The President has condemned as shameful the segregation of education in the North during a speech in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh.
Michael D Higgins said integrated education was both needed and "overwhelmingly wanted" and it was a "key element to a successful, inclusive and harmonious future in Northern Ireland. "
He was speaking at a conference on women’s role in peacebuilding organised by the All-Island Women’s Forum and the National Women’s Council of Ireland.
He quoted one of the event organisers, the campaigner Emma DeSouza, praising the work done by the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition regarding issues such as education and mixed housing.
“How disappointing, then, that some of these vital provisions and aspirations have been allowed to languish,” he said.
“Shamefully, education remains overwhelmingly segregated, mixed housing schemes continue to under-deliver, and the Civic Forum - the consultative body in Northern Ireland created in 2000 under the Good Friday Agreement, consisting of members of various civil society bodies - was unofficially disbanded after just two years in operation.”
In his speech, Mr Higgins said “93 percent of schools in Northern Ireland remain segregated” by religion, and that young people in the Northern Ireland were “segregated not only by the schools they attend, but also by the languages they speak and the sports they play: where some schools offer Gaelic football and hurling, others provide rugby or cricket, usually exclusively.
“Yes, communities today are predominantly peaceful, slowly becoming more equal based on some metrics, but they are still apart.
“Young people are separated in the very place where they learn and build relations. Significantly, segregation disproportionately harms poorer families,” he said.
“Integrated education is not just needed, it is overwhelmingly wanted. A recent survey indicated that 71 per cent of people in Northern Ireland think it should be the norm, and integrated schools are consistently oversubscribed.
“Surely this is a matter on which we can all unite. I believe strongly that integrated education is a key element to a successful, inclusive and harmonious future in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Mr Higgins said women remain “poorly represented” in political life in Northern Ireland, Ireland and Great Britain and urged greater recognition of the roles played by women in the peace process, including former minister of state for Foreign Affairs Liz O’Donnell and former Northern Secretary the late Mo Mowlam.
“These two women focused on the importance of listening respectfully to the other side, of making a genuine attempt to understand the fears and concerns of those with opposing views,” he said.
The event, organised by the All-island Women’s Forum and National Women’s Council of Ireland, on the unfinished work of the peace process, took place as the latter faced criticism for not inviting female members of the Government to speak at a rally in Dublin in March. The No Woman Left Behind rally will hear from Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall, Labour TD Ivana Bacik and People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith.
However, speakers from Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green Party have not been invited.
The Council has defended its position, describing the rally as “one moment of protest” and saying it engages with Government politicians “every day” and has had held “numerous events” with them each year. Additional reporting - PA.