Educating Northern children together is all very well - but who sends whose where?

Wed, Jan 30, 2013, 00:00

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.

The well-heeled Protestants left as the well-heeled Catholics came. Where was the tolerance that the middle class so often profess? How did a couple of retired Catholics start a change of such proportions? Why did their neighbours move?

Of course, cultural exchanges are never one-way in the North. I am reminded of the experience of a Catholic teaching acquaintance at a nice middle-class state, ie predominately Protestant, school during the recent jubilee celebrations for Elizabeth II. One of the few Catholics on the staff, she turned up for work to find the staff room covered in red, white and blue bunting. The middle class have their own issues too, it would seem.

Things are no better in the countryside. Although I am a native of Belfast, I have pitched up in a little village in mid-Ulster. I live in the “Catholic” village with the Catholic church and the Ancient Order of Hibernian hall.

Up the road is the “Protestant” village with its Protestant churches – they have more than one denomination – and its Orange Hall. Of course, not all the Catholics go to the Catholic church and I have no idea how many Protestants go to the Protestant ones. (Though their Sunday school seems well attended from casual observation.)

Who sends whose children in which direction? Rural areas are as split as urban ones – perhaps even more so, due in no small part to the Plantation of Ulster. Yes, it was 400 years ago but its effects are still to be seen. As a rule of thumb, good land in the North will be owned by Protestants/unionists and poor land by Catholics/nationalists.


Whisper it but, in my neck of the woods, rarely will land “switch sides” – which is not to say that there is not commercial exchange of goods and services. Livestock changes hands. Help is offered and given. However, the fundamentals – the actual land – is something that is rarely passed from one side to the other, in my experience. It may be rented but rarely sold entirely. Think of John B Keane’s The Field and add a religious/political dimension and you will have some idea of what is at stake.

Of course, the tragedy, and a very necessary qualification, is that the people on one side or the other are not “bad” because they live in one place and not another. They are simply people who have been put in their place due to historical forces – and I use the words “place” and “force” very deliberately in this context. It will take more than schooling children together to overcome and explain those forces.

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