Integrated schools can help build stable society
Integrated schools have welcomed politicians striving to foster better links and dialogue between parliamentarians from both sides of the border.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement travelled north to visit Strangford Integrated College and Hazelwood IPS.
The committee, which includes TDs from Leinster House and MPs from Northern Ireland, plays an important role in informing debate on key areas of mutual interest such as north/south economic cooperation.
It works across numerous key areas, including outreach to disadvantaged communities, commemoration issues such as the Ulster Covenant and 1916 anniversaries and cross-border cooperation across sectors including health, transport and education.
The school visits followed an invitation to view integration in action, extended when representatives of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and the Integrated Education Fund spoke to the committee in July.
On that occasion, committee chairman Frank Feighan said: "There are few more practical examples of building a peaceful and stable society than the parent-led fostering of integrated education of recent years.
"On our frequent visits to Northern Ireland and the border region, this committee is acutely aware of how deeply divided much of society remains. Integrated education provides a vehicle to break that cycle."
The delegation met staff, pupils and governors at Strangford IC in Carrowdore and heard about the challenges and achievements of the parents and teachers who first established the school.
"We were delighted to welcome Mr Feighan and his team to Strangford College. We are proud of our school and the achievements of our students, and the visit gave us the opportunity to tell Mr Feighan the story of Strangford, and share our plans for the future," said principal Mark Weir.
The delegation then moved on to Hazelwood IPS in north Belfast to see younger pupils in an integrated setting. They met four P7 pupils from different traditions and heard their views on school life, before touring the classrooms.
Principal Patricia Murtagh said the committee saw a busy school environment "in which the heart is integration".
"We have children in our care that we hope will grow into young citizens of the future who can convey a message of friendship and respect to all they meet. There is an awareness that in spite of the good work of our politicians at all levels the reality of change comes from the heart and minds of the young people we nurture and challenge in our schools," she said.
"The environment in north Belfast still bristles with sectarianism and racism and we have to ensure that our children are able to have the difficult conversation if they arise."