Hazelwood Integrated primary school in North Belfast is a symbol of efforts to bring together a divided city. The school stands next to a barrier – one of 59 “peace walls”, or fences, that still separate Catholic and Protestant communities in the capital. It was built in 2008, 10 years after the Good Friday agreement.
Now Patricia Murtagh, Hazelwood’s principal, is among those celebrating a Nobel peace prize nomination for the Integrated Schools Movement, created in the 1970s, the most violent decade of the Northern Ireland Troubles, to educate Catholic and Protestant children together.
Murtagh recalls the “peace barrier” going up, and describes it as “a legacy of the Troubles in which communities rallied against each other and violence became the norm and that still remains”.
While her school sits on a sectarian fault line, Murtagh says it provides pupils with an alternative to that monument to division just outside their classroom. “In this school there is openness, an expectation of how we treat each other – we offer challenges, suggest resolutions and develop a strong sense of what it means to be a good citizen. This is an experience the children have each and every day. They grow up together.”
Nearly 40 years after the first integrated school opened in temporary prefabs with just 50 children, some of the original pupils and its founders say they are finally receiving international recognition for promoting peace and reconciliation in a society still fractured by sectarianism.
Only 7% of pupils in Northern Ireland attend a fully integrated school, but demand is high and all integrated schools are over-subscribed. Since the Good Friday agreement the numbers on roll have more than doubled.
In 1998 – the year of the historic peace accord – around 12,000 children attended 43 integrated schools. Two decades on there are 65 integrated schools with more than 23,000 pupils.
Sean Harrison was one of the first pupils to attend the pioneering Lagan College.
Back in 1981, as the hunger strike in the Maze prison involving IRA and INLA prisoners was reaching its climax, while outside sectarian violence raged, the first integrated school opened on the banks of Belfast’s River Lagan. It was seen as a chink of light, a glimmer of hope in a darkening political atmosphere.
One of its first pupils, Sean Harrison, now 48, recalls Lagan College as a drab building with just 50 fellow students. At the time he lived in New Lodge Road, in a tower block in the north inner-city, a strongly republican district bordering the loyalist Tigers Bay area. For him, the integrated education movement provided an early antidote against sectarianism.
“I made friends with a couple of guys from Tigers Bay. They literally lived a five minute walk from me but it was impossible to go to their area and vice versa. Lagan changed that. From day one, groups of us would meet up in town on a Saturday. We had school social functions and it was common to have sleepovers in each of our houses.”
Lagan faced opposition from churches and politicians and got no funding for the first three years. Harrison says his parents, a working-class Catholic-Protestant couple, were “the real heroes”, as they struggled to pay for his education at the college while campaigners fought for state funding.
He says the Nobel peace prize nomination is, finally, recognition of the integrated movement’s contribution to the peace process. “It makes me proud when I think of the sacrifices my parents and others like them made in taking the first steps to break the cycle of sectarianism,” he says.
Although the integrated movement has faced powerful opposition over the past decades, it has also won some famous allies, including in Hollywood. Liam Neeson, who was born in Northern Ireland, is a strong supporter, and sent a message to the Northern Ireland Integrated Education Fund describing the nomination as “a great shot in the arm for the integrated education movement”.
While privately, campaigners admit that they are not frontrunners for the prize, they view the nomination as a testament to the movement’s pioneers and a boost to securing more state funding.
Tina Merron, CEO of the Integrated Education Fund, a charity supporting integrated education, says of the Nobel nomination: “We would like to see a proper strategy to lead growth to meet the aspirations of parents for integrated education.”
Her colleague Roisin Marshall, head of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, says the nomination acknowledges “the daily work within integrated schools to celebrated religious and cultural integration in our divided society”.
Two years before Lagan College opened, the Northern Irish punk legends Stiff Little Fingers released their most famous anthem, Alternative Ulster, calling for a different kind of society. SLF has morally and financially supported the integrated education fund ever since. Jake Burns, the lead singer, who co-wrote the song, says the movement deserves to win. “But even if they don’t, the fact they have been recognised on such a prestigious stage is phenomenal. Since I was a kid growing up in the old suspicions of ‘the other side’ I have always felt that the best way to break those barriers was for them to never exist in the first place.
“Show all the children that they have more in common than what divides them. That they can respect their differences, while appreciating their similarities.”