Separate But Equal Is/Isn’t an Option in Northern Ireland

When the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was signed in April 1998, progressives recognised it as a positive development and gave it their support. However, they were aware that there was potential within the structures assigned to the new devolved government for communal politics to be institutionalised. Unfortunately, events have proven these worst fears correct even as Northern Ireland has moved on in many other ways. Due to mutual distrust among the main nationalist and unionist parties, the Assembly government has not been in operation since January 2017, despite fresh elections in March which solidified the support for the main sectarian parties. Negotiations mediated by the latest UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are currently ongoing.

Among the original Agreement’s more positive terms was a commitment “to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing” as essential elements in the process of reconciliation and the creation of “a culture of tolerance at every level of society”. As we shall see, since 1998 these commitments have been ignored, watered down and compromised by the Stormont Executive parties. Chris Jenkins, formerly a Community Engagement Officer for the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) argues that since the GFA, “politicians and the Department of Education have not honoured their obligations to integrated education”:

The language has been diluted consistently in political manifestos since GFA, expansions of integrated schools have been rejected despite clear demand being evidenced, and grass-roots community conversations about integrated education have not been facilitated or supported.  In a […] Belfast Telegraph poll of 1,167 people, only 18% felt the Assembly was fulfilling its obligations to encourage integrated education.

The background to what has happened in education is a tale of two reports, one which identifies reconciliation and integration as central and another which ‘accepts’ that  segregation will be with the people of Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future. In 2001 senior civil servant, Jeremy Harbison was tasked with producing a document reviewing community relations in Northern Ireland and indicating the approach which the new devolved administration should take with respect to difficult issues relating to culture, segregation and sectarianism as part of its first Programme for Government.  As it happened, before the Executive could debate Harbison’s review, the devolved administration was suspended in May 2002 and for almost five years Northern Ireland returned to Direct Rule from London.

In the meantime, Harbison’s review was published by the Direct Rule administration in 2005 under the title ‘A Shared Future’. The document stressed that the politics of “benign apartheid” based on competing ethnic claims should not be tolerated. Each individual should “mutually recognise our common humanity … rather than engaging in a perpetual and sterile battle for ethnic power. …[Moreover,] the state must be neutral between competing cultural claims”. Crucially, the document states that:

Separate but equal is not an option. Parallel living and the provision of parallel services are unsustainable both morally and economically. …the costs of a divided society – whilst recognising, of course, the very real fears of people around safety and security considerations – are abundantly clear: segregated housing and education, … and deep-rooted intolerance that has too often been used to justify violent sectarianism and racism.” (Their emphasis)

In 2007 devolved government returned with Sinn Féin and the DUP now the main parties in the Executive.  ‘A Shared Future’ was brought before Stormont for approval by the Alliance Party but a DUP amendment merely ‘noting’ the policy – parliamentary language for shelving it – was passed instead with support from Sinn Féin. Political commentator Robin Wilson noted that, “In spite of its official civic-republican ideology, Sinn Féin was no more enthusiastic [than the DUP] about a policy with a focus on integration – challenging, as this did, its traditional politics of Catholic-communalist assertion with its implied maintenance of sectarian  division”. Sinn Féin called the document “shallow and meaningless because it is based on a deliberate misrepresentation of the political realities in this part of Ireland”. Nailing her colours to the mast, Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson stated that, “the reality of life for many people in the north is that there [are] people in desperate need of housing, who are at the top of the waiting list, yet they are unable to access vacant properties because of their religion.”

Recognising that some kind of policy on community relations was necessary, Sinn Féin and the DUP went to work with the result that in 2009 they each had come up with separate documents on their respective party websites, hardly indicative of a willingness to share. Eventually, in 2010 the executive produced another document on community relations entitled ‘Cohesion, Sharing and Integration’. This was very different from the now sidelined ‘Shared Future’ report. In a comparative study of the two reports Professor Jennifer Todd of UCD notes that:

Cohesion sees ‘cultures’ and ‘identities’ as given and stable entities. In Shared Future, the vision was of constant cultural change and dynamism: with individuals making their cultural and identity choices in a context of social division, economic difficulty and permeable cultural boundaries, the strategic aim being to facilitate these choices through … state-neutrality between cultures. In Cohesion, the vision is of ‘an intercultural society’ with ‘cultures and communities’ in contact. The strategic aim includes promoting ‘pride in who we are and confidence in our different cultural identities’. This can allow ‘mutual accommodation’ and perhaps long term change. This … does not acknowledge that political changes have led many to question aspects of their traditional cultural identities, and that this questioning and re-evaluation can lead to very positive repositionings, as well as to a sense of loss and sectarian reaction.

As might have been expected, since 2010 when the ‘Cohesion’ document was produced, the Stormont Parties have failed to develop practical policy on these issues. A small cross-party working group in Stormont was convened with the aim of producing an agreed blueprint on community relations but last year first the Alliance Party and then the Ulster Unionist Party walked away because of lack of progress. In December 2012 the Belfast Telegraph reported that, ‘Stormont’s long-awaited strategy for starting to tackle division and sectarianism’ had missed another deadline.

Meanwhile, even as some cleave to their ‘traditional routes’ and fixed identities, society in Northern Ireland is inexorably changing. The 2011 census shows that Northern Ireland is a society of diverse cultures, identities and religious attitudes but the education system remains divided into Catholic and de-facto Protestant blocks, which between them cater for 93% of all pupils at Primary and Secondary level. Despite changes to the transfer system at age 11, the system remains further divided between secondary and grammar school sectors. Third level education is non-denominational with the exception of teacher training, where Catholics have a separate teacher training college, and there is a de-facto Protestant college.

The remaining 7% of primary and secondary pupils (almost 22,000) attend integrated schools, in which there is an annual intake of at least 40% pupils from a self-reported Catholic background and at least 40% pupils from a self-reported Protestant background. There are 62 schools in the integrated sector comprising 20 second-level colleges and 42 integrated primaries. Opinion polls show consistently high support for integrated education.  For example, in 2003 a majority of people surveyed (82%) personally supported integrated education in Northern Ireland and in 2011 this had increased to 88% of those surveyed.

The idea of enabling ‘separate but equal’ fixed cultures to be in contact with each other has clearly been behind recent developments in education policy in Northern Ireland. The legal requirement to promote integrated education has been all but dropped and replaced with a commitment to ‘shared education’, which involves structured contact between students from different school backgrounds. A 2013 report prepared for the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) noted this shift away from integrated education in official documents and most party manifestos:

The current discourse on shared education assumes that the vast majority of our children will continue to be educated in separate schools for the foreseeable future. By accepting this political parties move towards education policies that plan for separate development rather than structural change and reform of the separate school system.

This shift is reflected in key education policy documents such as the Education Bill of 2012, which made no direct reference to integrated education. Similarly, there was no formal representation for integrated education on a recently developed Education and Skills Authority (ESA) and, prior to the collapse of the Stormont government, there was no reference to integrated education in the Programme for Government.  The IEF report notes  that , “political manifestos and policy initiatives in Northern Ireland do not reflect many of the preferences expressed by parents and the wider population as represented in survey data”.

According to Chris Jenkins, “there is a concern within the integrated movement that the ‘shared’ programmes do not address the structural segregation of our children, and therefore can only have limited results.  If we want to truly address the segregation of our children we have to address the structures.” He notes that while shared programmes are positive, “this ‘sharing’ cannot be the end point in itself but must represent a process … [towards] integrated education, where children are taught side by side throughout the day in an environment of trust, confidence, and celebration of identity and diversity, becomes the norm”.

A number of projects are underway which are designed to show the high educational standards, quality buildings and value for money that ‘shared education’ can provide. For example, a 140-acre shared campus costing £100 million was due to open in Lisanelly, Omagh, in 2015. In recent years, the Department of Education has actually reduced its financial commitment to ‘shared’ educational activities and the money for Lisanelly has come from charitable bodies, notably Atlantic Philanthropies and the International Fund for Ireland. In 2016, it emerged that the project would cost £160m compared to original estimates of £100m. As of this writing, the project has been delayed and just one school in the complex has opened.

According to the brochure for the school, “each school relocating to the campus will have a core school building which will retain its name, identity and ethos. These core schools will effectively operate as they currently do on their individual sites however, as pupils move through the key stages, they will have access to the shared facilities.”  Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd stated his belief that the educational experience at Lisanelly would “widen and enrich the educational experience of young people in our schools”.

Chris Jenkins describes Lisanelly as “a vanity project”.  He believes that there is an assumption that by simply putting children together in the same geographical space that good community relations will develop.  “The reality is that by putting children in the same space, wearing different uniforms, without facilitating and supporting conversation, dialogue, and understanding, you may possibly get the opposite effect.  Within an integrated school differences are brought out into the open in a facilitated and positive atmosphere.” Jenkins believes that Lisanella and other shared projects may have “the potential destructive power” to enhance segregation rather than lessen it.

Queen’s University, Belfast through its Sharing Education Project is also weighing in behind shared education.  Professor Joanne Hughes of QUB has recently written that “in Northern Ireland, ‘integrated’ schools for all children are not a realistic option. Nor is it conceivable that education could ever become secularized. In this context, if government is serious about its social cohesion objectives, it is clear that a more coherent and targeted approach to relationship building is needed. Based on research evidence, sustained contact between Protestant and Catholic children should be considered a core component in such a strategy”.

No doubt in 1945 educators and academics in the UK were making similar ‘realistic’ claims about the impossibility of comprehensive schooling, nationalised industries and a system of national health free at the point of demand. In short, what is absent is the political will to bring children together in an integrated system. And as long as the Stormont system of government (should it exist) operates with communalist designations at its core, then the government in Northern Ireland will only be able to produce the kind of piecemeal compromises that will impact on yet another generation of children. Jennifer Todd notes that “it is far from clear that a government goal of ‘mutual accommodation’ is enough to hold off the dangers of re‐sectarianisation especially among the young”.

Justin O’Hagan is a member of the Workers Party of Ireland. He blogs at thisjustinsite.