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NI centenary could restart debate on single education system, says Foster

The First Minister was addressing an academic event reflecting on the creation of Northern Ireland in the early 1920s.

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Arlene Foster (Liam McBurney/PA)

Arlene Foster (Liam McBurney/PA)

Arlene Foster (Liam McBurney/PA)

The First Minister has suggested Northern Ireland’s centenary could provide an opportunity to examine the creation of a single education system in the region.

Arlene Foster made the remarks at an event hosted by Queen’s University reflecting on the period leading up to partition.

At the same virtual seminar, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said Brexit had contributed to circumstances that had made Irish unity achievable within a decade.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney also participated in the online event reflecting on the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which paved the way for partition and the creation of Northern Ireland.

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Brandon Lewis (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Brandon Lewis (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

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Brandon Lewis (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

In her address, Mrs Foster highlighted that Northern Ireland’s first education minister, the Marquess of Londonderry, had tried and failed to establish a single education system where Protestant and Catholic children were educated together.

“2021 can be an opportunity to re-examine the past decisions that shaped Northern Ireland,” she said.

“Lord Londonderry’s early proposals to create a common education system were not implemented. Is 2021 the time to restart that debate?”

Her remarks come a decade after her predecessor Peter Robinson described a system where the majority of Protestant and Catholic children are educated in different schools as a “benign form of apartheid”.

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Peter Robinson (Niall Carson/PA)

Peter Robinson (Niall Carson/PA)

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Peter Robinson (Niall Carson/PA)

Ms O’Neill used her speech to reiterate her view that the centenary of partition was not a cause for celebration, saying: “It has failed the people across this island.”

The Sinn Fein vice president said it was time for a broad conversation about reunification involving all sections of society on both sides of the border.

“The Good Friday Agreement has provided a peaceful democratic pathway to Irish unity, which I believe will become a reality during this decade,” she said.

“Brexit has exposed the undemocratic nature and failure of partition in Ireland and it has created the biggest constitutional crisis for unionism in a century.

“The circumstances of Brexit have created new political, social and economic uncertainties for Ireland and Britain. But significant new realities and opportunities have also emerged.

“The issue of Irish unity has taken on a new dynamic because of Brexit. Demographics are changing and so too is the political landscape. This cannot be ignored.”

Mr Lewis said events to mark the foundation of Northern Ireland had to be “mature and forward looking”.

“These centenaries mean different things to different people,” he said. “But it is vitally important for all of us to engage in a debate about the past in an open-minded and respectful way.

“We must confront the difficult aspects of our history together and challenge the myths and the stereotypes that too often people have.

“We have to look forward, look ahead to what is a bright and positive future.

“We have pledged to mark this centenary in an inclusive way, recognising our unstinting commitment to the Northern Ireland people and acknowledging Northern Ireland’s contribution to our national life.”

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Simon Coveney (Irish Farmers’ Journal/PA)

Simon Coveney (Irish Farmers’ Journal/PA)

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Simon Coveney (Irish Farmers’ Journal/PA)

Mr Coveney said all perspectives had to be heard when reflecting on the events of the early 1920s.

“I want to recognise at the outset that for many, the centenary is an opportunity to reflect with pride on the existence and achievements of Northern Ireland and the people who live here. It is, for many, a story of resilience and achievement,” he said.

“I also want to recognise that, for the nationalist community, this is a story of disappointment and loss and tragedy, and a sustained and lived experience of discrimination and alienation over many years.

“And I recognise that, for others again, particularly in the minority communities in the southern border counties, the story is also one of being parted unwillingly from their kith and kin.

“And for many, including for me, reflecting on the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act is to reflect on separation and sundered relationships on this island, and also a sense of a missed opportunity in history.”

All the politicians addressed the event in pre-recorded video messages.

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