There is no doubt that Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society in spite of hopes for a better shared future. There is an undercurrent of sectarianism which occasionally flares up into open hostility.
Much of the tribal loathing is born of ignorance as there are significant numbers of young people who never meet someone of another religion until they start work or go to university. During their crucial formative years they live parallel lives to those of other religions and, so, it is little wonder that they grow up believing the same myths and half-truths which defaced their parents’ lives.
The separate Catholic and State education systems have long been blamed for perpetuating division, not intentionally, but by default. Until recently there was relatively little co-operation or contact between the two sectors which made mutual understanding more difficult for pupils. The integrated education movement was born out of the frustration felt by many parents over the educational divide. Those par
ents had to battle long and hard, and at great personal expense, to gain recognition for their movement.
They, like many other parents who want to see greater integration in schools, will be heartened by a poll published yesterday which showed that 67% of parents and grandparents of school-age children and younger would like the new Executive to set up joint faith schools in Northern Ireland. These would be jointly managed by Catholic and Protestant churches. This would be a radical move, although it is known that the churches and principals of Catholic and State schools have been examining how such
inter-faith schools in Britain operate.
Polls always have to be taken with a pinch of salt as people, when questioned about controversial subjects, will often plump for the populist answer. Nevertheless, the findings of the poll show that there is a considerable groundswell of support for greater integration in education. Some of it is entirely practical, such as schools from the different sectors sharing facilities. At a time of falling rolls, that makes economic, never mind social sense.
A huge majority of those questioned accepted that integrated education is important for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It is inarguable
that if schoolchildren from all sections of society were educated together they would have a better appreciation of each other’s beliefs and culture. They could then build on that foundation throughout their lives and create better understanding in adulthood.
However, while greater integration in education seems a logical step, the Churches retain a very strong hold on the education system and will be reluctant to move radically at any great pace. The Catholic Church will point out that its section of the community made huge sacrifices to establish and fund its educational sector before qualifying for full state financing.
However, it cannot remain tied to its historical position, especially at a time when all sections of the community are represented as of right in government. If politicians can share power, is it impossible for educationalists to reach an even more important compromise and agree for children to be taught together while retaining their own individual religious beliefs?