President Michael D Higgins has provoked the ire of churches and politicians on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland for denouncing the North’s segregated education system as dangerous and shameful.
The unusually united criticism of Mr Higgins was led by the chair of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), Bishop Donal McKeown, who accused him of peddling a “simplistic caricature”.
Speaking on Thursday, Mr Higgins told a conference organised by the All-Island Women’s Forum and the National Women’s Council of Ireland that Northern Ireland education remained “shamefully . . . overwhelmingly segregated”.
Integrated education in Northern Ireland was both needed and “overwhelmingly wanted” and was a “key element to a successful, inclusive and harmonious future”, he told the gathering in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh.
Responding, Catholic Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown, said parents are choosing schools because of the quality of their teaching and their exam results.
“Some 52 per cent of newcomer children [in Northern Ireland] opt to go to Catholic schools. Two of the most racially integrated schools are in the Catholic sector in Dungannon and Craigavon,” said the bishop.
Gerry Campbell, the chief executive of the CCMS which oversees more than 440 Catholic-ethos schools across Northern Ireland, said the remarks were “offensive” and “unhelpful”.
Challenging Mr Higgins to visit a Catholic-run school, he said schools should not be blamed for sectarianism: “The word ‘segregated’ is not a word we would use. I think it is a very unhelpful term.”
Geography sometimes dictates numbers, he went on: “In the heart of west Belfast the majority are going to be Catholic, in the same way in the heart of unionist East Belfast or Sandy Row, most will be from a Protestant background.
“The word segregated is actually quite offensive, it is a word we take offence to. Catholic schools are open to everybody,” he said, adding that in some places the numbers of non-Catholics in Catholic schools “is quite high”.
Ulster Unionist Party deputy leader and education spokesman Robbie Butler said while “very few” disagreed that integrated education “is a good thing”, Mr Higgins’s analysis “fails to identify the main blockage”.
So-called “controlled” in Northern Ireland – or State-run schools – have 68 per cent pupils from a Protestant background, but just 32 per cent coming from other backgrounds, he said.
“The reality is that what Michael D Higgins sees as an issue in Northern Ireland mirrors the different sectors in place in the Republic. I would invite him to look at the success of the controlled sector here as a template,” he declared.
‘Tolerance and reconciliation’
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) defended the schools it works with as being “far from being inherently sectarian”, but “places where the values of tolerance and reconciliation are actively promoted and learned”.
“To imply otherwise is unfortunate to say the least,” a PCI spokesman said. Meanwhile, teaching unions INTO and the NASUWT both declined to comment, as did the Methodist Church and Church of Ireland.
But criticism was levelled by David Campbell, of the Loyalist Communities Council, who accused Mr Higgins of having “overstepped the mark of political neutrality” by interfering in “another country”.
Instead, Mr Higgins should reflect on the Republic’s lack of integrated education “due in no small measure to the State-sponsored policy of ethnic cleansing of the Protestant minority over its 100 years of existence,” he added.
A “radical and progressive” education system proposed by Stormont’s first government was stymied “by the complete refusal” of the Catholic Church to relinquish their control of the education of Catholic children, he said.
“Integrated education is undoubtedly part of the answer to our divided society in Northern Ireland, but we will not take lectures from an outsider like Michael Higgins,” he said.