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Good news: bridge uniting Catholic school and neighbouring Protestant one gets the blessing of councillors

Bad news: the debate on the issue descends into a sectarian squabble

BY DONNA DEENEY

A bridge that would unite a Catholic school and a nearby Protestant one has sparked a sectarian row among Limavady's councillors.

But after the principals revealed their plans to a supportive council, the politicians then engaged in the type of playground politics that children at St Mary's and Limavady High schools have left behind.

The schools had sought the council's blessing for the project as they took the bridge plans forward.

The motion to support their £216,000 funding application to the Big Lottery fund was put forward by nationalist councillor Ann Brolly.

That was followed by a suggestion from mayor Gerry Mullan that a unionist councillor should second the motion.

Unionists said the nationalist mayor telling them what to do was the spark that lit the fire.

Incredibly, the council used its support for a cross-community project as a launch-pad for a sectarian squabble that that led one former mayor to describe his own council as a disgrace.

The TUV's Boyd Douglas said the mayor was "out of order and he can't tell me how to vote and what to do".

He suggested that perhaps the councillors were not the best people to talk about unity.

"We as councillors are not always singing off the same hymn sheet in here, so perhaps we aren't the best people to be asked about a unity bridge," he said.

"Limavady is not a shared area when a playground couldn't even be built for Protestant children. Do we really need to use this money for a bridge?" he asked.

Mr Douglas also recalled when he was younger pupils being stoned by nationalists.

This was met with anger as Sinn Fein's Sean McGlinchey shouted back: "I was brutally attacked by loyalists when I was younger." Eventually calm was restored and a call for support for the two schools was passed, with only the UUP's Edwin Stevenson refusing to raise his hand.

Councillor Stevenson said he supported the bridge plans even though he didn't actually vote for them.

"I did not raise my hand at the meeting to support the two schools although both principals know I fully support them – but I will not be dictated to by anyone," he said afterwards.

"How dare Councillor Gerry Mullan tell me as a unionist what I should do within the council. His behaviour was unfitting of a mayor. Just because Boyd Douglas and I asked a few questions about the project which we were fully entitled to do, he wagged his finger and called us negative, which angered me."

Mr McGlinchey spoke afterwards and said that "the whole fiasco was despicable."

"What went on in that meeting after the two school principals left was worse than a joke. They talk about a shared space but Limavady Council could take a leaf out of the book of these two schools. What I am still angry about is that they were playing politics with the safety of school children."

DUP councillor George Robinson said "sometimes it is like one step forward and two steps back, but when it comes to children, we have to start somewhere."

Mr Mullan was not available when contacted.

Schools are shining examples of close co-operation... unlike their local council

Two school principals from two different traditions – but Mary McCloskey from St Mary's and Shane Laverty from Limavady High School are no strangers to each other – and nor are their pupils.

For years the two Co Londonderry schools have worked together on many different projects, quietly creating friendships between the pupils that went beyond the school gate.

The schools are widely seen as shining examples of how shared education might work in Northern Ireland and their plan for a bridge between the schools has attracted cross-community support.

"The path attracts anti-social behaviour and has in fact led to some serious incidents in the past," said Ms McCloskey.

"The bridge is to enhance safety and create a shared space.

"It's about bringing two communities together."

On Tuesday, the two principals stood before Limavady Borough Council asking for support for their plans for a bridge that would enhance shared education ambitions and deepen the relationship between students.

They are both part of the Roe Valley Learning Community, a body made up predominantly of the secondary, grammar and special education schools in the borough to facilitate a number of shared projects where the schools all work in tandem.

The level of co-operation and harmony that already exists between the two schools has been held up as an example to others.

Professor Tony Gallagher of Queen's University, who has pioneered the shared education model, said: "Limavady has always led the way in this process and it will continue to lead the way."

Mr Gallagher said he has praised the work of these two schools to Atlantic Philanthropies – an influential charity that has been striving for further integration between Protestant and Catholic education.

Mervyn Storey, Chair of the Education committee, has previously noted how the students wearing their different school uniforms were often seen "mixing freely, walking together and socialising around Limavady".

The two principals completed their presentation at the Council Chamber on Tuesday with a degree of optimism.

But before they left the building, the bitter row was erupting inside.

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