The Irish Times view on schools in Northern Ireland: segregated classrooms

Two decades after the Belfast Agreement, 93 per cent of schools remain segregated by religion

For the generation born in Northern Ireland since the Belfast Agreement, the violence and trauma of the Troubles belong to the history books. It is their parents' story, not their own. Even though it can seem at times to be a brittle peace, and the tensions ignited by Brexit are a reminder that tensions simmer beneath the surface, the progress of the past two decades has been remarkable.

Yet in some areas change has come slowly, and in others hardly at all. Even though opinion polls show that Northern voters prioritise the same issues as their peers elsewhere – health, education, the cost of living – and despite evidence that the neither/nor middle is the fastest-growing part of the electorate, the North’s political leaders, most of whom came of age during the Troubles, remain firmly rooted in the zero-sum game of green versus orange one-upmanship.

Progress has been even slower in the education systemwhere, two decades after the Belfast Agreement, 93 per cent of schools remain segregated by religion. That educational segregation in turn entrenches other divisions: the languages children speak or the sports they play. In a speech in Enniskillen this week, President Michael D Higgins said it was "shameful" that in the very place where children should be able to learn and play together, those from Catholic and Protestant background live apart. The big two political parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, have been lukewarm at best towards integrated education, but the public demand for greater choice is clear. Over half of "mixed" schools are new establishments set up by parents who reject the social separation that the younger generation inherited.

Northern Ireland’s school system is not the cause of community tensions or sectarian prejudice. Nor can they alone eradicate such problems. The persistence of segregation among children is itself a symptom of wider malaise. Yet without concerted political action to ensure that the coming generations grow up side by side, it will be a great deal more difficult to create a harmonious and inclusive society.