By Rebecca Black, PA
President Michael D Higgins has expressed his disappointment at the lack of progress on integration of housing and education in the North.
The President was speaking at an All-island Women’s Forum in Co Fermanagh, organised by the All-island Women’s Forum and National Women’s Council of Ireland, after the latter faced criticism for not inviting female members of the Government to speak at a rally in Dublin in March.
The No Woman Left Behind rally will hear from Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald, Social Democrats co-leader Roisin Shortall, Labour TD Ivana Bacik, and People Before Profit TD Brid Smith.
However, it has excluded speakers from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.
Speaking at the forum event in Enniskillen on Thursday, Mr Higgins described peace-building, and specifically the role of women in it, as something that both he and his wife Sabina feel passionately about.
He said peace was “more than the absence of fighting”, and expressed disappointment at a lack of progress on some of the aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement.
Emphasising the importance of the role of women in peace-building, he quoted one of the event organisers, Emma De Souza, pointing out how the former Women’s Coalition party raised education, mixed housing, the reintegration of political prisoners, specific language on victims’ rights, and the formation of the Civic Forum.
He said: “How disappointing then, that some of these vital provisions and aspirations have been allowed to languish.
“Shamefully, education remains overwhelmingly segregated, mixed housing schemes continue to under-deliver, and the Civic Forum (the consultative body in Northern Ireland created in 2000 under the Good Friday Agreement, consisting of members of various civil society bodies) was unofficially disbanded after just two years in operation.”
On education, Mr Higgins said 93% of schools in Northern Ireland “remain segregated”, adding that young people are also segregated by the languages they speak and the sports they play, “where some schools offer Gaelic football and hurling, others provide rugby or cricket, usually exclusively”.
He added: “Integrated education is not just needed, it is overwhelmingly wanted.
“Surely this is a matter on which we can all unite. I believe strongly that integrated education is a key element to a successful, inclusive and harmonious future in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Higgins said women remain “poorly represented” in political life in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain.
He also urged greater recognition of the roles played by women in the peace process, including former minister of state for foreign affairs Liz O’Donnell and then secretary of state Mo Mowlam.
“These two women focused on the importance of listening respectfully to the other side, of making a genuine attempt to understand the fears and concerns of those with opposing views,” he said.