northern Ireland is religion. Catholics and Protestants have fought each other for hundreds of years in Northern Ireland. They fought and still fight for things such as, staying linked with Britain or having a whole Ireland, which flag would be flown and where.

Peace is so important to the vast majority of the population because that is what everyone wants to live in, they don’t want to have their lives and their families lives at risk. Peace is also important to me and my family for the same reasons and it’s what we believe in.

In conclusion, it is unrealistic to completely eliminate conflict from Northern Ireland but every single person can do their bit to minimise it. Slowly we are edging our way towards that peaceful place we all want. Northern Ireland is now as peaceful as it has ever been.


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26 Jun

It’s time to fulfil wishes of people on integration

From Baroness May Blood, Campaign Chair, Integrated Education Fund

Recent visits by Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have highlighted the work of integrated schools, setting them before the international community as an example of the way forward. The United Nations recently judged segregated education to be a major problem here. The poll results show that citizens are acutely aware of the global image of Northern Ireland and want the decision-makers to take segregation out of the education system as a priority.

In the past we have welcomed international support in helping to resolve difficulties during the peace process, or to reform policing. More than two years ago the Integrated Education Fund called for a similar independent commission to address the education system in Northern Ireland, taking the politics out of the matter – the latest Lucid Talk poll results suggest that there would be public approval for this approach.

It seems that nearly all parties and stakeholders agree that the current model of delivery is not one we would have designed if starting from scratch, and there is widespread acknowledgement that we need to take segregation out of the system. But we need something beyond a consensus that we have inherited problems; we need a clear vision for the future. The current policies, proposals and pledges coming from Stormont add up to merely tinkering at the edges of the education system, of cautious moves, albeit steps in the right direction. We need to plan a clear path to a better structure which accommodates difference, celebrates diversity and also promotes unity. And the public needs to see decision-makers commit to following this path to the end.

Barack Obama was conscious of the need to look forward when he addressed an audience of mainly young people in Belfast last week. These people were born into emerging peace, and many of them will be voting for the first time when the next Assembly elections come round. It’s imperative that politicians close the gap between Stormont and the wishes of the people; it was made clear at the Waterfront Hall that the coming generation do not want our past to be their future.


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21 Jun

When will the Executive take up President Obama’s challenge?

from Marie Cowan, Chairwoman, IEF

I was delighted and enormously encouraged by  Barack Obama’s visit to Northern Ireland. His historic and inspirational address at the Waterfront Hall, followed by his visit to Enniskillen Integrated Primary School with Prime Minister David Cameron, put young people at the heart of his vision of a better future for this society.

His recognition of the undeniable benefit of educating young people together, so that they can experience and share their differences, not fear them, is an incredible endorsement of the hard work of so many parents, schools and communities that have led the way in this vital issue.

After President Obama’s positive acknowledgement of integrated education, the question must be:  when will the decision-makers and stakeholders of the education system in Northern Ireland take up the challenge and respond with concrete measures to remove segregation from our schools?

The time has surely come for all politicians, many of whom were present in the Waterfront Hall, to finally consider whether they want an education system that simply manages the existing division better or one where integration, not separation, lies at the heart of our schools. We all know that this is not an easy journey for some but with public opinion on the side of integration and with the support of world leaders like President Obama, surely we can now finally address this once and for all?

One politician suggested that taking Barack Obama to an integrated school was the “easy option” – and certainly, if you want to show children and teachers of all backgrounds and traditions collaborating then integrated education, where diversity is the default  environment, is the obvious answer.  It demonstrated to the  visitors that the continuing work urged in the president’s speech is underway in many communities.    Teachers at integrated schools, however, would say that their work is no easier than any other teacher’s – and the questions and discussions raised in class and in the grounds are often not at all easy; but integrated schools embrace this challenge, in order to address these issues and help young people and their families move on towards a more wholesome community.    And the history shows that it hasn’t been easy to open any one of the 62 integrated schools in Northern Ireland, despite the wishes of parents to see this option for their children.

Our political leaders can either choose to stand over the structures which copper-fasten segregation, or they can be the leaders who finally overcome division. What we don’t need is an acceptable level of segregation or a tinkering around the edges that only serves to bolster the separation of children in school.


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17 Jun

Spotlight on Northern Ireland Reveals More Progress Needed

As the G8 leaders (not to mention international media) arrive for the summit in Fermanagh, the eyes of the world are on Northern Ireland.

They will see a beautiful part of the world, however you name it, of which we can be proud.  A green and historic corner of the earth shared between a relatively few lucky people.

They will see a society which has moved on significantly from the notorious Troubles – having made great strides since the Belfast Agreement fifteen years ago. We have even exported peace, lending expertise in community relations and in security to conflicted areas elsewhere.  And talking of export, Northern Ireland business community will be keen to showcase the very best of the place with a view to increasing international standing.

The very fact that the G8 is being held in Northern Ireland is proof and symbol of the enormous progress that has been made. However, with this new sense of security surely should come a vision of a truly shared future.

We cannot truly say we are a society completely at  peace with itself; as President Obama has pointed out at the Waterfront Hall, some of the divisions of the past have not yet been breached and healed:  ”If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden — that too encourages division. It discourages cooperation…”

Political timidity should be abandoned in favour of meaningful, measurable steps to end segregation.    There are noises from Ministers about sharing, which is something we welcome as a first step away from the current compartmentalised  system of education delivery.   Indeed the IEF has funded many projects bringing schools of different management types together over the past thirteen years. But these steps must not be seen as an end in themselves  or  -  worse –  allowed to underline division.  Bringing schools together on one site but with different uniforms, enrolment criteria and governance could simply work to emphasise difference.

For thirty years and more campaigning parents have worked to end segregation in the education system, putting children of all traditions together in classroom and playground every day.   They have worked stubbornly and bravely when there was little political will to bring children together.    The disgraceful aspect is that there is still little will from the Executive to progress integrated education.  President Obama said the development of a peaceful Northern Ireland is now down to the ordinary people. He asked whether parents would be willing to let their children play with those who went to a different church.  Fortunately he then got to meet the children of Enniskillen Integrated Primary School.

The thousands of children and young people attending integrated schools are a robust and positive response to Barack Obama’s question; the polls which show that a majority of parents would like to see their child’s school integrated reply resoundingly that ordinary people are ready to end separation.

With all the progress we’ve made it is a source of shame that this obvious step – desired by parents and young people – has not been taken.



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17 May

Change is a Challenge – and an Opportunity

Patricia Murtagh, Chair of the Assocation of Principal Teachers in Integrated Schools, writes:

The current climate holds many challenges for schools in Northern Ireland.  The issues around viability and sustainability in particular are most pressing and the inevitability of change is clear.  Change need not be feared, though it is inherently difficult to create something new without feeling the loss of the old.

Yet there is a huge opportunity presented to us – the potential for positive change, for renewal, for improvement to our education system through the planned development of our integrated schools in Northern Ireland.

In our segregated and separated society we may have witnessed less violence in recent years, but the anomaly still exists that our relationships and friendships with those around us can and often do operate within one perceived culture or another – it is still possible for a child to grow into their teenage years without speaking to someone from the ‘other side’, never mind establishing a friendship.

This extraordinary situation could be meaningfully changed and improved if we had truly integrated schools in each area.  The choices and decisions we make as adults are made through the prism of our life experiences and in particular our experience at school.  Children must attend school, so let’s send them to schools where they learn and play alongside others from different cultures, where friendships are established early and nurtured as they grow together.

Just think of the potential impact that these experiences can have if the young adult chooses to question those peers who encourage him to jeer at and denigrate “the other side”.  Because that young adult knows someone from that side as a friend – he has developed the courage and has been taught the skills to avoid the mindless stereotyping of others, recognising his ‘enemy’ as a person with feelings, family and a future.

The case for creating more integrated schools becomes more compelling in the light of Area Based Planning and sustainability issues. This aspiration to ensure the efficient use of resources is more likely to be fulfilled if our education system is unified rather than duplicated.

Current “shared education” projects – between schools of different sectors – are to be welcomed in that they recognise the value of sharing ideas, resources and projects.   But we could ask will these programmes highlight division without ever really challenging it?

Integrated schools welcome children from different backgrounds who sit side by side each day, having conversations about their favourite football teams and pop groups, their culture, traditions and religious practice – engagement that is real, regular and life-enhancing, normalising their relationships.  Their parents and grandparents, steeped in a personal journey through a troubled and segregated culture, are also able to have these conversations – tentatively at first but each step gets easier and sharing of hurts and experiences of loss are possible over time.

Those of us with daily experience at the chalk face know integration really does work – it can change future paths for our young people and their families.  The integrated ethos does not threaten to neutralise a person’s identity but enriches and celebrates it and shares it with others. As a school we can join together to celebrate all cultural festivals, whether those in which some of our children receive the sacraments of the Catholic Church, or a party to mark the Jubilee of the Queen.

We in the Association of Principal Teachers in Integrated Schools seek to find a way of moving forward, bringing politicians, church leaders and educationalists with us in a strategy to modify how schools in Northern Ireland look – planning to create a new landscape and a new future. It is important to stop protecting the status quo and embrace a different way. We owe it to our children and to ourselves!

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