Stephen Armstrong 13 NOVEMBER 2016 • 8:00AM
Despite the peace process, there are barriers still to be broken down in Northern Ireland. Stephen Armstrong meets the locals taking the battle to the school gates.
On the last warm day of the year, boys kick a football around the playground at St Mary’s Primary School in Brookeborough, County Fermanagh. Dotted in small groups around them, girls jump rope and clap out complicated pat-a-cakes. It’s about as ordinary a scene as you’d expect in any school across the country. The only anomaly is that half the kids are wearing the dark-blue jumpers of St Mary’s and half are wearing the green jumpers of Brookeborough Primary, half a mile away. And in Northern Ireland, that makes all the difference in the world.
St Mary’s is a Catholic school, Brooke-borough is Protestant and the small town itself nestles on the edge of south- east Fermanagh – close to the border with the Irish Republic. During the Troubles, IRA groups made incursions across the border from the south while British army patrols and checkpoints were regular, heavy and sometimes trigger-happy.
As a result, Fermanagh’s county town, Enniskillen, saw at least one violent death a year across the 1980s, from a British soldier shooting a young woman in 1981 to the bomb – detonated beside the town war memorial on Remembrance Day in November 1987 – with which the IRA killed 11 civilians.
I had to run for my life several times. I came out of a disco once and the IRA opened fire on the police officers standing next to me
The county’s strong Republican base elected imprisoned IRA member Bobby Sands as its MP at the height of his hunger strike in 1981. The idea that Catholic and Protestant pupils would kick a football around during break time between lessons in which they shared a teacher would have been inconceivable 10 years ago.
Talking to Andrew Armstrong and Ben Foster, both 10, from Brookeborough and Sean McDermott and Owen Egan, both seven, from St Mary’s, the idea that they’d hate each other is equally inplausible.
‘I’ve got a lot of friends at St Mary’s,’ Ben shrugs. ‘I always can’t wait for shared education day.’ Shared education is the official name for St Mary’s and Brookeborough’s collaboration. It’s a simple but radical idea in cohesion: if children from both sides of divided communities come together at school from an early age, it fosters trust. The idea started here – in Fermanagh, in one man’s cramped office – but has spread around the world.
Pioneering principals Hazel Gardiner and Dermott Finlay CREDIT: MARY FURLONG
Unicef has rolled it out in Macedonia, as have schools in Israel and Palestine, Mexico, Los Angeles and Cyprus. It was the idea of Lauri McCusker, the 46-year-old director of cross-community charity The Fermanagh Trust, whose greatest satisfaction came in May this year when the Shared Education Bill passed into law, and his early hunch became an official education policy in Northern Ireland. It’s almost a Hollywood story. Shared education, says McCusker, is about breaking down barriers, however old they are.
As we walk down the leafy hill from St Mary’s to Brookeborough Primary, McCusker explains, ‘With the tension, killings, mistrust and fear, Protestants and Catholics had – and to some extent still have – separate worlds. You could live five doors down but you don’t engage. In Belfast there are peace walls [barriers between Catholic and Protestant areas]. In Fermanagh there are glass walls. You can’t see them, but they are there.
And it starts young because it’s as if there are two education systems in Northern Ireland – 95 per cent of kids go to either a Catholic or a Protestant school and the schools work in parallel universes.’ McCusker grew up in Enniskillen, on the largely Catholic Cornagrade estate, in the 1970s and ’80s. He remembers baked bean tins popping when a bomb blew out the windows of his local shop. He remembers walking home from the pub and cars pulling up close behind him, driving slowly, almost touching the back of his legs.
He remembers, on the morning of November 8, 1987, hearing the enormous blast of the Remembrance Day bomb. That evening he went to work his shift at a petrol station – next to the Enniskillen police headquarters. The world’s media was camped outside and word filtered through that a guy he knew, who worked at the same petrol station, had been caught in the blast. ‘We were killing one another,’ he says simply.
‘I had to run for my life several times. I came out of a disco once and the IRA opened fire on the police officers standing next to me. We were doing awful things to one another as a society and a community. There had been so many years of violence, intimidations – so many people had been involved and affected by one side or another. By the end of the 1980s, with unemployment so bad, people were just getting out.’
He joined them – moving to Coventry to get a degree in economic development and planning. He worked in warehouses in Coventry and London, packing crates for Toys R Us. He travelled – spending six months as a gardener in Southern California and eventually applying for a US green card. But he was home in Enniskillen, getting ready to move to the States for good, saving money before starting work in Boston, when he saw a job advertised: economic development officer at the local council.
Pupils at the shared-education trial site, St Mary’s Primary School in BrookeboroughCREDIT: MARY FURLONG
‘I was almost gone,’ he says, with a faint trace of longing in his voice. ‘But I couldn’t. It was 1994. The peace process was underway. It was a chance to actually do something.’
So he stayed, working for the council, then a group of housing associations, until he landed a job at The Fermanagh Trust – a cross-community body that, in the name of growth and cohesion, funds anything from wind farms to new equipment for sports clubs. McCusker joined in 1998 and began running shared preschooling, offering mixed nursery places to both communities. It worked – slowly – and McCusker began looking into primary schools.
Fermanagh, he explains, ‘is a very big, very rural county with small rural primary schools, usually lacking resources. They’ve got low pupil numbers and they’re usually just down the road from a school from the other community that has the same issues.’
The Fermanagh Trust offered to fund specialist teachers – in music and languages – and extra resources for the small, primary schools on one condition: a Catholic school had to share the teacher or resource with a Protestant school and vice versa. Around this time, The Atlantic Philanthropies – one of the trust’s funders, set up in 1982 by Irish-American businessman Chuck Feeney – was looking for a new direction. Feeney, whose grandmother came from Fermanagh, had donated heavily to social and public policy schemes to help the peace process.
Children during The Troubles, 1972 CREDIT:GETTY
Atlantic had provided grants to so-called integrated education – building integrated schools in the hope that both communities would be equally represented. But, at the start of the century, Atlantic’s then-Northern Ireland country director Padraic Quirk became increasingly frustrated at the slow growth of such schemes. ‘In 2004, we decided to be a bit more ambitious,’ explains Quirk, who now runs Belfast’s cross-community Social Change Initiative.
‘We wanted to extend our funding to reach the 93 per cent of Northern Ireland pupils who weren’t in integrated schools.’ Working with Queen’s University Belfast, Atlantic began developing the philosophy of shared rather than integrated education.
‘The beauty of shared education is that it doesn’t force kids into integrated schools, where their parents worry they’ll lose their identity,’ explains Queens Professor Joanne Hughes. ‘Other short-term initiatives had failed for that reason – it was about community cohesion first and education second. Shared education had to offer more than that – it had to offer a practical benefit for parents, teachers and students, with the additional effect of bringing communities together.’
Looking for areas to run trials, Quirk quickly settled on Fermanagh. ‘Fermanagh people are very precious about the county,’ he explains. ‘If you could get that county to collectively say, “Shared education is for us,” we hoped it could have an effect across all six counties. And whenever you say you want something done in Fermanagh, Lauri McCusker’s name comes to the top. He somehow knows everybody.’
Children of the Troubles, in 1972 CREDIT: GETTY
When you meet McCusker, it is tempting to think he’s shy. He’s friendly but rumpled and reserved, sometimes watching you carefully before he replies. Perhaps, you think, he’s awkward around people. One evening, however, we went to a local restaurant in the back room of an Enniskillen pub draped in Game of Thrones memorabilia (Northern Ireland is a location for the show). It rapidly became clear he knew everyone in the room. Like Frank Sinatra visiting a pasta place in Little Italy, people came to say hello as if paying respects.
The restaurant owner wandered through asking if anyone had parked a white BMW outside. McCusker spread his hands in mock surprise: ‘You think…?’ The landlord laughed. ‘Just askin’, Lauri – you might have won the lottery.’ Atlantic didn’t quite give McCusker a lottery win, but it backed his shared education experiments with £1.7 million, across secondary as well as primary schools.
McCusker toured the county, trying to convince parents, teacher and governors. Sometimes the reception was ferociously hostile – he’d stand in front of a tableful of screaming governors for hours before getting chucked out on his ear. But, sometimes, schools seemed to have been waiting for him for years.
Sometimes the reception was ferociously hostile. McCusker would stand in front of a tableful of screaming governors for hours before getting chucked out on his ear
In Brookeborough, for instance, the two principals had tried on and off since the 1970s to arrange cross-community initiatives. Sometimes it was as simple as sharing a bus to swimming lessons. ‘There was a certain amount of mixing on the trips,’ Brookeborough’s principal Hazel Gardiner recalls. ‘But they tended to get on the bus and sit on their own side. Or have Catholics at the front and Protestants at the back.’
Among the first to sign up, the Brookeborough schools took part in trials in 2007 to 2008. The benefits were obvious, says St Mary’s principal Dermott Finlay. Brookeborough currently has 71 pupils, and St Mary’s just 57. The threat of closure has loomed for years. ‘Sharing makes you stronger,’ Finlay notes. By 2011, 3,000 pupils from 50 schools across Fermanagh regularly shared classrooms and teachers with kids from ‘the other side’.
The effect on tensions has been dramatic. In nearby Newtownbutler, the 1994 paramilitary truce seemed to spur sectarian street violence, especially during the ‘marching season’, when Protestant Orange Orders commemorate historic victories over Catholics, such as the Battle of the Boyne.
From 2010, however, protests have dwindled. Last year’s parades drew fewer than 10 protestors, while a loyalist band had been invited to play at the village’s fleadh a few weeks earlier. ‘It’s very difficult to measure cause and effect directly,’ McCusker explains. ‘In Newtownbutler, republicanism and loyalism would stand up to each other every year. It was a challenge.
Lauri McCusker of the Fermanagh Trust outside Brookeborough Primary School. CREDIT: MARY FURLONG
‘But over recent years, you’ve seen kids from both communities coming together and parents sharing the same school playground. It’s very hard to stand on the opposite side of the street screaming at each other if you’ll be picking your kids up from the same school gate next week.’
Professor Hughes, Padraic Quirk and Fermanagh politicians agreed, and took McCusker’s informal arrangements to then-Education Minister John O’Dowd. In 2012, O’Dowd appointed an advisory group that reported the following year. Policy proposals followed and, in 2016, the Shared Education Actmade it Government policy across the region.
‘Shared education has obvious social and economic benefits,’ argues Peter Weir, O’Dowd’s successor as Minister of Education. ‘But, most importantly, there is demonstrable evidence to suggest that it improves educational opportunities and outcomes for our children.’ Regarding areas where communities are divided or faith schools cause tension, he says, ‘I hope schools in the mainland UK and further afield can see the benefits of sharing.’
The idea is spreading internationally, at least. In 2010, Unicef Macedonia sent policy makers and government officials to Northern Ireland for a series of briefings, workshops and training – the Fermanagh model is now rolling out there. Since then, charter schools in Los Angeles, teachers and officials from Jerusalem and schools in South Africa have all asked for help. In January this year, McCusker and his team sent a video presentation to a conference in Cyprus, where shared schools may be set up in the buffer zone between Turkish and Greek Cypriots.
The aftermath of the Enniskillen bombing in November 1987 CREDIT: REX
His broad Fermanagh accent meant that the video had to be subtitled in English. But McCusker isn’t interested in lucrative shared-education consulting. He remains at the Fermanagh Trust, working on renewable energy plans for the community. The spread of the idea, he shrugs, is great, ‘but the moment for me was here, in Brookeborough last year when St Mary’s and Brookeborough Primary started talking about a shared campus arrangement – where the two schools would share the same piece of land and kids would rub shoulders every day.
We were worried that this might be a step too far, so we gathered all the parents together in a hotel ballroom and explained the plans, then waited. One by one, the parents stood up and backed the scheme unanimously. At that point I thought, “Wow. We’ve done it. This is really happening.”’
This article is part of the Unreported Britain project, run by The Orwell Prize and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It is intended to launch a debate about what we don’t know and why we don’t know it, covering stories from marginalised communities across the United Kingdom; theorwellprize.co.uk