Will SDLP support for integrated education create a new consensus?

David McCann has already given his overview of the SDLP manifesto. On delivery, as is usual with these documents, the manifesto strains at being comprehensive without giving away too many hostages to fortune or burdening the reader with costings. And like all parties particularly the smaller ones, the SDLP can indulge in aspirations it knows it won’t be allowed to deliver – and may not always want to anyway.

Aiming for (I make it)  26,500 new jobs by 2021, it lacks the confident sounding punch of the DUP’s headline “ promises “ to deliver 50,000 more jobs  and the aim of lowering corporation tax eventually to 10%. (Dream on guys). All such estimates are pretty much back of the envelope stuff anyway.

Yet striking a theme of “ progressive nationalism, “  the SDLP makes at pretty fair stab at modernising  the image of nationalism and  differentiating from Sinn Fein. They are unambiguous about ending paramilitarism.

Decisively and unambiguously, paramilitary activity must be faced down. There must be a whole hearted political approach to ending paramilitarism and associated criminality.

It will be intriguing to see if tyro leader Colum Eastwood will present this as  the challenge to Martin McGuinness standing in his native Derry in what is surely a bid to speed up the pace of the SDLP’s decline for his last hurrah.

Less contentiously the SDLP are bidding to harmonise economic planning with the Republic and a set a stable “ framework “ for finance and welfare that would last for 30 years – and continuing into Unity if that happened during the period.  To plan it all the SDLP would promote a Commission for a new Ireland, recalling the Forum for a new Ireland of the early 1980s championed by John Hume.

Like Sinn Fein the SDLP want northerners to have a vote in the Seanad  and presidential elections. While they want more local devolution (City Deals) and a shift of resources westwards , I wonder why they’ve baulked at specifically recommending more power for the new councils.

The aim of lowering student costs further while increasing third level spending  is a bit of populism, like higher nursery support. On the other hand the SDLP is surprisingly forthright about promoting  a version of integrated education.

The SDLP will actively build and promote the development of integrated education in Northern Ireland so that it becomes the educational format of choice for an increasing number of parents and children. Our plans to develop integrated education will still operate in a context where parental choice remains paramount. In addition we are not confined to the current model of integration – there is scope to develop integrated education which builds upon the faith element of schools. For example there is no reason why a Catholic school cannot become an integrated school. The SDLP’s view is that the current DUP/Sinn Fein ‘Shared’ education campuses initiative does not go far enough. Their model, which brings Catholic and Protestant schools closer together to share some facilities, actually maintains and institutionalises segregation. The SDLP model for integration means all children wearing the same uniform being taught by the same teachers in the same classroom.

Some circles have to be squared here.  Where will school management reside? What does the CCMS think?

Mike Nesbitt’s release of a policy document on integrated education in advance of the Ulster Unionist manifesto may be an interesting  straw in the wind.

On the concept of shared education, the paper said the UUP was supportive “only on the basis that it is part of a road map to a more unified, less religiously segregated school system in Northern Ireland. It must be a process, not an end in itself”.

Might the two parties cooperate in the new Assembly with Alliance in tow, and create effective pressure on the DUP and Sinn Fein  to increase the role of integrated education? With Arlene Foster suggesting that the DUP might bid for the enhanced Education department, the challenge to make  major change mounts.

It also raises the question of, if not the DUP for Finance, who? A complementary duo of the DUP in Finance and SF in Economy that would have tested Executive cohesion before the public looks unlikely. The TV debate showed that the  parties should be pressed harder on the portfolios  they’d bid for in the few weeks of the campaign.


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