Shared education plans in pipeline despite DUP/Sinn Féin tensions in government

Parliament Buildings Stormont

Parliament Buildings Stormont

By Steven McCaffery

STORMONT leaders are scheduled to announce a series of initiatives aimed at promoting ‘shared education’ across Northern Ireland, including confirmation of a £25 million investment package.

The politicians are due to unveil what is in effect the cornerstone of their strategy to combat sectarianism, despite rising tensions between the DUP and Sinn Féin over issues including welfare reform, the Assembly’s budget, the legacy of the Troubles and even racism.

Three separate announcements are to promote sharing and cooperation between predominantly Catholic schools and predominantly Protestant schools in Northern Ireland’s divided education system.

Details of the £25 million of funding to build links between schools is expected to be unveiled within days, while this month will also see the announcement of separate ‘shared campus’ projects, plus consultation on the proposed Peace IV Programme from the European Union which could see an investment of up to 45 million euro.

The £25 million investment will help mainstream `shared education’ in schools.

The funding will include £5 million from the Department of Education, £10 million from the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, plus £10 million from the Atlantic Philanthropies organisation.

But there will also be close scrutiny of what is seen as the first significant delivery of the blueprint to tackle sectarianism that was unveiled in May 2013 in the document: ‘Together: Building a United Community’ (TBUC).

The TBUC plan that was launched by First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness promised a wide range of initiatives including a pledge to begin work within five years on 10 shared education campuses – where schools made up of predominantly Catholic or Protestant students would agree to being based on a shared site.

The document said:“We believe that creating more opportunities for socially-mixed, shared education, with a view to achieving a full shared education system in Northern Ireland, is a crucial part of breaking the cycle of inter-generational educational underachievement unemployment, and sectarianism; and improving good relations amongst and for our young people.”

Education Minister John O’Dowd is expected to identify 10 successful projects drawn from 15 proposed schemes that ranged from a shared ‘sports village’, to joint school campus models.

The TBUC package of initiatives was a bid by First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to set a more positive agenda following months of riots over restrictions placed on flying the Union flag at Belfast city hall.

The initiative was accompanied by a pledge for a talks process to deal with the issues of flags, parades and the legacy of the Troubles. The negotiations were later chaired by US diplomat Richard Haass, but failed to secure a deal.

There will now be a sharp focus on the shared education campus plans.

Supporters of fully integrated education claim shared education falls short of what is needed.

But those promoting shared education, and school communities directly involved, have said it is building new relationships across Northern Ireland in places where geography and history are barriers to full integration.

The issue sparked controversy within weeks of the May 2013 TBUC announcement, when Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama visited an integrated primary school when they arrived in Co Fermanagh for the G8 summit in June of last year.

The choice of visiting a fully integrated school project as opposed to a shared education initiative was read in some quarters as a snub to Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness.

The Westminster government and the US authorities subsequently sought to play down the incident.

The US administration used an interview with The Detail to set out its position, as was reported here.

Barbara Stephenson, the former US Consul General in Belfast said that the US government applauded all work being done to bring children together in Northern Ireland, repeating support for the integrated movement, but also welcoming shared education as “part of the solution set”.