Case study: the fight for integrated education

Back in 2012, Drumragh was the only integrated Catholic/Protestant post-primary school in the district of Omagh, Northern Ireland. There were so many people who wanted to send their children there that Drumragh submitted a development proposal to the Department of Education. It was denied. 

Drumragh and the Integrated Education Fund (IEF), an independent NGO that supports integrated education in Northern Ireland, wanted to challenge the Department of Education’s decision, and the way it was made, but unfortunately had no budget for legal casework. As an NGO member of the PILS Project, IEF approached the PILS team for help.

A pro bono legal opinion was sourced through the PILS Pro Bono Register to assess the public interest grounds in the case. The PILS Project’s solicitor and the pro bono barrister discussed legal strategy and provided representation, and the PILS Litigation Fund provided financial support to get the case underway.

On 15 May 2014, Mr Justice Treacy handed down the decision of the Dublin High Court, in favour of Drumragh and IEF. The judge noted that the planning processes had not been suitable, saying that the creation of an additional difficulty is the opposite of encouraging and facilitating.

At the time of the litigation, Nigel Frith was the principal at Drumragh. When PILS revisited him in 2019 to mark its 10-year anniversary, he reflected on the effect that this case had on other schools who were considering submitting proposals to develop their facilities, saying: “It was just delightful to hear other schools coming back to say ‘we got it!’ and some of them were saying ‘we know why we got it’. It was because of what the IEF and PILS and Drumragh achieved.”

IEF’s CEO Tina Merron commented on the ongoing impact that this judicial review continues to have, years after the judgment was handed down: “The use of strategic litigation to strengthen the statutory duty for integrated education has had a profound impact on the development of a number of integrated schools in recent years. It has enabled it to become the fastest growing form of education in Northern Ireland.”

Almost a decade later, the ripple effect from this case is still being felt. PILS, the IEF and pro bono lawyers are still challenging decisions, reversing one recently without resorting to lengthy litigation. In September 2021, four more schools transformed to integrated status: a move that will affect the future of Northern Ireland’s children.

To read more about the case see the judgment and its summary.