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SDLP integrated education manifesto pledge took Catholic clerics by surprise

Senior Catholic clerics were surprised by an SDLP manifesto pledge on integrated education

SENIOR Catholic clerics were "surprised" by an SDLP manifesto pledge supporting integrated education, a leading bishop has told The Irish News.

Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown, chair of the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education, said policies were a matter "entirely for the party" but the apparent shift in thinking had not been mentioned at a meeting with SDLP leader Colum Eastwood earlier this month.

The Foyle MLA led a party delegation that met the Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs (Niccosa) on April 4 – a week before the SDLP manifesto launch.

Bishop McKeown attended the meeting in his role as a Niccosa member but said there was nothing to suggest the SDLP was preparing to announce a change in its education thinking.

"There was no indication that it was going to be brought up at that stage," Dr McKeown said.

Former SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly, who is now the party's education spokeswoman, has in the past voiced support for integrated education over the current Stormont policy of promoting shared campuses.

While it has not been adopted as official party policy, the manifesto states: "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."

The party's last assembly election manifesto in 2011 said it envisaged a system based on "parental choice of shared, Irish-medium, state or faith-based education through the provision of appropriate access for all pupils".

Bishop Donal McKeown said leading Church figures were surprised by the manifesto but added that there had been no discussions with the SDLP since the document was launched on April 11.

"There certainly was surprise – surprise in the sense that I would generally have the impression that an awful lot of those who consciously choose and value Catholic education would be well represented among SDLP voters," he said.

"I was surprised but I’m not aware of any attempt by anybody at leadership level in the Church to complain or protest."

Bishop McKeown said the SDLP policy as presented in the manifesto appeared to present an educational model that was outdated and "binary".

"I thought we’d long gone beyond that binary model of good integrated education, bad everything else," he said.

An SDLP spokesman said parental choice was the "key tenet" of the party's education policy, with faith-based schools playing a "vital role".

"Catholic schools are among the best schools in Northern Ireland and the SDLP engages in ongoing discussions with school governing bodies and the Church on education and other social issues," the spokesman said.

"Only last week we reaffirmed our commitment to safeguarding the future of St Mary's University College."

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