Who’ll give a leg-up to those young Protestants?

By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

Put it down to naiveté, but I am horrified by the fact that no children from Taughmonagh Primary School go on to university. And I think it’s not good enough for Belfast, transformed by 17 years of peace, to accept that the beautiful young children of Taughmonagh are being directed into an educational cul-de-sac.

The children I met when I visited the school yesterday (Wednesday) were as bright, as fun-filled and as exuberant as children from the most prosperous parts of Belfast — and no doubt they are just as smart. Yet inspirational Taughmonagh Principal Janet Douds tells me none of their children go on to the grammar schools on their doorstep – and none make it to uni.

Queen’s University is a neighbour too: the Dub sports complex is just across the road from Taughmonagh.

I think it’s a scandal that Inst and Methody and Queen’s – to name just three educational institutions who one might expect to have a special regard for the Protestant community – aren’t camped out in Taughmonagh to ensure some of the school’s 150 pupils get that extra leg-up needed to get to university.

Surely that’s what the peace process is all about.

The good news from Taughmonagh is that work is well under way on a new £3.5m primary school which will be as impressive as the pupils of Taughmonagh themselves when it’s finished (though an extra classroom wouldn’t go amiss).

I was invited to visit Taughmonagh Primary School by Jackie McDonald who believes that children in unionist working class areas need to raise their sights – to aim higher than their parents ever dared to.

He and I are at one on that belief and in the conviction that education is the most powerful gift we can give our young children.

Commentator Eamonn Mallie has been tweeting of late on the despair in working class loyalist areas and asking why they are being left behind as Belfast marches on.

In my view, while the rest of us can get behind innovative initiatives in these areas, we really need the DUP to be our partner in driving change in underserved unionist neighbourhoods.

All of which brings me back to the Dome of Delight and Monday night’s meeting of the Development Committee when the unionist minority voted en bloc to end funding to the Employment Services Board which has put 1,000 long-term jobless from West Belfast and the Shankill to work over recent years.

Fortunately, the majority backed a funding lifeline for the group’s vital work and also managed to get an additional £25,000 for a programme for unemployed in Upper Springfield (unionists voted against that too).

For good measure, we only backed moves to reinstate a Titanic Quarter Working Group on the basis that there’ll be a proposal for a similar working group for the £30m Gaeltacht Quarter initiative by September. And as for the blinkered approach to international linkages which confines Belfast to dealing only with Nashville, we put down a marker that our economic and cultural bridge-building from Belfast has to amount to much more than a Ulster-Scots hootenanny.

After six weeks in the Dome, I’m only scratching the surface – though funding for our jobless programmes and a breakthrough on pitches for our GAA clubs, including changing rooms at Musgrave, isn’t a bad start. No doubt more wonders await.

But the one which will stir my heart is to hear a member of the unionist minority rise to their feet at next Monday’s full council meeting and state that they want to see economic uplift in our nationalist areas and in our unionist areas.

Again, call it naiveté, but I’m horrified that, thus far, not one unionist has mentioned reaching out the hand to help their nationalist neighbours.

And if unionist councillors can’t make that commitment to the new Belfast, can they at least lead the fight for working class unionist areas?

You can follow Máirtín Ó Muilleoir on twitter at www.twitter.com/newbelfast

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