Farewell to Education for Reconciliation

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

  • Turgon

    This euology to this project is intersting. I have little doubt it was a well meaning project and I suspect few would be directly antagonistic to its aims – I certainly am not.

    However, it is especially interesting for the way in which a specific agenda has proceeded through schooling without it seems much democratic accountability.

    The initial aim of an individual (Aidan Clifford it seems) was due to what he saw as a “Moral imperative”. However, he simply did not have a mandate for this “moral imperative.” Yet Clifford’s “moral imperative” managed to gain EU funding. EU funding is under absolutely no direct democratic control and under little enough scrutiny. Furthermore after Clifford’s imperative to “the totality of people on these two islands” the project then got funded only for schools in Northern Ireland and certain parts of the RoI somewhat undermining the broad sweep of its lofty ideals.

    Andy Pollak does not enlighten us as to what explanation parents were given regarding their children’s involvement in this project nor indeed who the speakers etc. were (presumably they varied as it was a long term project).

    Pollak himself states:
    “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.”

    The problem there is that Andy Pollak has no elected mandate. Dear knows I have no time for the current (or previous education miniter at Stormont) but they have been elected and are answerable to a committee. For far too long assorted of our “elders and betters” have been able to organise schemes of their own devising and then get EU money (actually our tax money at the end of the day) to finance these pet projects without any real accountability.

    That money might have been used to improve school infrastructure, fund the NHS or all sorts of other projects. In a democracy the decisions taken with citizens money should be under electorally accountable control and scrutiny. However, in this case as with all EU funding the proximity to accountability is remote to say the least.

    Pollak goes on to state: “There is nothing more important in Ireland than working with the still open minds of children and young people “ Well maybe but others might argue the NHS is more important. However, if children are our future and other tired cliches the problem is again that the decision about these sorts of “citizenship education” classes is that they are intensly political and politicised.

    Furthermore at the end of the day children and their education are the responsibility of their parents. Pushing a politicalicised set of objectives on children against their parents wishes is not acceptable and is also likely to be utterly useless.

    Pollak goes on to describe this initiative as “Grass roots”. that is simply incorrect. It was clearly a top down initiative by a well meaning academic: the oppoosite of grass roots.

    The final sentence is simply a non sequitor. The ending of this programme is most unlikely to be the single thing that prevents a putative future return to violence. Such hyperbole does the programe no favours.

  • There seem to be several ‘political education’ programmes in the post-1998 era. I was a little disappointed to see that the US administration was ignoring the 3-Strand inclusive approach when it funded Project Citizen [later re-branded Civic-Link]:

    Civic-Link is a cross-border and cross-community schools and youth based project, which aims to empower young people to actively participate within their own communities and to engage positively with each other. ..

    Civic-Link has been operating since 1999 and is an adaptation of the US Center for Civic Education’s Project Citizen. It has involved more than 200 schools and youth groups and is funded by the US Center for Civic Education and the Department of Education and Science Republic of Ireland.

    Our own Department of Education felt unable to discuss the project when I asked questions back around 1999-2000.

    On education, one initiative, Project Citizen, has emerged from the US to encourage school links in Ireland between North and South. A parallel scheme has emerged to develop British-Republic of Ireland links. It is planned that joint curriculum projects, joint field trips and teacher exchanges will develop.

    Apparently citizenship in a UK context was, er, over-looked.

  • I have to agree with everything Turgon says.
    I think education is better left to people who teach the three Rs and other real subjects.
    I happily handed over my children to be taught such things.
    If they were ever taught Citizenship, I certainly dont recall it. Best left to me. And if taught in school at all…best left to professionals as directed by mandated politicians.

    I dont think there will be a return to large scale violence and if there is its unlikely to be because of the loss of this programme.
    But how on earth can there be “citizenship classes” when we are seemingly citizens of two different countries.
    What passes for “citizenship” is actually just teaching your children good manners. Decent “citizens” do that anyway.

  • BluesJazz

    Pathetic, if sometimes funny, plea for money for pure bullshit.
    My favourite piece of waffly, nonsensical dogooderism: truncated,

    “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, , 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.”

    What a load of bollocks.

    On its way to Private Eye for Pseuds Corner.

    And thanks for the laugh.

  • DoppiaVu

    This all smacks of indoctrination to me.

  • “the experience of paramilitary groups and ex-prisoners .. peer mediation and restorative justice”

    Such an encounter might lead children to think that paramilitary life and justice had more appeal than other forms. Restorative justice in the South has not been delegated to paramilitaries, unlike the North, and the South’s Department of Justice is more than a little nervous of the Department of Foreign Affairs ‘welcome’ for paramilitaries.

    The Fellowship of Messines is also in receipt of EU funding so it might be part of the EfR network:

    The Association was established by a diverse range of individuals from Loyalist, Republican and Trade Union backgrounds.

    The Fellowship of Messines Association is dedicated to and actively works for, ‘Peace and Reconciliation’ in our society through the study and examination of the ‘Common and Shared History’ of the people of this island.

    Hmmm. Some might think that EU funds were being used to transform PUL folks into CNR ones and that an attempt was being made to air-brush out the British/UK dimension as well as to detach the loyalist paramilitaries from the pan-Unionist family using the socialist card. A link to Common Purpose, a left-leaning version of free masonry, appears on FoM webpage.

    Children are already exposed to ‘indoctrination’ of the religious form so the addition of a political/civic layer leaves even less time for the three Rs.