Young people want civic education in Northern Ireland schools
by Allan LEONARD
15 November 2014
Stratagem organised another set of sidebar coffee club conversations at the SDLP annual conference, Ramada Inn, Belfast. For the second time, I had two flipcharts with blank sheets to fill out the good, the bad and the ugly lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process. I commenced the discussion uncertain whether or not the responses would be similar as before.
In today’s session, the audience started in a particularly optimistic mood, with a long list of positive outcomes of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
This included the near complete end of political violence, increased tourism and new arrivals (particularly from elsewhere in Europe), demonstrating our increased diversity in society.
Combined with a generation of young people who have grown up in era of relative remarkable peace, there are more opportunities for mixing with others, one member of the audience remarked, though it was acknowledged that this may be more informally than through our public institutions.
We are not so apologetic about ourselves these days – more ready to be proud to tell others abroad that you are from Northern Ireland, no longer ashamed to be from that place.
Foreign investors agree, with undeniable increased investment in our economy. However, this is couched with the perspective that there are some pockets of society that do not feel they have benefitted from any peace dividend.
In common with the coffee club discussion at the UUP conference last month, the audience commented that we have stable government institutions, to a fault. Greater accessibility to locally elected representatives was praised as a benefit (wholly better than direct rule ministers from Westminster hopping in and out).
But this benefit was offset, it was suggested, by public cynicism that those in power aren’t truly motivated to address socio-economic issues.
A lack of collective political vision for Northern Ireland compounds this. Here, I informed the participants how the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities of Nicosia (which is physically completely separated by walls that are monitored by a UN peacekeeping patrol) are working to a Nicosia Master Plan that was authored near 30 years ago, recognising that it will take several generations to achieve their shared vision.
Young people in the audience commented about the lack of citizenship education in Northern Ireland’s school curriculum. Even where there is scope in the lesson plans to learn about history here and abroad (e.g. the civil rights campaign in the USA), these young persons’ experience has been that teachers and schools will pick and choose which elements to present to their pupils.
I replied that again in the case of Nicosia, there is an organisation called the Association for Historical Dialogue and Research (AHDR), where the two communities come together to discuss lesson plans that can be presented to ‘the other’, on both sides of the physical divide. There may never be a common textbook, but the lesson is a demonstrated willingness to learn another community’s perspective.
Likewise, we concluded this coffee chat with a homegrown example – an outcome of the Troubled Images project (a massive photo digitisation project of over 3,000 images related to the Troubles) was an education resource that presented various images, placed in historical context, with questions that challenge the pupil to explore how someone outside their own community might react.
Positively, this Troubled Images resource was readily adopted by many schools in the Republic of Ireland; schools in Northern Ireland, the source of the material, were more reluctant to present this.
The clear message form today’s session is that young people are actually asking for this knowledge, so they can become better-informed citizens and leaders of the society they live in.