No rift with Stormont over shared education, says US diplomat

Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama at Enniskillen integrated school

Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama at Enniskillen integrated school

By Steven McCaffery

A VISIT by US President Barack Obama to an integrated primary school with Prime Minister David Cameron was not a snub to Stormont’s backing for shared education, the US government has said.

Barbara Stephenson, the former US Consul General in Belfast and current Chargé d’Affaires at the American Embassy in London, said the administration in Washington DC applauded all work being done to bring children together in schools.

The visit by the two premiers came as they arrived to take part in the G8 summit in Fermanagh in June.

And, while at the time US sources said that all the main education traditions had been hosted at the President’s Waterfront Hall speech ahead of the school visit, the wider choreography fuelled claims of a snub.

As reported here by The Detail, the episode threw a spotlight on the preference of First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to gradually bring Protestant and Catholic children together in shared schemes, as opposed to planning a fully integrated education system.

Former US Consul General in Belfast Barbara Stephenson said: “I think the message the President wanted to send was one of enduring American support and sharing our own belief as Americans that efforts to overcome division and build a more united society, as hard as they are, are completely worth it.

“His own life story is a testimony to that.

“But in terms of trying to get in and pick, you know, this group versus that group, no. We were really trying to come and say it takes courage to do this.

“I remember when I was here and supporting integrated education as Consul General, I remember stories of people who mortgaged their homes in order to come up with the start-up funding to be able to create an integrated school.

“It was hard and it required sacrifice and courage of a kind that, it really still moves me to think about people who believe this much in it.

US diplomat Barbara Stephenson explains Governments view on NI education models /

“Now there’s a lot of other people who joined in on this since I left, shared future was adopted, the Building a United Community, we’ve got a government policy that says we want to increase the opportunities for Catholic children and Protestant children to know each other when they’re growing up and to kind of live, work, play, study alongside each other.

“All this has happened since I left and so we’re applauding all of it.

“That’s where we are – is, `yes!’.

“You’re watching more people come in and say `this can be part of the solution set’. And to all of that we just give an enthusiastic cheer.”

She said the visit to the school had been a successful and pleasant visit, but denied it or the President’s speech was intended as a slight to the Stormont blueprint.

She said the president “was a uniter, not a divider, he comes from community organiser background himself”.

Mrs Stephenson added: “So our effort was to actually cheer on all those people who are trying to create opportunity for a more united society, a society with the shared future at its heart.

“So, no. We were actually just trying to be supportive.”

© The Detail 2013