Why Liam Neeson is talking about education in Northern Ireland

The Ballymena-born Hollywood star’s support for a newly integrated school in Northern Ireland should be welcomed, writes David Montgomery.

Liam Neeson lent his support to Seaview Primary after it became the first Catholic school in the country to become integrated

For a Hollywood action man, Liam Neeson knows a lot about peace.

Last week, 23 years almost to the day since the Good Friday Agreement, Neeson appeared in a video to talk about a tiny school called Seaview Primary on the Antrim coast.

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At the same time violence flared up in other parts of Northern Ireland seeded by the age old rivalry between Catholics and Protestants, nationals and loyalists, and involving angry young men.

The two events capture the continuing tragedy of Northern Ireland and the failure of its politicians. Since the Good Friday Agreement and its power-sharing accord it is a place that has been mainly peaceable but it is not at peace.

Liam Neeson knows the key to genuine reconciliation. Like everyone who grew up in Northern Ireland he was separated from one side of society at the age of five. The Catholics went one way to school run by the church and Protestants went in the other direction to school run by the State.

So despite a burgeoning middle class and greater prosperity the less affluent children and the downright poor continue to be robbed of the chance to share culture, and by association, friendship. As a result many remain in segregated neighbourhoods with around seventy peace walls still in Belfast to keep them apart.

Yet Liam Neeson is not alone in his thinking. Every public opinion poll in Northern Ireland has favoured a change to a system of integrated schools, but today the percentage of children officially in shared classrooms of Catholic, Protestant, all faiths and none, amounts to less than 10 per cent.

If this increased society would be transported to a genuine peace within a generation - and a generation has already slipped away since the Good Friday Agreement.

Northern Ireland is a unique place, full of potential with a hard working, still mainly church going population with beautiful countryside, beaches and recreational facilities.

Its constitutional position is protected, but it can change with agreement. It is therefore part of the UK, part of Ireland and part of Europe (yes, because being born in Northern Ireland bestows the right to an Irish passport and thus European citizenship).

Unionists and republicans share power but have squandered the chance of healing society and building on the foundations of this great opportunity.

Liam Neeson has never forgotten his origins in Ballymena, Co. Antrim, and that is why Seaview Primary in that same county is important to him as the first Catholic school to go integrated and admit Protestants.

Liam’s heart yearns for the simplest of initiatives - that Northern Ireland’s politicians put aside their historic rivalries and legislate for a single system of integrated education putting children together so they learn that they are more kin than foe.

David Montgomery is the chairman and editor-in-chief of JPI Media.

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