Earlier this month I attended the final teachers conference in Derry of the Education for Reconciliation project, to join them in celebrating what I believe to be one of the most important cross-border education projects of the post Belfast Agreement period.
13 years ago a visionary Dublin educationalist, Aidan Clifford, director of the Curriculum Development Unit of the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee, decided that he wanted to do something to support the then still young and fragile Northern Ireland peace process. ‘I felt it was a moral imperative for both individuals and institutions to participate in the peace process,” he says. “Not just the immediately affected people in Northern Ireland and the border counties, but the totality of people on these two islands should help to implement this profoundly important agreement.”
What he did was to start a project for secondary schools in both Irish jurisdictions in the ‘hard topics’ of peace, conflict resolution, sectarianism and racism, policing, justice and human rights, as well as inter-personal conflicts in schools. Education for Reconciliation has been unique in two ways: firstly its focus on teaching young people about post-conflict reconciliation in Ireland; and secondly, its emphasis on training teachers to be able to handle these extremely difficult issues in the classroom. The EU PEACE programme felt its pioneering work in this area was valuable enough to finance through four separate phases, which probably makes it unique among the hundreds of cross-border education projects funded by the EU, of which it is one of the few remaining survivors.
It was not always easy to recruit teachers for this demanding training course, which fed into the citizenship curricula for 12-16 year olds in both jurisdictions. This was not like going away to do in-service training in new maths or ICT or language methods: teachers on the Education for Reconciliation courses inevitably had to deal with their own fears, anxieties and prejudices, and many were initially daunted by the prospect of having to make teenage boys and girls do the same – it takes a brave and confident teacher to tackle these extremely thorny issues in the classroom. However in the end an estimated 700 teachers and, through them, up to 20,000 students have participated in the programme, most of the latter benefitting from the ‘cascading’ effect of Education for Reconciliation-trained teachers bringing their new learning back into their own and their colleagues’ classrooms.
Even given the strict geographical constraints of EU funding (only Northern Ireland and Southern border region schools are normally eligible), the range of schools and topics tackled by this courageous programme was extremely broad. At a teachers conference in Enniskillen in 2009 I counted schools that were Protestant and Catholic, grammar and secondary (NI), community, voluntary and gaelscoileanna (RoI), as well as an alternative education centre for ‘hard to teach’ young people. The teachers came from places ranging from East Belfast to Arranmore Island, from the unionist heartlands of Newtownabbey and Dromore to deep ‘green’ towns in Cavan and Leitrim, from Keady in South Armagh to Carndonagh on the Inishowen peninsula.
The range of topics and teaching methods is even more extraordinary: reconciliation and peacebuilding; policing and the law; conflict resolution (including peer mediation and restorative justice); diversity and equality; teaching controversial issues; active learning methodologies (including drama, music and animation); the experience of paramilitary groups and ex-prisoners, and the experience of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Education for Reconciliation project manager Mary Gannon works away beyond the call of duty to deliver training in such complex, controversial and highly sensitive subjects.
There is nothing more important in Ireland than working with the still open minds of children and young people to make sure that the fear, suspicion and mutual misunderstanding that was the curse of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations is dispelled and ultimately overcome so that future generations on this island can learn to live together in peace and harmony, whatever their political aspirations.
And who do we want to see living in a contented and peaceful Ireland more than our children? If we are to see that dream realised, then projects like Education for Reconciliation are fundamental. If I had my way, I would make them a core element of the citizenship programmes in both jurisdictions, and I would make those citizenship programmes compulsory throughout the second level school cycle.
But of course that’s not going to happen at this time of crisis and cutbacks. I have written before about the movement of up to 200,000 children in schools and youth groups across the Irish border over the past decade or so as probably the largest cross-border movement of young people for the purposes of education and mutual understanding anywhere in the world in recent times. This movement affects not only the students themselves, but their teachers, families and communities. There is a real danger that the benefits of this ‘grass roots’ movement – of which Education for Reconciliation is a pioneering and shining example – will be lost through lack of foresight on the part of the leaders and planners of the island’s educational systems. If the gains of the extraordinary explosion in North-South educational interchange of the past 10-15 years are allowed to peter out, what will the people of Ireland say in 20 or 30 or 50 years if the conflict in the North starts again?
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.