Northern Ireland’s past echoes with the haunted politics of division, its communities littered with the graves of over 3,000 victims of shameful brutality. When Peter Robinson spat that, ‘the only input that Unionists want into the Anglo-Irish Conference is a stick of gelignite’, not even the most ardent optimist would have predicted that he would one day attend a GAA match as the honoured guest of Martin McGuinness.
But the progress is real and it is, I daresay, sincere. In only two years did the widely-heralded patriarch of entrenched Unionism Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley reverse his line from, ‘we are not going into government with Sinn Fein’, to, ‘we must not allow our loathing of the tragedies of the past to become a barrier to a better future.’ Shaking his hands with Mr Paisley in the halls of Stormont, it is nigh impossible to equate the Martin McGuinness of, ‘I haven’t done anything that I’m ashamed of’, to the progressive politician who has learned the hard lessons of a misguided youth.
And Northern Ireland’s modern politics of progress are neatly mirrored in the geography of the country. Spectators looking out on the Belfast of the second decade of the twenty-first century are greeted by a vibrant and optimistic city. Colour flows through her streets, heartfelt music dribbles out of its pores. It is a cosmopolitan, bohemian culture where students mingle with working professionals.
And it is not surprising, for a city rescued from the despairing grip of wartime violence as recently as Belfast can do nothing else but blossom with tenacity and intent. And the schools are doing well. GCSE and A-Level results in Northern Ireland are the best in the United Kingdom. Modern teaching methods are complemented by updated facilities, and with increasingly stable socio-political conditions, young people in Northern Ireland can come together to build upon the progress already enjoyed across the country.
But one contentious point remains very much at the centre of the country’s school system, and that is the role of faith-based education.
The statistics released by the Department of Education in 2011 reveal that just over 4,000 nursery school children attend a denominational play group, with over 65,000 of the country’s teenagers in segregated secondary education. We no longer live in the era of different histories, but it is of academic importance to note the patterns of where the Irish language is, and is not, taught. Outside of the classroom, stand-offs continue in the sport’s field between caid-influenced football and rugby, hurling and hockey.
And threaded through all these facets is the ever-present influence of religion. Whether by design or by the circumstance of tradition, schools in Northern Ireland prescribe young people with a pre-determined notion of identity. This is not to say that religious education and Christian values are without place in modern Northern Ireland. The issue lies with perpetuating a sectarian school system in a country recovering from three decades of religious turmoil.
One does not fight fire with fire.
And the state of the economy doesn’t help matters either. As job prospects dwindle, uncertain and directionless youths are being offered prospects of sorts with terrorist organisations. The Financial Times spoke of the downturn as, ‘a recruiting sergeant for dissident republican [sic.] groups’, with the recent resurgence of radical IRA organisations serving to strike an alarming chord.
Households Below Average Incomes figures between 2005 and 2008 reported that 48 per cent of children in Northern Ireland lived in poverty, with 21 per cent classed as living in ‘persistent poverty’. When these numbers are coupled with the country’s lack of vocational opportunity and the attraction of paramilitary groups, one can only question the true meaning of promising examination results and political progress.
And politics, education and the economy are not mutually exclusive. Each facet plays into the other, in turn determining the effectiveness and implication of the next. Nationalist and Unionist politicians can sit in the modern Stormont and talk about the future until they are blue in the face, but nothing will come of it unless they proactively address the interests of children.
Community groups across Northern Ireland are doing fantastic work in uniting the people, young and old, but this could be lost on future generations unless lasting grassroots changes are recorded. And to do that, Northern Ireland needs to see integrated education. Children are in need of a daily reminder that there is more to the country than the members of their own community. The idea is not a new one. First Minister Peter Robinson spoke of the importance of integrated education in 2011, but despite promises, very little visible progress has been made.
For all the good Mr Robinson and his colleague Mr. McGuinness are doing, this most crucial of considerations is being inexplicably overlooked. It would be a tragic error to allow anything to hinder the rejuvenation of Northern Ireland, especially if that barrier is the remnants of a dying culture of division.
Progress is built upon familiarity and cross-community cooperation, but the existence of denominational education counteracts this at an early point in a child’s development, and continues throughout their school career. This academic incongruity fights alongside fading archaic notions of yore, engaged in a determined tug-of-war with the new and progressive Northern Ireland.