Only united challenges from civil society to government and grass roots campaigns will bring about a shared future

It’s amazing isn’t it, how all the parties are now singing the praise of sharing, integration and Mammy and apple pie? And yet when it comes to agreeing what that might actually mean they stay stuck in deadlock, their real comfort zone. “A shared future”  risks  becoming debased as a piece of Orwellian double think, our equivalent of the  old Communist dictatorships’ “People’s Democracy.”  Apart from wringing our hands and scratching our heads, what can we do about it?

I’m sorry, but when I see the beaming united smileys at the prospect a £300 million peace zone at the Maze when our education and training levels are  in such need of investment I feel sick to the pit of the stomach. OK they’ve managed to unite around another grand  project to impress tourists (hardly many locals) but there are so many more worthy causes for investment before us.

The main focus of  reform is of course our schools where yes, you’re right to smell a rat. This is where Protestant politicians manage to make a sectarian point out of shared education because the principle of sharing allows them to attack the remains of Catholic governance of schools and Catholic politicians have no answer because they want to retain it. The reverse is true for academic selection.

Raising issues of principle and human rights are one form of challenge to stasis.  A group of mainly but not exclusively non- Catholic progressives have signed an open letter calling for an end to the fair employment exception for teachers.  The cause may be laudable but what is the ultimate desired outcome? Should this not be spelled out? It is surely intended to remove an obstacle to eventual integrated education in various forms and end the elements of institutional church governance in all school sectors. That in turn means that an otherwise suitably qualified  devout Catholic teacher can gain a post in Mersey Street primary and a DUP member privately sympathetic to intelligent design can teach  at St Malachy’s.

Three cheers for missionary work in both directions. But is there any sign of the political parties agreeing to radical  change?  No, do I hear you say?

What campaigners have also to do surely is to convince majorities on both sides of the desired outcomes, not only the intermediate causes.

Another desirable outcome is to bring about different  forms of fully shared education.  In this case the ministerial advisory group headed by Prof Paul Connolly on shared education got short shrift from unionist politicians for daring in their report to identify continuing academic selection as a major factor inhibiting fully effective sharing.

Can we agree on what the real points of  sharing  truly are? We haven’t even started  the debate.

Campaigners for both causes have to do more than set out their stalls.  They might integrate, to coin a phrase, in a common education reform campaign.  Human rights legal challenges in both cases might well be appropriate. But mere piecemeal appeals to the political establishment will not work. This is  one big lesson of Northern Ireland reform attempts  for over a century. The supply side, the professions must be involved and even more so, the demand side, the parents and the pupils.  Campaigners must face the uncomfortable fact that these progressive causes do not enjoy mass support. With careful nurturing and complete transparency  that might change, if reformers  are allowed to demonstrate the manifest gains  directly to parents and pupils.

One size fits all formulae are also unlikely winners. Prospects for real progress such as they are, surely lie in detailed work aided  by at least minimum government support which doesn’t frighten the political establishments. The need to spend more effectively at a time of cuts is the key point of pressure.

The area plans for Northern Ireland schools are now out to consultation. In their present form they are tentative and disappointing as they accept the presumed realities of selective and sectarian- based schools. They are simply documents of rationalisation and  spending cuts. Other options should be added: shared, non- selective and specialist technical and vocational developments which parents locally would be able to assess for themselves. These would have to offer wider choice of school and curriculum, without threatening existing high standards and if people so wish, their confessional loyalties.

Piecemeal campaigns are all very well. But a painstaking  exercise of reform area by area, school by school, is the one that might actually deliver over time. The reformers now need to get to work in earnest.

Is it too late?  For this time sadly perhaps  yes. But one day, for  the next cohort of  our children, it’s never too late.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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