Catholics urged to help Protestant neighbours

Catholics urged to help Protestant neighbours

Newsletter article 13 Jan 2012

A South Armagh peacemaker has urged border Catholics to consider ways in which they might help their Protestant neighbours feel less insecure.

The comments came after decisions were made to close two state primary schools in south Armagh that are predominantly attended by Protestant children and are closing due to falling enrolment numbers.

Last week Education Minister John O’Dowd announced that decisions had been taken to close Keady and Aghavilly primary schools, which are both located in the border area south of Armagh.

Like many state schools today, both were originally created as Protestant church schools in the late 1800s and later passed into state care.

Mr O’Dowd said: “In recent years, however, both schools have suffered from declining enrolments with only 10 children enrolled for 2011/12 in Aghavilly and only 16 enrolled for 2011/12 in Keady. I have therefore decided to close the schools as I am confident that the children’s educational needs can now be best met at alternative schools within the area.”

South Armagh community relations worker Ian Bothwell, who is based at the village of Darkley in south Armagh, linked the changes to Protestant migration patterns.

“The declining pupils in these two schools are a reflection of the declining Protestant population along the border area of south Armagh,” he said. “Part of the reason for the decline is probably that people are marrying and moving out of the area to live elsewhere. It would make an interesting study.

“Perhaps the Catholic neighbours in this area could facilitate their Protestant neighbours more, so that they do not feel so squeezed out and insecure.

“The majority community needs to look after the minority community in life generally. When it comes to hosting events they need to be aware of the struggling minority community and its lack of resources.

“It is all a great reflection of the need for confidence-building in the Protestant community in this area. But the closure of these two schools will do nothing to help.”

Mr Bothwell and his wife Pauline have worked in south Armagh for more than 30 years. In 2002 they were awarded the President’s Prize for grassroots cross-community work, presented by US President George W Bush.

Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kennedy supported Mr Bothwell’s comments.

“There is a genuine fear, in Keady in particular, that the closure of the school there will effectively ‘bang the gate’ on the Protestant community,” he said.

“There is a fear it will have a major effect on the morale of that community.”

Mr Kennedy paid tribute to “nationalist and republican politicians and the Catholic Church” for their active support in trying to keep the schools open.

However, he agreed with Mr Bothwell that the Protestant community would benefit from more support generally from their Catholic neighbours in the border area.

“I would like to pay tribute to the staff of the two schools,” Mr Kennedy said.

“This announcement is no reflection on their professional ability as they continued to deliver a high standard of education against all the odds and in a very uncertain environment.”

SDLP MLA for Newry and Armagh Dominic Bradley said his party and others actively supported both Keady and Aghavilly schools.

He said: “The campaign to keep Keady and Aghavilly schools open was a good example of both communities cooperating in a common cause. Both nationalist and unionist communities are disappointed that these two schools have had to close and see it as a blow to the need to maintain diversity in the district.”

The Newsletter, 13 January 2012

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