Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

If only we could cast off divisive symbols as easily as Rylan

Rylan
Rylan

There are moments when the full insanity of this place is flagged up for all the world to see (well, a full house at the Odyssey anyway) and one such recent moment involved Rylan (off the X Factor) being stripped off his trademark Union Jack jacket for a Belfast concert.

Apparently there were concerns that the jacket might cause offence. But it's not as though anyone was ever going to confuse Essex boy with a fleg protester.

Were they?

The ever-gracious Rylan explained that he had missed the genesis of the flag controversy here since he'd been holed up in Big Brother but he had been aware that there had been "some trouble" over the emblem in Belfast.

"I'm British and obviously proud to be British", he pointed out adding – a bit needlessly – that his wearing the flag jacket had "nothing to do with politics".

"I was singing a Spice Girls' number ... ." .

Nonetheless Rylan accepted that the Odyssey gig might not be a designated day for his Geri jacket and he was happy to switch it if it avoided offence being caused to anyone.

Instead he wore his Stars and Stripes jacket ... ...

"The American flag jacket was amazing so I was happy to wear it."

How many more of these things does he have? A North Korean one for the Pyongyang leg of the X Factor tour? Anyway. It is not poor old, multi-jacketed but diplomatic Rylan who is the crazy here. It is us. It is all of us here and our weird, endless, ongoing emblem audit. How do we ever end this?

One strong argument – hardly new – is that integrated education is the answer. Our children should be taught side by side so that they will learn about each other's culture and traditions, learn about each other and so, gradually, surely, the old barriers that divide us will melt away ...

Is it really as simple as all this? I'm not sure that it is. I went to a mixed religion school myself (not officially "integrated" since integrated here also implies comprehensive and this was a grammar school.)

It would be fair to say that not all students leaving its doors became automatic card-carrying members of the Alliance party. But I do absolutely believe that "mixed" education is vital. It may not solve all our problems. But it could be a major step on the road towards that.

What's stopping us now is a mix of the practical and the personal. We are in the middle of a recession. Converting our schools would take time and considerable investment.

And then there is that personal aspect – the question of parental choice. Yet surveys and experience show that there are very many parents here who are up for change – who'd welcome the chance of integration.

There is evidence too that many schools, even those which are not officially integrated, are becoming more "mixed."

The immigration of recent years has also brought some welcome diversity to a place where we are too blinkered about seeing ourselves as just Catholic or Protestant.

There are other religions. And none.

But there is also sadly, still that enormous division. It's shocking, dismaying, to think that in 2013 many children can still go right through their school days in Northern Ireland without ever meeting someone from the other side.

Well done there, the peace process. Whether or not you believe integrated education to be the panacea for all our Troubles, you have to admit this just cannot be right.

This just cannot continue.

Education leaders and the churches need to come out of their trenches and devise a workable, long-term strategy that will bring our children together. To learn together. To learn about each other.

It's not just a Rylanesque change of jacket (or school blazer) that's required. It's a whole new mindset.

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