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Gail Walker: It’s a hard lesson to learn, but Peter Robinson is right about Catholic schools

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It’s one of our dirty little secrets. Many of us living middle class lives prefer not to think about what life is really like for the majority of people here.

We pride ourselves on how open-minded we are. Depending what foot we kick with, we make our own little gestures, wishing Tyrone or Down well in GAA or getting behind the Northern Ireland side; we learn how to pronounce Irish names or appreciate the cultural merits of the Twelfth; we may even be so sophisticated as to take humorous little potshots, jokily calling each other ‘Bluenose’ or ‘Tim’.

We feel all warm when we think of how we’re contributing to what we like to call “the new Northern Ireland”.

But the reality is that more than 10 years after the Belfast Agreement, vast swathes of this population still live totally segregated lives.

Tens of thousands of Protestants and Catholics live in their own areas, go to their own schools, marry their own sort.

If they do mix at all, it’s at the workplace and very carefully. Or maybe some of the other sort nurse them in hospital and they marvel for years how attentive they were, how nice. Or serve them in a shop.

But that’s it: strictly business.

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And then normal service is resumed.

Or abnormal service.

Predictably Peter Robinson has been furiously rounded upon by the Catholic Church for targeting funding for faith-based schools as a means to tackle our segregated mind-sets, but his comments do draw attention to one way in which community suspicion and historical grievance have been perpetuated in Northern Ireland.

There is a view in some quarters that being a true Catholic means attending a Catholic maintained school; and that a Catholic choosing to send his or her children to a state school is, in that view, somehow being disloyal to their faith or making some kind of political statement.

This view holds, deep down, even though it is obviously untrue, that Catholic children attending state schools are any less inclined to be Mass goers or to adhere to any other aspect of their faith. Obviously and clearly. They are no more inclined to abandon their faith than are Catholic teachers in state schools.

There is also the view, arising from the perceived closeness of the Catholic faith to nationalist politics, that Catholic schools uphold an ‘Irish’ ethos as opposed to a ‘British’ one in state schools. And that this ethos is somehow contained simply in Catholicism itself.

Again, as the recent Papal visit to GB proved, there is no intrinsic connection between Catholicism and any national aspiration anywhere.

But those views hold, in the teeth of reality.

And on the other hand, it is equally true that state schools may not always have presented themselves as quite as hospitable to the Catholic faith as one would expect from tax-funded institutions.

Whatever efforts were made to attract Catholics over the decades, school by school, they obviously weren’t enough.

Rugby, tennis and cricket, wonderful though I am sure they are, are not inherently built to draw the instinctive attention of Catholic youth. Not in our society, anyway.

And perhaps the modelling of a genuinely inclusive response to the dead of the two world wars, or revisiting the penchant some state schools have for cadet corps, or devising some approaches to sensitive historical eras, may have been beyond school, authorities, school by school with their own gaggle of bigoted parents to contend with, just as it was beyond the wisdom of wider society.

But too often the easier path was taken.

And those defending the rights of Catholic schools, should answer these two questions, yes or no.

Do you think that a Catholic who attends a Catholic-run school is a better Catholic than one who attends a state school?

Do you think that a Catholic who attends a Catholic-run school is more ‘Irish’ than one who attends a state school?

Well, I’ll answer those myself. The answer to both is ‘No’.

So thanks, Peter, for naming the creature known as our common ignorance.

And schools, all of them, will have to face up to their responsibilities in that regard, sooner rather than later.

But they’re not on their own.

Not by a long chalk.


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