HC Deb 09 February 1989 vol 146 cc1116-8
4. Mr. Harry Greenway

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what steps are being taken to encourage contacts and co-operation between schools of differing denominations; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. Brian Mawhinney)

The major steps in this programme are being taken through the cross-community contact scheme and the education for mutual understanding programme.

In addition, under our proposals for education reforms, education for mutual understanding will become a compulsory cross-curricular theme. I have recently announced the establishment of a working party to produce a statement of objectives for EMU, and I expect to receive its report by 30 April 1989.

Mr. Greenway

I welcome that answer. Does my hon. Friend agree, having heard once again of a constant spate of murders in Northern Ireland—many of them sectarian—that all branches of the Christian Church should teach the fact that people should love their neighbours and never kill them? Would it not be valuable to impress that teaching upon all children, whatever their denomination and whatever school they go to?

Dr. Mawhinney

My hon. Friend, who has a deep interest in these matters, is, of course, right in his designation of murder and terrorism. He will be encouraged to know that an increasing number of people in Northern Ireland wish their children to develop a relationship with each other which cuts out any concept of bigotry or sectarianism. I hope that he will be further encouraged to know that yesterday in Northern Ireland I met representatives of the four main Churches to see how we might carry those discussions further.

Mr. Alton

In welcoming the Minister's commitment to integrated education and the efforts that he has put into those schemes, can I draw his attention to the recent survey carried out in north Armagh, which showed that 46 per cent. of Catholics, and 36 per cent. of the population as a whole, favoured integrated education? The reason that they gave was the balanced curriculum that is available in such schools. In view of that survey, does the Minister think that it would be worthwhile approaching again the Catholic hierachy in Northern Ireland to convince it of the merits of such proposals? Does the Minister believe that everything possible should be done to allow schools to opt out of their present status and become integrated schools, if that is their wish.

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. What he has said in his question reflects what we are seeking to do in our education reform proposals. We plan to introduce a broad, balanced and coherent curriculum for children in all of our schools. We plan to introduce opt-out facilities so that parents can move schools from existing frameworks into an integrated framework if they so wish. We plan to assist parents who would like to start new integrated schools. We plan to lay on the Department of Education a statutory responsibility to promote and encourage integrated education. All of those proposals will facilitate the very sort of parents to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I shall not impose the plan, not least because, if I were to try, it would not succeed. It is important that the Government should facilitate those parents who wish to avail themselves of this opportunity. As he said, they are an increasing number.

Mr. Maginnis

Does the Minister regret that he refused funding to Dungannon district council for an officer who would be concerned with community relations, basically on the grounds that neither I nor my Unionist colleagues would make the empty gesture of going to Stormont to meet him in order to hype up the effectiveness of the Anglo-Irish Agreement? Does he believe that it is helpful for him to frustrate the efforts of district councillors for his own selfish reasons?

Dr. Mawhinney

That is a somewhat idiosyncratic explanation of the situation. What I have made clear to Dungannon district council is that, if it wishes—with the clearly demonstated political backing of the majority and minority parties in that area—I would be prepared to consider providing funds for a pilot scheme for the employment of a community relations officer. There is no point, however, in carrying forward what might be a significant pilot scheme in the Province unless it is seen overtly to have the backing of all of the major political parties in local government.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the hon. Gentleman inform the House of the make-up of the committee which he has mentioned? Could he tell the House too, why three members of the Alliance party are on that committee?

Dr. Mawhinney

The composition of the committee is on the public records, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I cannot tell him its composition now, but he has a copy of that record. If he wishes, I shall write to him.

The committee was composed of people who had expertise and were teachers in the primary and secondary sectors. It reflected the interests of the maintained and controlled grammar school section and of those from outside education who had some knowledge and expertise in these matters. I was not aware of the political affiliation of any members of that committee. Furthermore, the hon. Gentleman will have noticed, as I did, that there has been no publicly voiced criticism of the composition of the committee.