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DUP warns of 'broken Ulster'

A decline in traditional values and morals has created a "broken Ulster" which is fuelling Protestant under-achievement in education, a DUP politician has claimed.

The remarks came as Stormont parties united behind an Assembly motion calling for efforts to tackle lower levels of attainment at school among pupils from Protestant working-class communities.

But while most speakers blamed deprivation and the decline of long-standing industries for the trend, the DUP's newly-elected David McIlveen said the declining role of religion and "moral fibre" had to be considered.

He also, meanwhile, used his maiden speech to reveal his late grandmother's Irish republican beliefs and dedicated his election success to the Co Cavan-born woman's memory, despite not sharing her political outlook.

Mr McIlveen, whose father is the prominent Free Presbyterian minister of the same name, said educational under-achievement was a major issue in Protestant working-class areas.

"However, I think that what we have to accept is that whilst this is a debate that circles around education, the education aspect of it is really just the tip of the iceberg," the North Antrim MLA said.

"As I have spoken to many people who work within the education sector, particularly in working-class areas, it is very clear that this debate spans into other departments.

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"It really goes right to the very moral fibre of where Northern Ireland is at this present time.

"Because, whether we like it or not, in our schools and in our working-class estates, particularly in Protestant areas, there is a lack of parental guidance, there is a lack of pastoral guidance... and this is the biggest issue we have here, in working-class Protestant areas at the moment."

He said that when Queen's University Belfast was founded, the absence of a prominent role for religion saw it branded as one of a number of "God-less colleges".

"Unfortunately our schools have followed that example," he said.

"Unfortunately that is where we find that the biggest breakdown is, it is the breakdown of families, it is the breakdown of moral guidance within the home."

He recounted a case of drunkenness involving two 12-year-old girls and added: "What we have to realise is that we have a much deeper problem than what is just happening within the schools.

"David Cameron, our Prime Minister, in the last election fought on the basis of 'Broken Britain' and I believe sincerely that we have a case of 'Broken Ulster' in this society at this moment of time."

Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry said the issue of educational under-achievement was linked to deprivation across the community.

He cited figures from 2009-10 which showed that 59% of pupils gained five GCSEs or more, but the figure for attainment for children who receive free school meals was at the much lower figure of 31%.

Both he and Education Minister John O'Dowd were in the chamber for the debate and speakers from all parties said the issue required action.

The DUP's Alex Easton said the decline in traditional industries such as ship-building was among factors that contributed to proportionately lower achievement rates for Protestant working-class boys at school.

The DUP objected to Sinn Fein claims that academic selection exacerbated the educational problems in Protestant working-class areas.

Sinn Fein's Phil Flanagan, who also gave his maiden speech, said the lower levels of Protestant working-class involvement in third level education also underlined the need to avoid an increase in university fees, for fear of barring students from less well-off backgrounds.

Mr McIlveen, however, said the impact of popular culture on the ambitions of young people was also important.

He said young people had to be inspired and added: "We have to get away from this X Factor-like principle that everybody can be a star.

"The fact is that everybody can't be a star. Everybody can work, everybody can be the best that they possibly can."

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