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The ground truth from Belfast

Hijackings, burning vehicles, murder. What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Then-U.S. President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush are pictured with children taking part in a botanical project during his visit to the Lough View Integrated Primary School in Belfast, Northern Ireland, June 16, 2008. The school has integrated Catholic and Protestant children into one learning environment. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

BELFAST — In recent days there have been several hijackings and burnings of vehicles in Northern Ireland by armed and masked youths.

They took place in Catholic working class projects, where wall murals depict IRA “martyrs” from the Troubles of more than a decade ago. In hard-line Protestant districts, paintings of masked loyalist terrorists on gable walls intimidate any young Catholics thinking of going there.

While there may be shared government in Northern Ireland between the political representatives of the Protestant and Catholic communities, the kids in these ghettos rarely mix with anyone “on the other side.”

So what happened to integrated education — the idea, launched in 1987, that by bringing Catholics and Protestant children together in a shared learning environment they would learn to respect and accept each other? More than two decades on there are a mere 61 integrated schools in all of Northern Ireland, serving a divided population of 1.75 million. That is two less than last year, and makes up only five percent of the total number of schools.

The movement to bring children together in the classroom has high-profile support in Northern Ireland and abroad.

Last year President George W. Bush and his wife Laura visited East Belfast’s Lough View Integrated Primary School as part of the ongoing endorsement of successive U.S. administrations for integrated schooling in Northern Ireland as a means of building trust and understanding between children. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg toured Hazlewood Integrated College in North Belfast, and declared that “integrated school students symbolize the new Northern Ireland — a Northern Ireland where all the community is working side by side for the benefit of all.”