DUP’s petition of concern bid was abuse of system says UUP leader Doug Beattie as controversial integrated education bill passed into law

At just before ten to four this afternoon the Integrated Education Bill – which unionists believe will discriminate in favour of that sector to the detriment of Controlled and Catholic Maintained Schools – passed into law.
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The legislation will include a strategy to place a statutory duty on the Department of Education to provide further support for integrated schools.

But the vote in the Assembly also reopened unionist divisions over their own political strategies with the Ulster Unionists declining to back a DUP bid to trigger a petition of concern (POC) that would have vetoed the bill.

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The DUP’s education spokesperson Diane Dodds warned the UUP they will face the wrath of parents and teachers in the forthcoming Assembly elections in May for failing to support the POC.

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong celebrates at Stormont after her bill on Integrated Education wins in the Assembly.
 Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEyeAlliance MLA Kellie Armstrong celebrates at Stormont after her bill on Integrated Education wins in the Assembly.
 Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong celebrates at Stormont after her bill on Integrated Education wins in the Assembly. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

The DUP were two votes short of the 30 signatures needed to enact the mechanism that could have brought down the bill because it did not have cross-community support.

With the UUP refusing to lend their backing to the POC the vote in the Assembly went ahead and after several hours of debate concluded with 49 votes in favour of the bill and 38 against.

The bill, which sets minimum targets for the numbers of pupils educated in integrated schools, was proposed by Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong.

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After the vote, Mrs Armstrong said she was saddened that the debate had become a “unionists versus the rest-of-them” issue when throughout months of negotiations at Stormont she had sought cross-community consensus.

On the implications of her bill passing into law, the Strangford MLA said: “There will be a strategic plan so when we see people coming through with a proposal for an integrated school and they don’t get that through that they will be able to voice that concern to the department and the department will have to take note of the overall strategic plan for integrated education.”

She stressed that her bill was about “giving it (integrated education) the same support as Controlled and Maintained schools, allowing for its promotion and provision”.

Both major unionist parties believe the bill will elevate the integrated sector above other school sectors in Northern Ireland.

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Some schools in the Controlled and Maintained sectors also opposed the legislation claiming it would entail preferential treatmemt for integrated schools – a claim denied by integrated education campaigners.

Both the Controlled and Maintained sectors argued that their schools are not exclusively of one faith and as Northern Ireland becomes more multi-cultural have increasingly diverse pupils in their classrooms.

At present around 7% of school children attend integrated schools, which is just under 70 out of the Province’s 1,091 schools.

The UUP voted against the bill but leader Doug Beattie defended his party for not joining the POC.

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Mr Beattie said he would not sign the DUP’s petition as it represented an “abuse of the system we put in good faith in 1998 (Good Friday Agreement)”.

The UUP leader said the bill “elevates one above all others, puts financial pressures on the Department of Education which the minister has made clear they do not have the budget for and is set up for failure”.

But in her speech to the Assembly, Mrs Dodds said the chamber had passed a bill which “has placed ideology above any educational outcomes”.

She accused Alliance of being more interested in “policing the make-up of a child’s class than what they are actually taught within it”.

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Mrs Dodds went on to attack the UUP for not supporting the DUP’s petition of concern.

“Some of those who know this bill is flawed, have not shown the backbone needed to stop this bill. They are scared of their political opponents, scared of the effect this will have on 93% of children, but not willing to stand up for them,” she said.

The DUP Upper Bann MLA predicted that voters and especially those with children at, or who worked in Controlled and Maintained schools, would “take a dim view” of the UUP’s decision.

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Ben Lowry