Posted: 2022-02-24

Irish President is castigated by the churches for stating the obvious

It’s hardly surprising that churches in Northern Ireland have rebuked President Michael D Higgins for his denunciation of Northern Ireland’s segregated education system, but it was nothing more than a statement of the glaringly obvious. The word segregation tells it all. It means division. The fact is that 93% of children in the North are divided along sectarian lines.
More than two decades after the pledge in the Good Friday Agreement to ‘facilitate and encourage integrated education’, children here are still divided by religion. Leaving aside the financial cost of unnecessary duplication of resources, the situation is totally moral. The vast majority of children are daily presented in their educational environment with separate sporting and linguistic cultures, separate conceptions of what it means to be a Christian, and separate visions of their historical past. 
To suggest that these differences are insignificant and that they are largely irrelevant to the divisions in the wider community is to blind oneself to the realities of a deeply divisive educational system. Segregated education clearly fosters division and conflict. The mere fact of separate schooling is bound to encourage, or certainly not to discourage, mutual suspicion and hostility and thus greatly reduce the possibilities of social contact afterwards. 
58% of young people aged 18 to 34 have few or no friends from religious groups other than their own. Segregated schools therefore serve to reinforce segregation in other areas, such as marriage, work, housing, politics, recreation, and religion itself. Segregated schooling is therefore a major obstacle to social integration in Northern Ireland.
A large body of research data suggests that separation risks maintaining ignorance and reinforcing binary perceptions of ‘us’ and ‘them’, whereas contact and collaboration creates the conditions for generating mutual respect and understanding. Studies have found that integrated education impacts positively on identity, out-group attitudes and forgiveness and reconciliation, including an increase in the number of intercommunity friendships amongst those attending or having attended integrated schools.  
As the The Report of the Independent Review of Integrated Education (2016) states: “Individuals who have experienced positive, friendly, and co-operative contact with members of another group tend to have lower levels of prejudice, are more trusting, experience greater empathy, and are less anxious about interacting with that group”.
Why, therefore does religious segregation still exist? There is no doubt that the power of the churches is an important factor. The Catholic Church in particular has resisted all attempts at full-scale integration, maintaining that Catholic children must be educated in a Catholic ‘ethos’. It also argues that pluralism in education is a good thing, a disingenuous argument since the children – for whom education exists in the first place – are themselves deprived of this very pluralism by being segregated. 
The government, for its part, has effectively enshrined segregated education through its 1992 decision to fund Catholic schools on an equal basis with ‘state’ schools. Of course, Protestant churches helped to build the present educational system in Northern Ireland and they too have opposed integration, though less vocally since the education minister has always until recently been Protestant and Bible readings are common in state schools. Individual Protestant churches have promoted their values by founding some grammar schools where they maintain a strong if discreet influence.
What of the parents themselves? After all, parental initiative has been the main factor leading to integration. And, according to all the opinion polls over the years, a clear majority support integrated schools. For example, a Sky Data poll in 2018 found that it was supported by 69% of the people. Yet we need to ask whether this preference is real or merely theoretical. Is it a case of many parents pretending to the pollsters be more tolerant than they really are? Does this shy prejudice manifest itself in a preference to send their children to schools with the same religious traditions as themselves? 
Integrated schooling is not the panacea for all ills but it is a necessary part of the jigsaw. We need a single community of children, who work together in a friendly atmosphere so that they may love one another and be loved by one another. For prejudice feeds on distance and is killed by closeness. The opportunity exists for schools to transfer to integrated status, and they should seize it. The churches and many of the parents must not stand in their way.  
Brian McClinton, 24th February 2022