Tuistí an Tuaiscirt, a group of north Belfast parents have been campaigning for the provision of transport for 122 students attending the only post-primary Irish medium school in Northern Ireland, are hopeful that a proposal brought forward by the Minister for Education, John O’Dowd MLA can lead to a resolution of this long standing issue.
The proposal comes on the back of a sustained campaign and a positive meeting with the Minister for Education on 3rd September 2014. Last week, the Department requested that the school (Coláiste Feirste) develop a long term solution which would provide transport and remove barriers for pupils attending the school from north Belfast.
Under the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement, the Minister has a legal responsibility to “encourage and facilitate” the development of Irish medium education.
Research published in August 2014 by Tuistí an Tuaiscirt found that the failure to provide transport was costing parents in north Belfast a combined annual bill of approximately £31,400, and importantly it was acting as a deterrent in terms of parents choosing where to send their children after primary school. 79% of parents in north Belfast Naiscoil and Bunscoil said that existing transport provisions are a significant obstacle to sending their children to Coláiste Feirste - the only Irish medium education secondary school in the north of Ireland.
In a 2011 judicial review, Justice Treacy found that the Minister and Department for Education had the legal power to develop unique transport arrangements for Irish medium education sector. Indeed a similar duty exists for the integrated sector, and the provision of transport was an important factor in the growth of this sector.
Using these powers, the Department has allocated a budget of a maximum £70k per annum for a period of three years after which the arrangements will be reviewed. The arrangement is also subject to review following the outworkings of the Independent Review of Home to School Transport. Parents and the school believe that the current arrangements and proposals can see this issue.
The campaign run by Tuistí an Tuaiscirt involved parents, students and supporters staging a 5 mile walk to the school from north Belfast at the end of June, extensive research of parents of children in Irish medium education across north Belfast and a #busanois twitter campaign that received global attention including the endorsement of ‘Anchorman’ star and actor David Koechner.
Welcoming the development, Nicola McMaster, a parent, said:
“Now that the Minister has brought forward a proposal, we are hopeful that the vast majority of students from north Belfast who need transport to the only Irish medium post-primary school available to them, will receive it. We will work with the school as quickly as possible to get the buses on the roads. We very much welcome Minister O’Dowd’s decision and send a big thank you to everyone who contributed to this campaign. It’s a good decision for the 122 north Belfast students, the parents, all the pupils in north Belfast Irish medium nursery and primary schools, for Coláiste Feirste itself and for the development of the Irish language.”
Dessie Donnelly (PPR) praised the parents’ campaign:
“The creativity and determination of the parents and students throughout this campaign has managed produce a result that not even a successful court case could produce three years ago. This campaign demonstrates the power of people working together to defend and promote rights.”
“As a result of their pressure, not only will transport be provided to 122 students – it is being provided as a means to “encourage and facilitate” the development of Irish medium education as promised by the Good Friday Agreement. It is about so much more than a bus, and Irish language rights campaigners should pay attention to, and use, this precedent in their own campaigns elsewhere.”