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Sharon Owens: We're already on the road to integration, so let's not rush it

Things were getting weird enough recently, what with the axe about to fall on just about everything we once held dear. I was only ever on the dole for six months, in 1986, but still, it was nice to know there was a safety net if I ever found myself on my uppers once again.

However, now I'm worried that, if I do become unemployed, I'll be given food stamps and have my mugshot added to some Government website. And maybe I'll be sent out to sweep fallen leaves, wearing an orange jumpsuit.

And now our First Minister Peter Robinson has suggested it would be helpful if funding were withdrawn from Catholic schools in a bid to end segregated education in Northern Ireland.

I'm not renowned for my religious devotion, but even I think Mr Robinson's remarks will raise a few eyebrows.

He says it's "a moral argument" and not just about saving money. He says that it wouldn't be socially acceptable to have Catholic universities and non-Catholic universities, so why is it socially acceptable to segregate primary and secondary schools?

No doubt Catholic teaching staff will feel their feathers have been well and truly ruffled. Catholic schools have an excellent reputation generally, so Mr Robinson's remarks are bound to hurt a bit, especially after all the negative Press surrounding certain other Catholic institutions in recent years. The phrase 'don't kick a man when he's down' springs to mind. It would be a beautiful sight, indeed, to see a fully integrated society here. And, of course, it would aid full integration if schools were largely non-denominational.

But if Peter Robinson thinks Catholic schools will close down overnight, he's being over-optimistic. And is it realistic to think that non-Catholic parents and their children will welcome an influx of Catholic children into their schools and communities?

Catholic schools already take in pupils from non-Catholic backgrounds if they have unfilled places, and the state sector already takes in any Catholic child who applies.

And, of course, we have our designated integrated schools. So you might say we're already walking towards a fully integrated society - even if it's at a very slow pace.

Catholic children at state schools will not automatically be prepared for Holy Communion or Confirmation during school hours, but their local priest can make arrangements to have religious instruction provided outside school hours. This is the procedure for children of non-Christian faiths.

Religious instruction of the Protestant variety is kept fairly basic, with assembly prayers and perhaps a collection of groceries for charity at Harvest festival. Again, Protestants with a strong religious faith may send their children to Sunday school.

Some parents may simply wish to send their child or children to the nearest well-performing school, regardless of its denomination, though, clearly, it takes a brave parent, and an even braver child, to walk into a packed school assembly hall knowing they're the only Catholic or Protestant there.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: fear is the strongest emotion. I'm sure many teachers, parents and children have no moral objection to integrated education. But it's hard to be in the vanguard - especially for liberal Catholic parents.

It's got to be hard to send your beloved child to a state school with a tin of pears for the harvest hamper in their satchel, when you know your child is missing out on a traditional Catholic education.

And it's got to be equally hard to impose your own liberal outlook on a child when you know they might come to regret not having had a traditional upbringing. All those jokes about someone still having their Communion money under the bed at 40 will mean nothing to the child of liberal parents.

Sometimes I think it's easier to stay in a rut and let somebody else take the risks. Yes, it would be nice to have full integration. But not all parents will want full integration.

And so we come to the heart of the dilemma facing all multi-faith, multi-cultural societies: just how much integration will happen naturally? And how much integration should be imposed from above?

And, if Peter Robinson has no objection to faith schools if they fund themselves, does that mean he'll not object to self-funding, ultra-strict Islamic schools opening for business in Northern Ireland?

Or is Mr Robinson actually a political genius, who is campaigning now for full integration in a bid to avoid just such an eventuality?