NI celebrations mark students' peace efforts

August 30, 2002

Students and academics in Northern Ireland are celebrating the 30th anniversary of a unique partnership in which students led the fight against sectarianism.

As the province erupted in violence in the wake of Bloody Sunday and direct rule from Westminster, student leaders in Britain and Ireland agreed to set up a joint presence in Belfast.

Before then, the religious or political leanings of members of a students'

union determined whether the group would affiliate to the National Union of Students or the Union of Students in Ireland. But while the Protestant and Catholic communities moved farther apart, a joint NUS-USI office was established to represent all students in the province.

Peter O'Neill, manager of NUS-USI, said: "This was a far-reaching and visionary initiative. Compared with other student organisations, NUS-USI has perhaps had a wider impact on the body politic than you find in England, Scotland, Wales and southern Ireland."

In many ways, the move anticipated the Anglo-Irish agreement, which took another decade to establish, he said. Despite internal tensions, the union campaigned for better community relations, and students helped set up peace and reconciliation groups such as the Corrymeela Community and Rostrevor Renewal Centre.

Tony Gallagher, professor of education at Queen's University, Belfast, said: "There has been an extraordinary ability in this place (Northern Ireland) to avoid talking about problem issues. The fact that the union organisation has been proactive is important because it has taken advantage of the diversity in higher education."

Most young people in the province went to school and lived in areas where most of their teachers and peers were of the same religion, Professor Gallagher said. Even now, only about 5 per cent of children go to integrated schools.

Even those who had been through higher education found it hard to bring integration into the mainstream of life in the province because of the "terrible silence" surrounding sectarianism, Professor Gallagher said. "Where student leaders make very explicit commitments (to improve community relations), it is materially important and hugely symbolic."

In the past decade, the union has won more than £1.5 million in external grants for student activities. More than 3,000 students a year take up its training programmes, including community relations work. The union's 30th-anniversary programme includes a major community relations conference in November.

Carmel Hanna, Northern Ireland's minister for employment and learning, praised the union's "effective strategies" for fostering good community relations. She said the union nurtured "a campus environment in which young people can develop tolerance and respect for each other".

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