An integrated future?

Integrated education is vital to the future of a non-sectarian Northern Ireland, says Gary Kent

There was a time when Northern Ireland barely made any impact on mainland and mainstream British politics. It was, to use a phrase popularised by the Sunday Times, John Bull’s slum. After partition in 1921, which Britain accepted rather reluctantly, it was largely ignored for several generations. It was effectively a one-party unionist state which gerrymandered the voting and housing systems for the benefit of middle class Protestants.

In the late 1960s Catholics hit the glass ceiling and this helped mobilise a peaceful and non-sectarian civil rights movement which soon achieved its legitimate demands for equality. Sadly, this didn’t stop a new IRA, led by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, from becoming one of the world’s most powerful terrorist organisations, a major factor in plunging the province – an area the size of Yorkshire – into a barbaric age which claimed 3,600 lives.

To cut a long story short, there has been an extremely sharp learning curve on all sides which has led to a flawed but necessary peace settlement. I supported the Belfast Agreement and participated in peace movement press conferences on both sides in Belfast and Dublin in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote. Our slogan was ‘Yes, without illusions’. The major flaw in the agreement was that it was based on, and entrenched, two separate communities in the governance of the province.

Nearly 12 years on from the original paramilitary ceasefires and eight years since the Belfast Agreement was signed, Belfast is buzzing with new restaurants and pubs and everyone accepts that the war is over, although the continuing use of vigilante violence and gangsterism by paramilitaries and former members of their organisations is a huge problem.

It is also commonly accepted that it will take generations to eradicate the bitterness of the Troubles. There is simply far too little common space where Protestants and Catholics can freely relate to each other. People can go through their lives in Northern Ireland, from the cradle to the grave, without setting eyes on anyone from the other tradition – at work, in the church, at the pub, in the leisure centre, or anywhere – because of the deep polarisation of society.

Financial costs

Segregation has a financial price too. Some estimate that duplicating public services to mirror the sectarian divide costs £1 billion a year. I recently heard of two Healthy Living Centres in north Belfast, a few hundred yards from each other, which cater separately for Protestants and Catholics. Just think of the other public facilities, such as bus stops, which must be duplicated, plus policing costs for parades and other events, as well as lost revenue from tourism and investment (‘capital is a coward’, as the US Envoy to Northern Ireland put it), and it becomes easier to imagine how a billion quid can be spent, needless spending in any normal society.

But Northern Ireland is not yet a normal society. Most of its people live in areas that are predominantly Protestant or Catholic. John O’Farrell, a former editor of Fortnight (a non-sectarian, progressive political and cultural monthly), recently outlined the depth of division in Northern Ireland in a superb article in the New Statesman headed simply ‘Apartheid’:

‘Sectarianism, the force that fuelled more than three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland, hasn’t vanished with the coming of peace. The apartheid is also vivid on the ground, and it is there that its effects are most poisonous and most lasting. In the Ardoyne district of Belfast, for example, four out of every five Protestant residents will not use the nearest shops because they are located in Catholic streets, and the same proportion of Catholics will not swim in their nearest swimming pool because it is in a Protestant street. Most 18-year-olds in Ardoyne, of both religions, have never in their lives had a meaningful conversation (about, say, family or sport) with anyone of their age from the other side of the “peace line” that runs along Alliance Avenue.

‘Surveys of 9,000 people in “interface areas” found three-quarters refusing to use the closest facilities because of location. Eighty-two per cent routinely take longer journeys to gain access to benefits in “safer” areas; 60 per cent refuse to shop in “other” areas, many fearing that they will be ostracised by their own community if they spend money among the other lot. Ominously, fear of the “others” is most intense in the 16-24 age group.’

The segregation in schooling is particularly acute with only 5.5 per cent of pupils attending integrated schools and most attending schools that are largely either Catholic or Protestant. The integrated schools movement seeks to overcome these early divisions in life to allow pupils to embrace a shared future. Integrated education started with only 28 pupils in an old scout hut in 1981 and has made huge strides with the opening in this academic year of seven new schools – the highest single annual increase in the movement’s history.

There’s a highly committed and parent-driven movement that keeps the sector alive and thriving. Integrated education cannot solve all the problems of a deeply divided society, but the evidence of 25 years of integrated schools is that it can change pupils’ lives for the better. They discuss differences and celebrate diversity and are, therefore, better able to cope with conflict. They cannot insulate themselves from pervasive sectarianism but they are often better equipped to tackle it. And these schools also increase contact between parents and other family members with their counterparts on ‘the other side’.

Although parent-driven, this movement can be encouraged by government and other agencies, as the Belfast Agreement suggests. The government – either under direct rule or devolution – should also recognise that it is popular. As many as 81 per cent believe integrated education is important for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. A recent Life and Times survey shows that 73 per cent would like the government to encourage more integrated schools and 60 per cent would prefer to send their children to a mixed-religion school.

Parental demand

The first key issue is meeting parental demand for integrated places. This year, over 700 applicants were turned away due to lack of supply in existing integrated schools. Given that large parts of Northern Ireland lack an integrated option, it is fair to say that thousands of pupils and parents don’t have an effective choice. Half of all parents did not send their child to a local integrated school because there was none nearby.

The fall in school rolls adds to the case for transforming Catholic and mainly Protestant state schools into integrated ones to preserve local schools, especially in rural areas. The need to integrate the two teacher training colleges is vital since segregated training of future teachers sustains educational apartheid. Increasing the integrated education sector is a massive investment in a non-sectarian future. It needs time for new attitudes and views to flourish and cascade through society. But if it doesn’t start urgently, it may never happen.

There are signs that integrated education goes with the grain. As Secretary of State, Peter Hain is in charge of a policy called A Shared Future which argues that ‘separate but equal’, or parallel lives, provides an unsustainable basis for a politically, socially and economically viable Northern Ireland. Whichever way this goes, it is urgent that all concerned with the future of Northern Ireland help boost desegregation and support integrated education whenever the future of Northern Ireland is discussed.

Gary Kent was Westminster correspondent of Fortnight from 1996-2002 and is parliamentary consultant to the Integrated Education movement. He writes in a personal capacity