The Bahá'í Council for Northern Ireland
Statements on Matters of Public Interest / Concern
RESPONSE TO THE PROGRAMME FOR COHESION, SHARING AND INTEGRATION
Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) is the name given to a draft programme to improve community relations in Northern Ireland. The Baha'i Council has responded to the consultation. The Baha'i response calls for a systemic review of the education system in the long term and in the short term it highlights the need for further development of the syllabus for Religious Education . The Baha'i community also contributed significantly to the response from the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum which can be viewed at http://www.community-relations.org.uk/fs/doc/ 20101029%20-%20CSI%20response%20from%20NIIFF% 20(final).doc
October 2010 CE
1. The Bahá'í Community welcomes the opportunity to respond to the draft Programme for Cohesion Sharing and Integration. There are approximately 300 Bahá'ís living in Northern Ireland in places as scattered as Rostrevor, Belcoo, Ballycastle and Cullybackey. The majority of the Bahá'ís population in Northern Ireland is indigenous to the region but there are also Bahá'ís who have come here from many other parts of the world. Despite its small size the Bahá'í community is one of the most ethnically diverse faith communities in Northern Ireland.
Vision and action
2. Bahá'ís all over the world are actively involved in contributing to the betterment of society and earnestly seek out opportunities to work alongside others to build a better world. There has been a Bahá'í presence in Northern Ireland since 1913 and Bahá'ís here have always had a keen interest in issues relating to community relations. Indeed the report of the Opsahl Commission in 1993 lists no fewer than 12 different responses from local Bahá'í communitiess(1) and Bahá'ís are actively involved both personally and collectively in many different activities aimed at improving community relations.
3. The Bahá'í Community has contributed to the response that has been submitted by the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum and we share the vision that has been articulated by the Inter-Faith Forum:
" a society that recognises and values the diversity that exists within it, encourages the expression of diversity in all its forms and draws strength from the integration of people from many different backgrounds, cultures, faiths and identities, enabling them to make a full contribution to the society Our vision is not of a society that identifies difference and encourages division, not even a society that treats people as separate but equal. Our vision is of a society that is much richer. It is a society that welcomes and values diversity, it encourages people to explore their full potential. But while valuing difference it does not stigmatise, label or categorise on the basis of difference."
4. We welcome the references to ethnic minorities in the document. In particular we welcome the explicit recognition in the CSI document that, while immigration and asylum legislation are matters reserved to the UK government, there are duties on the Northern Ireland Executive towards the migrant population in the jurisdiction. We feel it is essential that progress is made on the issue of those left destitute with 'no recourse to public funds' and we are pleased to see that the CSI document makes such a commitment.
5. We are concerned that, while there are multiple references to ethnic minorities there is no reference in the body of the report to minority faith communities(2). While there are many instances where issues relating to ethnicity and those relating to faith may overlap there are equally times when issues of faith diversity are distinct from ethnicity. Furthermore whereas there has been considerable government funding available over many years to support voluntary organisations working with minority ethnic communities there has been no government funding specifically for organisations supporting minority faith communities. We feel that the CSI programme should include support for inter-faith activities and for organisations working to support minority faith communities.
6. In the education sector there has been considerable progress in recent years with the introduction of a module in the syllabus for Religious Education on "Other World Religions" requiring teachers to include teaching about two religions other than Christianity from a list of six (Bahá'í, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judiasm, and Sikhism). We feel this is significant progress towards creating a more inclusive society and should be referenced in the CSI programme. Indeed there is a need to extend teaching in this area and we would urge you to consider providing additional resources to extend the teaching of world religions in the curriculum.
7. We note the references to promoting sharing in education in the draft programme (Paragraphs 3.6 and 3.7). We also note the First Minister's comments(3) in favour of integrated education. We welcome these comments and we agree with the statement that "We cannot hope to move beyond our present community divisions while our young people are educated separately." We long for the day when the divided education system in Northern Ireland will come to an end. Several Bahá'í families have been founder members of integrated schools. Others have chosen to send their children to either "controlled" or "maintained" schools. A key issue for our children has been the extent to which their school has been able to accommodate faith diversity - ranging from being permitted to be absent on Holy Days without being marked "sick" to being able to take part in Religious Education classes on an equal footing with their peers. Our experience has been that all school types (controlled, maintained or integrated) have been able to demonstrate good practice in this regard however some schools in all sectors have also demonstrated very poor practice that is in breach of human rights and equality legislation. Therefore while we support moves towards an integrated education system we call for urgent action to be taken to ensure that all our schools make better provision for diversity in the classroom. In this regard we support the First Minister's call for the " tasking [of] a body or commission to bring forward recommendations for a staged process of integration and produce proposals to deal with some of the knotty issues such as religious education, school assembly devotions and the curriculum."(3) Further we would urge that the membership of such a body is drawn from a wide cross-section of the community and not just representatives of the vested interests. In particular we would urge that there is representation from one or more minority faith community on the body.
In conclusion we are grateful to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for publishing this document. We are pleased that there has been widespread consultation and we hope that there will be continued public debate on the issue of community relations to enable agreed programme to emerge.
THE BAHÁ'Í COUNCIL FOR NORTHERN IRELAND.