Belfast Telegraph

How Northern Ireland children are taught is key to shared future

By Ed Curran

The sceptical, the cynical, the begrudgers may disagree – and unfortunately this country has a plentiful supply of them – but they cannot mask the fact that the visit of President Obama and the Lough Erne summit was one whopping success story for this country.

The G8 summit has surely re-ignited the political process for the better. Northern Ireland has had some of the best international publicity in my lifetime.

I was privileged to share a UTV studio last week with young Hannah Nelson, the Methodist College schoolgirl who upstaged Barack and Michelle Obama with the candid simplicity of her speech.

Hannah's words should live long in our memory: "We should not let the past pull us apart and stop us from moving forward... We need to work together not apart... We need to listen to each other and we need to compromise... Most importantly, we need to value each other."

As I walked along the line of police on duty outside the Waterfront Hall last Monday morning, I asked one officer where he came from. "From England," he replied.

And had he ever been in Belfast before? "Yes, I have. I was here before as a serving soldier. I can't believe how times have changed and how relaxed life is now."

By mid-week, his duties were done and the airports were packed with police officers going home. Before each flight was called to various parts of England and Wales, other passengers chatted warmly with them and the airport shops must have doubled their takings on last-minute gifts. I doubt if one of our many visitors left with a bad word to say about the place. On one of those flights, I sat beside a young Queen's University student from Malaysia. She, too, had been to the Waterfront. Her conversation was buoyed with enthusiasm about what she had heard.

She recounted her experience of living in Northern Ireland and how it was attracting so many major cultural and entertainment events, as well as the G8 summit.

Perhaps it takes outsiders like her to open our eyes to the new Northern Ireland, which we who live here have a tendency to take for granted.

David Cameron promised and David Cameron delivered for Northern Ireland. This was one of his finest hours as far as making a contribution to politics and peace on this island.

He took the gamble of bringing the world's leaders and media to these shores. It paid off not just for him, but in terms of advertising this part of the UK as a great place to live and work and play.

The G8 summit has kick-started politics for the better at Stormont. It has focused the minds of the First and Deputy First Minister and ensured that contentious and divisive issues cannot be pigeon-holed inconclusively, but must be addressed with more urgency.

The strong message on a shared future from Washington and London must surely inspire the parties at Stormont to take more risks for peace, more steps towards the vision of a new generation like Hannah Nelson.

By the next Assembly election, many of the young people in the Waterfront, as well as tens of thousands of teenagers, will be of voting age.

I hope they will exercise their franchise better than their parents and grandparents are doing, with barely half the electorate currently choosing to vote. President Obama's speech was an exhortation to snap out of our complacency and to recognise that an immense job still needs to be done to copper-fasten peace and stability in this society.

He did not miss the wall, nor should I say the walls of division in Belfast and elsewhere.

Nor did he mince his words as to why so many walls between communities are still there: "If Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants theirs... if we can't see ourselves in one another, if fear, or resentment, are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages co-operation..."

Separateness at childhood must be addressed. Hannah Nelson goes to a school – Methodist College – where Protestants and Catholics sit together in the same classrooms, but the vast majority of children remain segregated, just as Obama's childhood was dominated with racial divisions across America.

Segregated housing is a direct result of separate religious, cultural and political upbringing. Short of total integrated education, which remains an unrealistic dream in such a society where Church and culture are so ingrained, every means must be found to promote shared schooling facilities and more togetherness events.

A shared future cannot be achieved by the ballot box alone. It starts in the way we educate our children.

Belfast Telegraph


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