FURTHER EDUCATION's contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process was recognised this week with a coveted prize for a college serving one of its most troubled communities.
Armagh county suffered years of violence during the troubles, especially to the south, along the border with the republic, earning the area a reputation as "bandit country".
Armagh College has been recognised with the Association of College's President's Award, presented by further and higher education minister Bill Rammell, for its continuing success.
It is perhaps a sign of the irrepressible optimism of Northern Ireland's people that Armagh has been promoting itself, with some success, as a tourist destination. In the same spirit, Armagh College has been working to achieve another goal: to bring the Catholic and Protestant communities together. The work began long before the peace process started.
The college has faced the added challenge of helping the county to assimilate the influx of eastern Europeans to a province whose largest ethnic minority group has traditionally been the Chinese community, mainly centred in Belfast. It operates out of four campuses in Armagh City and has links with 100 community groups. It will soon be merging with Newry City Institute and Upper Bann Institute.
Activities have included courses specifically aimed at challenging students about prejudice. They cover issues such as homophobia and racism as well as sectarian rivalry. This training has now become compulsory for students in their first year at college - a measure which is seen as particularly important because most schooling in the province remains effectively segregated across religious lines.
In the aftermath of the IRA ceasefire and the faltering return to devolved government - now firmly back on track - colleges have benefited from their long-standing reputation for rising above the religious divide.
Paul Little, the principal, said: "Staff at Armagh College have worked very hard for some years now to tackle in our city and district a legacy of mistrust, division and marginalisation."
Giles Long, the gold medal-winning paralympic swimmer and president of the AoC Charitable Trust, said: "I was especially impressed with the work of Armagh College, which is tackling community cohesion and offering a real solution to people long divided by difference."
Colleges in the province are members of the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges, which is affilated to the AoC. Mr Little is a member of the AoC board. His college has achievement rates which are the highest in the province and above the UK average.
The return of devolved government to Northern Ireland has seen Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionists, become the minister responsible for further education .
The province has 16 colleges, which are in the process of being reduced to six through a series of mergers under reforms initiated by direct rule ministers.