Page last updated at 06:26 GMT, Friday, 26 March 2010

The children's champion... a class act

By Mark Simpson
Ireland correspondent, BBC News

Betty Orr

One of Belfast's best-known schoolteachers, award-winning Betty Orr, has retired after a career spent breaking down many of Northern Ireland's political barriers.

She was the principal of Edenbrooke Primary, in the heart of the Shankill Road area in Belfast. A role that saw her help to defuse internal loyalist tensions and build bridges across the religious divide.

She hosted visits to the school from a cross-section of high-profile political figures including the Sinn Fein Education Minister Caitríona Ruane.

Peter Mandelson visited the school when he was Northern Ireland secretary as did Cherie Blair, when Tony Blair was prime minister. Mrs Orr was later asked to address the Labour Party conference about education in Northern Ireland.

Over the years she has been described as a "maverick", the "Shankill empress" and a "tanned, blonde dynamo".

She is credited with improving Edenbrooke school and the local community, including the creation of a new all-weather football pitch, named after the ex-Manchester United and international striker Norman Whiteside, a former pupil of Edenbrooke.

Baroness May Blood, an acclaimed trade unionist from the Shankill, said Betty always did her best for you.

"Metaphorically speaking, if she couldn't move mountains, she always knew a man with a wee digger who could move them".

She became principal of Edenbrooke just before the Shankill bomb in 1993.

Her most difficult challenges came during a series of loyalist feuds, as she tried to make sure the school remained a safe haven for the pupils at times of tension and violence.

During this time she appealed directly to the paramilitaries for peace.

Betty Orr
Betty Orr became principal just before the Shankill bomb

In 2005, the Irish president Mary McAleese was forced to cancel a visit to Edenbrooke due to security concerns in the area.

However, it did not stop the pupils meeting the president, as an alternative venue was quickly arranged.

At a farewell reception for Mrs Orr in the Shankill on Thursday, written tributes were read out including one from Peter Hain, who visited the school when he was Northern Ireland Secretary.

The get-together demonstrated how Northern Ireland had changed in the 17 years Mrs Orr had been at the school.

Politicians from across the political divide were there, including some MPs and ministers from the Stormont Assembly.

When one of the speeches mentioned the investment that had been made in education in the Shankill district, the Finance Minister Sammy Wilson shouted out: "I hope that's not my money."

The Education Minister Caitríona Ruane responded: "No, it's not, it's MY money."

There were smiles all round.

When Mrs Orr came to speak, she could not resist a parting shot with a call for even more money.

She paid tribute to her staff, as well as to the police and politicians.

Looking round the room, she laughed and said: "Not only are there politicians here from every political party, they're actually talking to each other."

She comes from a political family. Her father, 92-year-old Austin Ardill, was a member of the old Northern Ireland Parliament.

Her political awareness came in useful over the years, but she is likely to be remembered more for her teaching skills.

One former colleague said: "Betty's greatest achievement was that she always put the children first. Somehow she managed to look after their welfare during the warfare."

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