Handshakes can begin at school
Times change. But by how much? Nearly a quarter of a century ago, in the midst of our violent times, Limavady became caught up in a particularly nasty sectarian row about a handshake. Now, when the effects of that episode are revisited, we find it says something significant about the progress made in Northern Ireland.
It was Christmas 1984 when Reverend David Armstrong, the Church of Ireland Minister in the town, offered his hand to his Catholic counterpart, Father Kevin Mullen. The death threats visited upon Mr Armstrong for the handshake forced him to leave for a parish in Cork, and the aftermath bitterly divided the town.
A proposal to honour Mr Armstrong with the freedom of the borough — perhaps an apt act of reparation to a man forced out of it — has highlighted those divisions once again.
The venom of 1984 has undoubtedly receded, but the SDLP proposal to honour Mr Armstrong is being questioned by unionist politicians in the town. No doubt both sides have genuine motives: the desire to
make amends to Mr Armstrong being balanced by concerns about opening old wounds.
They also invoke deep suspicions about what the other side is up to: unionists suspect nationalists of trying to rub their noses in an objectionable episode from the past, and nationalists wonder if unionists are more interested in pretending the whole thing never happened.
So are we just as sectarian as we were 24 years ago? Probably not, especially since there aren’t any death threats being issued for such public attempts to bring our two traditions together.
But it may be fair to ask if we’re any more inter
ested in breaching our ancient barriers today than we were then. Baroness May Blood writes for us today about the experience of the integrated education sector over the past decade, including what she concludes to be little more than officialdom’s attempts to stifle its growth.
Integrated education is still a small alternative to the parallel monoliths of the State and Catholic sectors. Fewer than one in 10 children attend integrated schools in Northern Ireland.
A decade ago, the Integrated Education Fund expected to reached 10% of the school population, but they have fallen short of that target.
Baroness Blood blames official hurdles, and has some evidence to support her position. Five thousands children were turned away from over-subscribed integrated schools in the past seven years, suggesting there is strong parental interest. Almost half the proposals for new integrated schools have been turned down, suggesting there is a significant restriction on growth.
In its defence, the Department of Education said many of these rejections have come about because they would undercut other schools.
Officials are right to worry about funding an extra school in areas where one or two already exist. Sectarian education is expensive. But they should also be concerned about artificially maintaining sectarian lines in places where they can be broken down.
Integrated education is not the answer to all our woes, but it can be an important component for softening the distinctions between our two sides.
Our government needs to be more than indifferent to the idea. Shedding our past can be hard enough. Let’s not cling to it.