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Northern Ireland: Integration today or a return to violence tomorrow

Updated: May 23

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 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, 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 it was horrifying; they will blame one side or the other in a bias that is part of human nature. The problem, however, is that they pass on bias to their children, enrolling them in single denomination schools, who then – following the example of their parents and elders – begin the cycle of sectarian division all over again. The idea for integrated schools is based around contact theory, which has provided evidence showing that children from different backgrounds that are educated together are more likely to learn and display tolerance and understanding for other communities. Currently out of the 1,079 schools in Northern Ireland, only 70 are integrated schools. For a modern country like Northern Ireland, this figure is shocking – and to me personally, damning.

So, I ask you, why allow the religious segregation of our children, our future, and the indoctrination of them with bias? The answer is we shouldn’t! Instead, we should be moving to an integrated education system. To give our children the opportunity to forge a better future for Northern Ireland – one where sectarian division has been eradicated.

Calling Northern Ireland my home, I have an acute understanding of what it is like to grow up in a post-conflict society, with the scars still very much visible. From home I could walk 5 minutes and find a memorial commemorating dead IRA members, and propaganda is everywhere. Furthermore, out of six high schools located in my hometown of Newry, five of them are catholic schools whilst only one is integrated. This has resulted in my hometown being very nationalist, turning it into a Sinn Fein stronghold.

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

I spent five years 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, perceiving Northern Ireland through the “Them and Us” perspective (something that I am now very ashamed of when I look back).

This all changed, however, when I moved to the only integrated school at home for my A-Levels. Whilst it had started life as the “protestant” school in Newry, over time it 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 close friends from different backgrounds, further helping me remove my very mistaken “Them and Us” attitude. I am strongly in the opinion that my two 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!

Over the last decade the number of children enrolled in integrated schools has increased, but not nearly as much as is needed as some still fight it. Claiming that they want their children to be educated with children “like them”, they continue the traditional narrative of a “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. The lack of integration in the education system in Northern Ireland has allowed the continuation of identity politics, with Sinn Fein dominating the Catholic/nationalist vote while the DUP dominates the Protestant/unionist vote. It has meant the continued division of communities in Belfast by “peace walls” and the country along sectarian, rather than political lines. Elections continue to be fought along “Them and Us” lines, which has been especially aggravated by the perceived threat posed by Brexit to unionist communities.

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 as well as the opening of new integrated schools in border areas between mostly Catholic and mostly Protestant towns/villages.

Our children are our future – so why continue to educate them separately based upon their background or faith? Why allow sectarian division to be further passed along to the next generation? Integration is imperative to the future stability of Northern Ireland and the continued peace that we have enjoyed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago.

The future is in the hands of our children, so we must integrate our schools!

Image: Sinead

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