Integration today or a return to violence tomorrow

It is my strongly held belief that the Northern Ireland Executive should push to make all schools in Northern Ireland become integrated“.

Adam McCartan

It is a generally acknowledged fact that the conflict in Northern Ireland known as the ‘Troubles’ was caused by and fought along not just political lines but also along sectarian ones.

Thirty-eight years of bloodshed, loss and destruction until finally both sides did what any sensible human being should do…talk. They agreed to a ceasefire and then finally peace with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Since the signing of this historic peace deal, Northern Ireland has enjoyed an era of relative peace, but the scars remain visible to this day.
Ask anyone born during the troubles and they will tell you how bad it was, they will blame one side or the other in a bias that is part of the human nature. The problem here is that they pass this bias down to their children, enrolling them in all catholic or all protestant schools, who following the example of their parents and elders begin the cycle of sectarian division all over again.  So, I ask you why allow this to happen? Why allow the indoctrination of our children with bias? The answer is we should not. We should instead be moving to make all schools integrate. To give our children the opportunity to forge a better future for Northern Ireland, one where sectarian division has been eradicated.

Currently out of 1,832 schools there are only 62 integrated schools. To me this is a damning figure! That means that only 3% of all schools in Northern Ireland are integrated, that is a school which does not claim to be one religion or another. For a modern province like Northern Ireland this figure is shocking.

Being from Northern Ireland myself I understand first-hand what is like to grow up in this environment. In a post-conflict society with the scars still very much visible. From my home I could walk 5 minutes and find a memorial commemorating dead IRA members, furthermore out of six high schools located in my hometown of Newry, five of them are catholic schools whilst only 1 is integrated. This has resulted in my hometown being very nationalist in its views and having strong support for the republican Sinn Fein.

 I, as a catholic, have personally attended both an all-boys catholic school and a mixed integrated school at home and found the differences in culture and just general feeling around the school shocking.

 I spent five years up till the completion of my GCSEs in that all boys all catholic school.  During my time there I was exposed to only boys and teachers of my own religion and culture and so subject to the bias of that side of the cultural divide in Northern Ireland. For many years I thought it was natural to praise the IRA for fighting the British Army and attempting to free us from British rule, and saw Northern Ireland through the “Them and Us” perspective, something that I am now very ashamed of when I look back.

That changed however when I moved to Newry High School, the only integrated school in Newry. Newry High was a naturally integrated school, it had started off life as the “protestant” school in Newry but over time developed to be a naturally integrated school, accepting students of all faiths and backgrounds. I found the environment in Newry High to be far more welcoming, friendly and a more enjoyable place to learn, which in turn I feel reflected on my A level grades that I received. During my time in Newry High I made several friends from different background which further helped me remove my very mistaken “them and us” attitude. I am strongly in the opinion that my 2 years studying at Newry High helped prepare me for moving into the world of work and further education. It opened my eyes and I believe with all my heart and soul that such schools are the future for Northern Ireland.

Its not just me, Northern Irish celebrities have also called for a greater push for integration. One prominent example being the actor Liam Neeson, who has backed the Nobel peace prize nominated Integrated Education Fund since 2016. He released an emotional video appeal to encourage parents to help move towards further integration.

The lack of integration in the education system in Northern Ireland has allowed the continuation of identity politics in Northern Ireland, with Sinn Fein dominating catholic/nationalist vote while the DUP dominates the protestant/unionist vote. It has meant the further division of communities in Belfast by “peace walls” and the country as a whole along sectarian rather than political lines.

It is my strongly held belief that the Northern Ireland Executive should push to make all schools in Northern Ireland become integrated. This could be achieved via the merging of schools in areas that contain both catholic and protestant schools and the opening of new integrated schools in border areas between mostly catholic and mostly protestant towns/villages.

Statistics have shown that more and more parents are coming round to the idea of integrated education, however some still fight it. They claim they want their children to be educated with children “like them”. This narrative still follows the traditional “them and us” feeling of bias from the Troubles. The time has come to move on from this division. To help heal the scars of our past and build a better future for our children and grandchildren.

Our children are our future and those who controls the youth control’s the future. So why continue to educate our children separately based upon their background or faith? Why allow this sectarian division to be further passed along to the next generation? It is imperative to the future stability for of Northern Ireland and the continued peace that we have enjoyed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement 22 years ago. The future is in the hands of our children, so we must integrate our schools!

Written by Adam McCartan, our chair in Northern Ireland.

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