Credit: Campaign Against RSE

‘Leave our kids alone’: Belfast protest hears calls for RSE abortion lessons to be scrapped

A protest in Belfast over the weekend drew cross-community support for calls to stop the introduction of controversial changes to relationship and sexuality education (RSE) in Northern Ireland’s post-primary schools. 

Up to 3,000 people are said to have attended the protest at the doors of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in Chichester Street in Central Belfast, according to organisers.

It follows the decision on the 5th June by the British government to impose legislation on the province to make the teaching of abortion, and access to abortion, mandatory in secondary legislation, with Section 9 of the Northern Ireland Act of 2019 – the legislation which imposed abortion on NI in 2019 – giving Secretary of State Chris Heaton Harris the power to bring in the changes.

While the law was brought in during the absence of a functioning Stormont Assembly, a very significant majority of public submissions opposed Section 9 at the time – 79 per cent – registered opposition to the law coming into force.

Despite strong opposition, in March 2020, the British Government announced they would legalise abortion in Northern Ireland without restriction to 12 weeks and in other circumstances up to birth.

Now, the new “sex and relationships” curriculum set to be imposed on Northern Ireland under the same legislation, will teach secondary school pupils that they have a right to abortion and will provide information on how to access the procedure.

The protest, which took place on Saturday, was organised by the ‘Campaign Against RSE’ group and speakers included DUP MLA and party Education Spokesperson Dianne Dodds and Aontú Deputy leader, Gemma Brolly.

DUP MLA Dianne Dodds

Those in attendance carried placards with the call: “Leave our kids alone!” while a banner at the front of the march was emblazoned with the words, ‘Taking a stand for our children’s future.’

Credit: Campaign Against RSE

Parents, politicians and teachers attended the event in their hundreds, gathering at City Hall in Belfast, and marching to the NIO Offices where a rally took place.

DUP MLA Jonathon Buckley said it was great to join with hundreds of “concerned parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, teachers and citizens” at the event in Belfast city centre to make their voices heard against RSE changes in schools.

“Thank you to all who stopped me along the way to encourage the ‘Let Kids be Kids’ campaign,” Mr Buckley wrote on social media. His own campaign against the new curriculum will launch on the 11th September at a hotel in Belfast. The MLA commended the campaign for a “well run and dignified protest.”

Meanwhile, DUP MP Pail Givan was pictured along with colleague Dianne Dodds at the event. He said it was a chance to “send a clear message to the Secretary of State to Leave Our Kids Alone.”

“The planned implementation of new changes to the RSE curriculum will see secondary school children subjected to tuition on deeply controversial topics such as how to access abortion services,” Mr Givan wrote on social media.

The MP for South Antrim said that at bare minimum, opt outs had to be put in place for young people and for teachers over the contentious changes – as he encouraged constituents to “stand up, speak out, protect your rights.”

Gemma Brolly, education spokesperson for Aontú, was one of the speakers at the event alongside those in the DUP. Ms Brolly, a teacher, said the message was clear: “We do not consent.”

Ms Brolly accused Heaton-Harris of “steamrolling” into schools legislation to teach children about abortion access, as she urged parents to do adequate research into the content of what is to be taught to their children.

Ms Brolly said the introduction of the legislation had undermined public trust in teachers.

“I adore my job as a teacher, privileged every day to be a part of so many lives and assist parents in moulding their precious little lives, threading the lessons of love and of life in the simple everyday events, as they were done with me. I attended a Catholic school and I currently teach in a Catholic school where this is still the case,” she told the crowd.

Gemma Brolly of Aontú

“As a parent, I am so grateful for my childrens’ teachers as well. We must support our teachers, empowering them too to take a stand. Teachers have not imposed this legislation, empower them to support you. If you are a teacher here, like me, know that you are not alone. Find courage to speak out and others will follow.

“This latest legislation however completely contradicts everything we are about, and it has whipped away the trust in our teachers’ ability, in our schools’ authority and most importantly in parents’ authority.”

“This legislation is designed to strip that autonomy from schools, from teachers and from our families. We do not consent,” Ms Brolly said.

She told protestors that “we as parents are our children’s chief educators and their chief protectors.”

“Now, we are experiencing authoritarian efforts to remove all filters and bombard our children, with no trust in Mum or Dad knows best. All school policies should be delivered following consultation with parents – this is no different. Do not be intimidated, your schools are on your side – request the policy and resources,” she said.

Ms Brolly urged parents in attendance at the rally: “Contact your MPs, MLAs and councillors, contact your church and community leaders and consider your position as a parent or teacher – can you bring change from within you board of governors or from within your unions. As a speaker from Parents Rights Alliance advised last week in Letterkenny – think – 3 Cs – consult, clarify, consent.”

On Monday, the Department of Education launched a consultation on the circumstances and arrangements which would enable a parent/carer to excuse their child from receiving “age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion.”

“The consultation will run for 12 weeks from 1 September to 24 November 2023. The Department would encourage you to take the time to consider and respond to the consultation which will help inform future guidance for schools on these important and sensitive subjects,” the Department of Education said in a statement, adding:

“Following an analysis of the consultation findings, the Department will publish its overall response to the consultation and develop guidance on the arrangements to have a child excused from specific classes by 1 January 2024.

“The Department would encourage you to take the time to consider and respond to the Consultation which will help inform future guidance for schools on these important and sensitive subjects.”

Parents in Northern Ireland can respond online, or can write to the Department of Education, the Department said.

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