Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 12 July 2014

New strategy for shared education unveiled by Stormont leaders

Martin McGuinness says he has more areas of agreement with Peter Robinson than disagreement
Martin McGuinness says he has more areas of agreement with Peter Robinson than disagreement

A new strategy to heal sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland has stressed the crucial need to create a fully shared education system in the region.

As well as setting that long-term goal, the much-anticipated blueprint unveiled by Stormont's leaders today will also establish a new oversight body with beefed up legal powers to ensure the state is undertaking commitments to foster good relations in the region.

Responsibility for scrutiny of those sensitive issues is being placed on a statutory footing and is being transferred between independent bodies - from the Community Relations Council to the Equality Commission - with the latter being expanded to form the Equality and Good Relations Commission.

The document proposes a number of initiatives to increase contact between Protestant and Catholic pupils in the region's schools - such as shared multi-school campuses and buddy schemes - but stops short of a full scale restructuring of the current separated system.

However it does state the measures are being introduced with "a view to achieving a full shared education system in Northern Ireland", stressing the need to break the "intergenerational cycle" of sectarianism and underachievement.

Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson said the educational dimension of the strategy was part of a "step by step" process to the ultimate goal of a single education system.

"I would like to have swept everything else aside and come forward with one united single shared or integrated education system," he said.

"It's a great proposition but in real political terms it is something which isn't possible to do in that way. And therefore it has to be a more gradual process."

Many of the headline actions contained in the shared future strategy - such as a 10-year target to remove all the so-called peace walls dividing communities - were announced two weeks ago by Democratic Unionist leader Mr Robinson and his partner in the region's five party coalition executive Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Today the ministers published the full document - entitled Together Building A United Community - which provided more details on how goals will be achieved.

Thorny issues

DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionist, SDLP and Alliance ministers discussed the document at today's Executive meeting in Belfast.

No official vote was taken to pass it on to the Assembly for scrutiny, with ministers instead agreeing to hold another Executive meeting to discuss its contents at more length in the coming weeks.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have yet to reach agreement on three of the most thorny issues facing Northern Ireland - dealing with the past, parades and flag/symbols.

These matters are not addressed in the strategy and are instead going to be examined by an all party group, led by an as yet appointed independent chairman, which will produce a report by Christmas.

Mr McGuinness said the strategy represented a bid to drive ahead on the issues where agreement had be achieved.

"The areas of agreement between us (he and Mr Robinson) far outweigh the areas of disagreement and it's in that spirit that we are driving forward.

"This is an opportunity to move forward, to deal with issues in a very serious way."

He added: "If we are divided we are very weak but if we are united we can be very, very strong.

"All of these plans and ideas that we have put out to you today, even though it's in one document, that's not the end of it - we see this as the beginning of a ongoing process which will be tweaked and added to over the course of the coming months and years."

Other proposals as part of the shared future package included:

  • A programme for 10,000 young people aged between 16 and 24 not in education, employment or training to give them a paid year-long placement. It will include a good relations component, aims to create good citizens and encourage steps into work.
  • 100 cross-community summer schools or camps are to be held across Northern Ireland by 2015 for post-primary school young people.
  • 10 shared school campuses will be commenced within five years.
  • A buddy scheme for nursery and primary school pupils across the religious divide
  • Four large scale urban village regeneration projects will be created to target areas of deprivation.
  • Proposals for 10 new shared neighbourhood developments will be brought forward within the next two months and there will be a cross-community sports programme.

The all-party group to address the outstanding big ticket issues will include two nominees from each of the five political parties and two junior ministers from the First and Deputy First Ministers' office and will invite community engagement.

Peace walls

Northern Ireland's peace lines are a mixture of traditional walls, fences and gates.

They have been built in areas of sectarian tension in Belfast, Londonderry and Portadown, as well as through the playground of a primary school in north Belfast.

Some tower up to 18ft high (5.5 metres) and may be miles long through areas of dense housing. They were intended to be temporary and protect people from violence during the 30-year conflict but remain 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement which ended the Troubles.

Local communities are to be encouraged to come together to produce a phased plan on how to remove the barriers but Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness have insisted the walls would only come down with the consent of people living in the areas.

"We are actually very hopeful and very optimistic that not only can we make large in-roads, that we can see these walls down within 10 years, and that's our aim," said Mr McGuinness.

Efforts

Efforts to produce a strategy to bring about reconciliation have been dogged by problems and mired in controversy since the peace process saw power-sharing established at Stormont.

One of the most recent bids to draw up an agreed document between all the five main parties hit the buffers when the Alliance and Ulster Unionist parties withdrew from the process citing concerns at progress.

Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness then moved to draw up their own proposals.

Their publication comes after a winter of unrest triggered when Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the Union flag flies over City Hall.

Sociologists from Queen's University in Belfast today published research indicating that community relations among teenagers in Northern Ireland were badly damaged by the flag crisis

The controversy has heightened the perennial concerns of civil unrest linked to disputed parades in flashpoint Catholic and Protestant interfaces during the summer marching season.

Mr McGuinness said setting a Christmas deadline for the all party group to produce a report on flags, parades and dealing with the past would help to focus minds on the importance of making progress.

A chairman is set to be appointed within weeks. Mr McGuinness indicated the individual could come from abroad, noting the contribution of former US senator George Mitchell during the peace process negotiations.

"What we are looking for is somebody who can command the confidence of all the parties," he said.

"In effect I suppose we are looking for somebody who has the same qualities as Senator George Mitchell.

"But we are not looking for George Mitchell, I think we put him through enough. It's that sort of person we are looking for."

The Community Relations Council is set to retain its current function of overseeing the distribution of state and certain EU funding to groups involved in reconciliation projects.

However it is envisaged that other agencies will be more free to tender for this sort of funding work from the Stormont Executive in the future.

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