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The ground truth from Belfast

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

The number of integrated schools will fall further when Armagh Integrated College closes this summer after five years, having failed to attract enough pupils for long term viability.

“One of the reasons for the closures is that enrollment is falling for all schools,” says Fionnuala O’Connor, founder with her husband David McVea of Forge Integrated Primary School in South Belfast, and author of a 2002 book on the topic, “A Shared Childhood.” This, she believes, is because of a decline in births in the boom years of the 1990s when mothers were able to go out and get good jobs.

However, the problem for integrated schools goes much deeper, she points out. There are two types of regular schools in Northern Ireland: those run by the Catholic Church, and state schools largely attended by Protestants. The limited impact of integrated schooling has more to do with a lack of drive and state funding from the power-sharing government, which is based on a perpetual two-community system, rather than any lack of parental enthusiasm.

A survey carried out in May 2008 found that 43 percent of Northern Ireland parents preferred integrated education for their children, compared with 29 percent for state schools and 22 percent for Catholic schools, and 84 percent of respondents felt that integrated education was important in developing peace and reconciliation.

“There is little doubt that the Northern Ireland of today is very different to the place it was even 10 years ago,” according to Michael Wardlow, chief executive of Northern Ireland Integrated Schools, who wrote about the survey in the Dublin-based Irish Times. “In that context our devolved government appears to be of the view that financial investment will consolidate this peace and that if enough jobs are created, we will somehow forget our differences.

"This is a flawed, and indeed dangerous, position to take. We are a society built on a fault line of sectarianism and unless we deal with the underlying problems, we are in danger of building our ‘shared and better future’ on an unstable foundation,” Wardlow wrote.

He warned that “when the seismic wave of underlying sectarianism and bigotry comes again” the governing edifice will collapse as it consolidates differences. Keeping integrated schooling at bay is popular with the Catholic school sector and the dominant Protestant party, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), maintains O’Connor. “It is a cross-community winner because it keeps children apart.”

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