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Peace Learning Program Begins in Belfast, Northern Ireland

By Shannon Reid

The Peace Learning Program kicked off in Belfast, Northern Ireland with a tour of the diverse community on February 24. The international delegation, comprised of leaders in education, faith, government, and civil society, visited one of five integrated secondary schools in Belfast: Hazelwood Integrated College. Over 95% of schools in Belfast and Northern Ireland are segregated into Protestant and Catholic schools. The group had the opportunity to meet the Principal and student leaders, catching a glimpse into the structure, vision, and culture that makes up a school that brings students from different religious orientations together under the same roof to share in the common goal of advancing their skills, knowledge, and creativity.

The international delegation visits an integrated school in Belfast, Northern Ireland
/Photo by Paul Moane

Máire Thompson, Principal of Hazelwood Integrated College, first shared about the history of the school. Established in 1985 with 17 students, the institution now hosts 1,050 students. She also spoke of the leading ethos and morals of the school, “We pride ourselves on how we treat the students, how the staff treats each other, and believe this contributes to better outcomes overall.” She said integration is “woven into the curriculum subtly” but more so happens organically between students through the act of working alongside each other in the classroom and extracurricular activities.

A culture of inclusivity is provided by the school, which Thompson says promotes a strong focus on social responsibility. Students arrive at the school with a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, and Thompson highlighted that students with mixed ability and additional needs are integrated normally throughout the classes with the overarching belief that high expectations of all students leads to positive results and outcomes, as well as maintaining high-quality instruction and not stereotyping the ability of students. “We believe that if students come here, try their best, they can be whatever they want to be. If you’re able to lift a child and lift a student’s aspirations, that has a direct societal impact and impact of the day-to-day operation of the school,” said Thompson.

There is a communal peace prayer recited every day. Head girl Courtney Mackessey said her friends in other schools “just study the Bible, but at Hazelwood we learn about all different religions.” Mackessey, 18, grew up with a Protestant mother and a Catholic father, and learned the concept of integration at a young age within her own family. Her parents chose to send herself and all three of her siblings to the integrated school.

After visiting Hazelwood, the delegation toured Belfast Castle and stopped in for a catered lunch at the Houben Centre, an active community center that provides the platform and venue for conversation and efforts of continued peace and reconciliation within Belfast. There, participants had the opportunity to network and get a better sense of their peers through personal introductions.

An international delegation visits the murals and peace walls in Belfast
/Photo by Paul Moane

The day wrapped up with a visitation to the murals and peace walls lining and separating the catholic and protestant communities, erected during the violent civil disturbance known as “The Troubles.” This included one of the most iconic peace walls, which spans about a mile and stands higher than any other wall in Europe, and is older than the Berlin Wall.

Parts of Belfast city are still physically divided by these large symbols of a dark and divisive past. Participants heard from leaders of Co-operation Ireland of the somber history, as well as highlights from the progress the city has made since the height of the conflict. Efforts to build greater social cohesion and shared identity are being taken up by individuals community centers, grassroots movements, and NGO organizations like the ones gathered in Belfast for the Peace Learning Program.

The program will continue through February 27, culminating in an International Peacebuilding Forum. Learn more about the Peace Learning Program.

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