Northern Ireland Peace Process: Discussion
Thursday, 13 October 2011 Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement Debate ..Dail Eireann. Comhchoiste um Fhorfheidhmiu Aoine an Cheasta...Chairman/Cathaoirleach Dominic Hannigan,TD/FD
Mr. Conor Murphy, MP, MLA: I thank the delegation for coming. I will first respond to Mr. Newell’s challenge in terms of representation. The issues that loyalist and working-class Protestant communities face - including social deprivation and educational under-attainment, which is a particular issue as it leads to decreased opportunities for employment and advancement - are all issues that can be addressed in the Assembly and are in fact the responsibility of the Assembly. I know from talking to some of my Belfast colleagues in Sinn Féin that people from the loyalist community are increasingly coming to our constituency centres on the Falls Road, and we are encouraged by this. I was told we had actually opened up a satellite office in the Sandy Row area, which is a novelty for Sinn Féin, because of the demand from people there for representation. I am glad to say we are making representations in the Assembly, where those issues are dealt with.
One of our greatest challenges in the Assembly is educational reform, and a central plank underpinning that is the need to deal with educational underachievement, particularly in working-class Unionist areas, which has been ignored for so long in the pursuit of academic excellence. The school in south Belfast to which Mr. McDonald referred was a major example of complete abandonment of a school system and educational underachievement, with no students graduating over the last number of years with the basic requirement of a minimum of five GCSEs or leaving certificate subjects. This is part of the educational reform we have been pursuing in the North, and we hope it will have a major impact.
With regard to the central point of the group’s visit, the initiative from the President and Senator Martin McAleese is terrific, because the next ten years will contain significant opportunities, as well as challenges and threats, in terms of commemoration. I got a tour of the city cemetery from Dr. Adamson’s old friend, my colleague Tom Hartley. I recommend the tour to anybody from this committee. It covers the history of Belfast as it was developed by the people who built Belfast. The central thesis advanced by Mr. Hartley, who is a councillor in Belfast, is that we had a much broader definition 100 years ago of who we were, both as Irish Nationalists and as Irish Unionists, and that the experience over the last 100 years - with some of the events we are about to commemorate, leading up to partition and then the conflict - has narrowed our definition significantly. There is a significant opportunity in approaching these commemorations for a re-examination of history and where it has led us over the last 100 years - those events themselves, what they mean to people, what we can learn from them and how, through that discussion and education, we can achieve reconciliation, which contributes to our current circumstances in the analysis of important events from 100 years ago.
The work being done by the delegation is important and has major potential, and it needs to be given recognition. This is a welcome initiative. Dr. Adamson said they had support from the Minister of Education and the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, who I know has a keen interest in these issues. However, the initiative needs to be mainstreamed into the work that the Taoiseach’s office is doing through the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, and through the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the North, which has responsibility for community relations, because if the work is successful - and I hope it is - the result will be seen not just in terms of educational or cultural events but also in terms of improved community relations, which is important in contributing to the development and cementing of the peace process. Similarly, with regard to the commemorations that are being talked about here, we should have a view to the ideas the delegation has come up with, and it should be mainstreamed into the Taoiseach’s office. Have they been knocking on those doors as well? This committee probably shares the view that the importance of this work means it needs to be recognised and supported at the highest levels both North and South.