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Alex Kane

So, children in Northern Ireland learn sectarian differences by the time they're five... who else is to blame but the parents?

Alex Kane


Worse still, their current coronavirus 'truce' aside, it probably suits nationalism and unionism to keep it that way, writes Alex Kane

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Breaking barriers: but is integrated education really going to heal divisions for generations to come?

Breaking barriers: but is integrated education really going to heal divisions for generations to come?

Breaking barriers: but is integrated education really going to heal divisions for generations to come?

In one of her best-known songs, The Greatest Love of All, Whitney Houston sang: "I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way, show them all the beauty they possess inside, give them a sense of pride to make it easier."

And, while she wasn't singing about the 1998 peace process in Northern Ireland, it is true that the success of the journey from a conflict to a post-conflict society can often be measured by the attitudes of children who would have no personal experience, or memory, of the Troubles.

So, it is a little unsettling to read that a new research paper (Symbols and Labels: Children's Awareness of Social Categories in a Divided Society) confirms previous research that children as young as five in Northern Ireland have been "found to differentiate others on the basis of non-visible social categories, including religion and nationality".

The authors of the paper, Laura K Taylor, Jocelyn Dautel and Risa Rylander, from Queen's University Belfast and University College Dublin, continue: "Even in the post-accord generation, social divisions are reinforced by the majority of the population living in segregated housing and attending separate schools. Moreover, social life is organised along group boundaries, which are demarcated by 'peace walls', murals, kerb paintings, graffiti and flags, as well as defined psychologically and culturally in terms of social activities, or sporting events."

Twenty-two years after the hopes and optimism generated by the Good Friday Agreement, that's a particularly gloomy assessment of ongoing political/electoral/societal realities here.

In 1974, when I was 18, I told my dad (a member of the Ulster Unionist Party) that I supported Brian Faulkner's power-sharing deal with the SDLP and Alliance (the Sunningdale Agreement).

I asked him if he was angry, or upset.

His response was simple and honest: "Do what you think is right for the future and for your generation. Don't carry my baggage and the baggage of my generation, just because you think you have to."

Yet, here we are, 45 years later, and it looks like the generation after mine is still capable of recognising the same baggage; and, in many cases, seems willing to carry it forward.

And since the latest research suggests that it is in the 5-11 age-groups that awareness of political and ethnic "others" begins to take root and then grow in Northern Ireland, the question becomes: what do we do about it?

What is required to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated and that the conflict doesn't reignite, albeit in a different form?

Those questions have particular relevance when (excluding what may be a temporary, self-survival co-operation to tackle the Covid-19 crisis) the evidence of the last two decades indicates that the relationships between the two primary political/community blocs are as fraught with tension and mistrust as ever.

It may be too late to do much to change the minds of those who have been through and left the school system since 1998, but what about the next generation?

The authors note: "By identifying the age at which ethnic awareness is increasing, these findings suggest policymakers and practitioners target interventions to younger children before group identities become solidified, or entrenched. Finally, social categorisation among a post-accord generation can have long-lasting effects for the individual child and the broader society. Understanding when and how children develop a sense of social group boundaries has implications for practice and policy in conflict resolution.

"Ethnic awareness, however arbitrary, serves as a lens through which children perceive the social world.

"For instance, research has demonstrated that the content of children's national and ethno-political categories includes symbolic markers such as flags, street banners, coloured kerbstones and murals. Policymakers might strive to reduce such dividing markers in public settings.

"Ultimately, understanding children's social categorisation in divided societies can inform strategies for promoting the antecedents of children's peace-building."

For more than 30 years, opinion poll evidence suggests that most people (a comfortable majority, in fact) believe that education - the school system, in other words - is the primary key to changing old attitudes, among the children themselves, as well as their parents and broader family circles.

Yet, with the exception of the Alliance Party, there doesn't appear to be the political determination to push integrated schooling as a serious option.

That's not to say that the other parties don't continue to promote the concept of educating our children together, but they ended up with the rather odd solution of "shared education", rather than full-blown integration. The Star Trek option, if you like: "It's integrated education, Jim, but not as we know it."

If we are serious about what might be described as a "new-era Northern Ireland", shouldn't it begin with our children?

If they carry our baggage into the polling booth with them, because they are capable of recognising polarising differences from the age of five - at much the same time as they are beginning to speak in coherent sentences, showing evidence of independent thinking and building their own friendships - then there is no likelihood of significant change.

So, even if a border poll did deliver a united Ireland (although I don't think that's likely anytime soon), it seems certain that there would continue to be very significant differences of attitude between unionists/nationalists and Protestants/Catholics.

I wonder, though, if it actually suits the key strategists in unionism and nationalism not to have a united society?

Division makes it very much easier to lever your own bloc behind your political/constitutional goals; and also makes it much easier to focus on a single message (Union versus unity), rather than have to deal in nuance and grey areas.

Putting that more bluntly: educating children together from the age of four and allowing them to recognise there is more uniting them than dividing them makes it much more difficult to rally and campaign on a purely binary political choice.

Maybe those who want to change society and want to create a climate in which children don't recognise and embrace their ancestors's differences from an early age need to look somewhere else other than schools and education?

Children inherit much of their thinking from the habits and attitudes of their parents, so, perhaps, we need more research into, and testing of, the parents, rather than their children.

After all, we're the ones with the baggage which probably needs deposited in a gigantic left-luggage locker - and the key thrown away.

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