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Integrated education breakthrough signals a future of shared identity for NI

Northern Ireland is changing except for most of the politicians most of the time.

David Montgomery is executive chairman of National World, which owns this website.
David Montgomery is executive chairman of National World, which owns this website.

But in defiance of their traditional mores a light shone through the Assembly last week recognising a public sentiment that has been growing for years: It is good to educate children of all faiths, and none, together under the same roof.

Next month it will be 24 years since the Good Friday Agreement that enshrined integrated schools as a fundamental building block for long term peace and reconciliation.

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Just about everyone in the world has wanted this - American philanthropic institutions, the European Union, generous businessmen from all parts of Ireland and the UK, many members of the Royal Family, Hollywood stars, Prime Ministers and Presidents from around the globe who bestowed countless visits to integrated schools funded through donation in the last 30 years.

At the heart of the integrated movement are the parents and children whose courage faced down threats and actual violence - school buses have been stoned - to promote shared culture, learning and friendship.

The professional leadership of the Integrated Education Fund who dedicated their careers to the cause should be applauded for their advocacy without which the education bill would not have surfaced and succeeded.

At long last the civil service will be compelled to set targets and provide funding for the integrated sector that currently represents less than 10 per cent of NI’s schools.

The hard won achievement is indicative of an accelerating change. The sense of confidence in the wider NI is also shining through.

Communities of every type and in every location are asserting their shared rights of belonging and homeland.

As a current example the leadership of ABC - Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon - has united the community with its bid to be 2025 UK City of Culture.

Tourism is being promoted on TV screens across the world - with a nod to NI’s creative global contribution through Game of Thrones, Titanic and now the Oscar nominated Belfast movie.

Overseas businesses are queuing to consider setting up here.

None of this means forgetting the past, but instead accepting it as something all share, too.

In January, a Derry Journal special edition commemorated the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, meticulously recording the human sacrifice, the victims treated with dignity and equality as other victims from 1972, the bloodiest year of the troubles, must be.

Their united legacy, the tragedy not the blame, can secure the future of our children, but that means courage and determination of all our citizens to bring about a new era of politics.

Above all, NI needs competent government to exploit what is increasingly seen as our huge potential, unique place and character. The professional classes who shied away from politics for two generations now need to get off the golf course and apply themselves.

The existing parties must respect each other’s aspirations, jointly optimising the benefits of the UK link and together accepting the cultural reality that we are northern, with or without a capital N, and Irish.

Whatever those separate aspirations, nothing will be fulfilled without lasting peace and a common sense of belonging, homeland and nationhood.

Northern Ireland’s children have taken a giant step towards that new world.

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