Educating Northern children together is all very well - but who sends whose where?
The recent flurry of letters to the editor about educating Catholic and Protestant children together in Northern Ireland’s schools shows the usual amount of well-meaning naivety when it comes to debating the North’s problems. Sending all children to the one school is the “big solution” to all difficulties. It isn’t, of course, but it suits the simplified narrative about the North that is often spun nationally and internationally.
The North is a segregated territory, not simply divided politically, but physically segregated. You can see it easily in Belfast and Derry, with the old joke that they even paint the kerbstones. You can see it with the choice of national flag that is flown on the lamp-posts and, sometimes, even by the choice of international flags – loyalists favouring Israel’s blue and white at times while nationalists will fly the Palestinian one with pride.
Let us educate Catholic and Protestants together? How? The vast majority of pupils, say, in working-class west Belfast are Catholic – or at least baptised Catholic. (Do not assume they all practise their faith or have any understanding of it.)
So, they must be educated with Protestants to show them that they are not the enemy and, of course, the same goes for Protestants. That would mean bussing them across town to, say, east Belfast.
Or do we bus the Protestants across town to the west of the city? Or do we build primary schools only in the city centre and bus everyone in there? How is that even possible? Imagine taking a child from Ranelagh and sending him to Ballymun for school every day and you have some idea of what is needed.
What happens when children leave school and get a job? Surely adults can set a better example and live together? That does not happen too often either.
The working class of both religions tend to gravitate towards where they were born – for reasons of kin, culture and, yes, safety. What about the middle class, then? Surely, the middle class will save us all from the curse of sectarianism through their education and money?
Alas, no. I offer an anecdote. An aunt and uncle of my own retired over 30 years ago to a very quiet street in south Belfast. They were the only Catholics in the area and visiting them meant crossing one of those little borders that nationalists and unionists know only too well from “one” side to the “other”. This crossing, by the way, was no imaginary undertaking. Your personal security demanded that you recognised its existence.
Crossing at the wrong time could result in serious injury or, indeed, death. Thirty years later, that nice, middle-class street is full of middle-class Catholics. The last time I visited I saw children – much to my amazement – walking around with Antrim GAA tops and hurleys.