President Obama in trouble at home for his remarks on the desirability of Catholic schools?

A few people in Northern Ireland took notice of President Obama’s apparent dig at segregated education. But in the US quite a number on the right took it personally.

As noted at the time here on Slugger, it may have been assumed by the President there were measures afoot to promote integrated schooling by the Catholic Education Minister, John O’Dowd.

In fact the announcement of ten shared campuses last month may look to the untrained eye like a cross party commitment to integrated schooling, but in fact they were little more than a last minute promise made in order to release the latest economic package for Northern Ireland from Westminster.

Not that that matters to his critics in the states, where it is what they view as his administrations hostile attitude to Catholic schools that have people up in arms. Here’s Brian Burch, President of

“If every Catholic school closed tomorrow, local and state governments would be forced to spend millions of dollars to handle the hundreds of thousands of children who would enter the public school system.

“This smear in Northern Ireland constitutes a growing pattern of hostility on the part of this Administration toward Catholics. The Obama administration has ruled that some Catholic colleges are no longer sufficiently Catholic enough to warrant a religious exemption from the HHS Mandate.

Two years ago, the Obama Justice Department argued before the Supreme Court that religious institutions have no right to decide what type of persons will be allowed to minister to their parishes and schools.

“Beginning August 1, the Obamacare HHS Mandate will impose unprecedented threats to conscience and potentially millions of dollars in fines on Catholic schools who refuse to pay for abortion drugs, sterilizations, and other medical procedures inconsistent with Church teaching.

Michael McGough of the LA Times provides more local context:

Northern Ireland is not the United States. Even in my childhood, when Catholic kids were encouraged to attend Catholic schools and there was an arguably Protestant ethos in many public schools, Catholics and Protestants weren’t as isolated from (or as distrustful of) one another in this country as they continue to be in Northern Ireland.

Today, thanks to Vatican II and the relentless asssimilation of Catholics, it’s common for Catholics to attend public schools (where teachers no longer recite from the Protestant King James Bible). But it is also common for Protestants, Jews and others to attend Catholic schools. And a lot of children, Catholic and non-Catholic, will attend both public and Catholic schools over the course of their education.

Society in Northern Ireland is much more stratified, and the role of religiously defined schools more problematic. You can be perfectly comfortable with the role of Catholic schools in the American context and worry about their contribution to estrangement between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.[emphasis added]

Well, quite. It’s also worth pointing out that in contrast to the past most Catholic schools in Northern Ireland are funded wholly by the state. It’s the management structure that’s different, and of course the ethos of the schools.

Yet it is interesting how Catholic education is slowly being politically corralled into the special treatment corner.

Screen Shot 2013-06-20 at 21.56.28Ironically one of the most integrated schools in Northern Ireland is in the state sector. Ballykelly Primary has a total of 267 pupils – 43% were Protestant, 48% Catholic and 9% ‘other’.

Other state (‘Controlled’) schools, notably in places like Derry and Strabane where there have been large outflows of Protestants over the last thirty years have almost 100% Catholic students on their rolls.

Only three Catholic take more than 30% of Protestant students. And one, St Columbanus College in Bangor, has nearly a 50/50 Catholics and Protestants. Where other social tensions are relaxed or the option of a Catholic school is not available, it seems parental choice seems to be relaxing about the religious denomination of the school they attend, either way.

But as you can see from the figures compiled by The Detail from Department of Education figures above, most Catholic and Protestant kids in NI schools just do not mix, and do not take up the choice to move outside the traditional choices of their parents and their grandparents.

Segregation in schools is no longer such a contentious issue in a pluralising societies like the US, or indeed in large parts of the UK. Northern Ireland’s lack of political pluralism and its oil v water distribution of population by religious identity leads many to see the Catholic education system as the only anomalous feature, and therefore its only major fault.

Yet almost all controlled or state schools have a strong Protestant clerical presence on the management board. It’s part of the deal struck after Sir James Craig lost his long battle to keep state education in Northern Ireland free of direct religious interference. It also ignores the fact that Catholic schools have a marginally better record, particularly at the lower ends of the achievement scale.

For their faults, Catholic schools are not the sole cause of Northern Ireland’s wider problems with social and political division.

This is what the President actually said…

If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division.

That’s to confuse the purpose of a single policy with general political outlook. And it is not a political outlook which (currently) is shared by either of the two parties at the top of the Stormont’s now well established pyramid of power.

It’s a trap which lay open and waiting for the unwary American President, who may have believed the local political spin that this is what the Stormont administration was already working towards. He may even have felt actively encouraged to put his foot right in it.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • How can a president in his second and final term be “in trouble”?

  • Mick Fealty

    All trouble is relative Joe… 😉

  • JH

    One bleary morning headed to work in Belfast last year a headline caught my eye. It said something like “The Catholic School Where Most of the Students Are Protestant”.

    Anyone know what school that was referring to?

  • Sp12

    Republicanism has often been accused (quite rightly) of failing to detail what a UI would actually entail. How would it effect a potential supporter in mid Ulster with a mortgage trapped in negative equity, with a civil service job, or even those with a private sector job that’s reliant on the public sector and a fondness for Thom Tuck on the radio on the way home after a days work?

    What does ‘integrated’ education mean to me as a parent?
    The CCMS education system served me well, it pulled me out of a shitty housing estate into a career that not only supports me and my immediate family, but also my parents who sent me down to Bishop Street into an Irish (not Catholic) education system.

    The ‘integrated’ sector is already there, chances are, it is as unpopular amongst protestant parents as it is amongst catholic parents.
    Someone should tell those pointing to a second term US president’s words that they have had a long time to lay it out to parents of potential recruits what it would entail, and haven’t managed it so far.

  • GEF

    If anyone had experience of a mixed religious education it certainly was Obama. Apparently he attended, both Muslim and Catholic schools in Jakarta Indonesia in his primary years. Then secular school back in the US in his teens prior to University. This mis-match certainly didn’t do him much harm, he ended up by becoming President of the US much to the angst of right wing elements of the Republican party.

  • aquifer

    The Catholic church are using state funds to develop their congregations income and influence by retaining locals and by recruiting immigrants.

    This has an important political dimension, as they also promote an Irish cultural outlook rather than a British one.

    And in my experience, promoting this divisive outlook most strongly in schools serving less well off communities and lower ability pupils.

    There is a big purple elephant in the room and Obama, who comes from a real country where state funding of religion was banned in the eighteenth century to avoid further division in a not very United States, did well to poke it.

  • If I were still in Belfast I would be preparing to send my children to Coláiste Feirste where religious ethos is trumped by educational values. It’s one of the best performing schools in Belfast.
    Its pupils were not,however, among the ‘privileged’ to be present when President Obama spoke to the massed ranks of schoolchildrene from all other Belfast schools due to a US Consulate error. Or was it due to a long standing Department of Education grudge over a successful court challenge to a ban on free travel to children in Co Down travelling to CF, a privilege granted freely to children from the same area travelling to other Belfast secondary schools. President Ibama and the Department aren’t as inclusive as they proclaim, it seems.

  • Mick Fealty


    Ta sceal ann duit, b’fheidir?

  • iluvni

    “Catholic schools are not the sole cause of Northern Ireland’s wider problems with social and political division.”

    Who has ever said such a thing?

  • Morpheus

    “The Catholic church are using state funds to develop their congregations income and influence by retaining locals and by recruiting immigrants.”

    Paranoid, ignorant drivel. That is all.

  • Mick Fealty


    I’ve heard people say it in private frequently. In public it is more usually merely implied.


    You need to distinguish between an unviable statement and one you just firmly disagree with. Concentrate on falsifying aquifer’s statement rather than throwing insults at it, please?

  • Dec

    So in Aquifer’s world, not having a British cultural outlook, whatever that is in a local context, is inherently divisive.

  • As an ardent supporter of the separation of church and state, I’m not going to give any credence to an organisation named — I think US President Kennedy sorted this out during the 1960 campaign (and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny more recently, “I am a Catholic. I am also Taoiseach for all the people of Ireland.” (sic))

    “Yet almost all controlled or state schools have a strong Protestant clerical presence on the management board. It’s part of the deal struck after Sir James Craig lost his long battle to keep state education in Northern Ireland free of direct religious interference.”

    This is the crucial point.

    When I suggested to Alliance Party representatives that the party propose the removal of automatic clerical representation on controlled school boards, I was told, “But some of them are actually liberal in their views.” Hmm.

    Likewise, once on a fact finding trip to Scotland, I met local politicians who wanted to reduce funding for Catholic schools. When they told me the state schools have church ceremonies as part of their schoolday activities, I asked the politicians if they would remove that. When they replied “certainly not”, I asked why a devout Catholic family would rationally want to send their children to such schools.

    They also said that their Protestant ceremonies were creating challenges in places like Glasgow, with increasing intake of Muslim children. Go figure.

  • sonofstrongbow

    After a short period at a local prep I went to school and university in GB. Here’s the shocking bit: my parents paid the fees that resulted from their educational choices for their children.

    The state should provide schools for any child that wants them. Any parental choice in schooling that stands outside state schools, should that be religious ethos, language, educational ‘style’ etc should be down to the parents to fund.

    ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch’ might even be a good lesson with which to start any child’s schooling.

  • To give more background to the differences between the U.S. and NI, in the former the biggest civil tensions have historically been racial, not ethnic nor sectarian. The races cut across religious divisions instead of paralleling them as with ethnic divisions in NI. In the U.S. Catholic and Lutheran congregations tended to be originally organized on ethnic lines to reflect different immigrant communities, but as these communities assimilated into American society and stopped using European languages other than English congregations became ethnically mixed.

    In the U.S. primary and secondary education is mainly financed through property taxes, which means that poorer neighborhoods have traditionally had inferior schools due to lack of means. Public education has failed in many urban areas leading many non-Catholics to send their children to fee-financed parochial (church) schools for the sake of receiving a more competitive education. Teachers in these schools are a combination of nuns and lay teachers who are non-unionized and so easier to remove if competence is a problem. Public teachers unions are a main interest group supporting the Democratic Party. Public schools vary widely in quality from state to state and within the same state, similar to in the UK in this regard I would imagine.

  • Mick Fealty

    Yeah, good luck with that one SoS!! What next? Withdrawal of support for voluntary Grammars? I think you’ll find the Minister may already have that in hand.

    There used to be two Catholic primaries in Holywood. One public (St Patricks), the other private, (Mount St Marys). The latter was popular with Protestants and incoming English families.

    I think it is important to be mindful of what’s possible, what’s likely and the anomalous things that already happening in the system we have already.

  • sonofstrongbow

    Indeed Mr F. Wishful thinking on my part.

    The Education Minister has already shown his penchant for unnecessary public spending having binned a report (one the Department itself commissioned) that recommended rationalising the schools estate.

    Much like those who want a hospital on every corner offering the full range of medical procedures those advocating the many and varied educational factions will continue to look to the state to fund their personal whims and desires.

  • “…the Catholic Education Minister, John O’Dowd.”

    Is O’Dowd the education minster for Catholics only? 😉

    In relation to RC education and “the ethos of the schools” does this also refer to the fact that RC schools teach their pupils that they are Irish people living in a part of the Irish nation as part of the broader Irish culture of the schools? As opposed to, ahem, other schools where pupils are taught that they are British people living in a part of the British nation as part of the broader British culture of the schools?

    Is it any wonder that most people from a Nationalist background, north and south, view the words “integrated education” as simply code for the “de-Irishification” of Irish children via the mechanism of a British education system. If Unionists or Unionist-apologists were serious about this they would be lobbying for an “agreed education” system, one which blended aspects of the Irish and British national curricula with local concerns, and where both communities were treated equally (and with zero clerical involvement on both sides).

    Are the political leaders of the British Unionist minority in the north-east of the country going to agree to obligatory Irish language classes in all schools in “Northern Ireland”? Are they going to agree to the availability of Gaelic games in every school? To learning about the War of Independence equally with the Great War? Yeah right. I can see the screams of “Defend our British culture!” already.

    Communal education systems exist for a reason. It is not the cause of the problems in the North of Ireland, it is a symptom of them. As with Belgium and a dozen other regions in Europe where parallel schooling exists. They simply reflect differing identities with differing aspirations.

  • Morpheus

    “You need to distinguish between an unviable statement and one you just firmly disagree with. Concentrate on falsifying aquifer’s statement rather than throwing insults at it, please?

    Concentrate on falsifying that offensive garbage? So it is OK to put up an all encompassing, offensive statement on Slugger which has no substance whatsoever and with zilch to back it up and then it becomes the responsibility of others to prove that it’s a pile of ignorant hogwash?

    What if I put a statement like ‘Mick Fealy demonstrates on a regular basis that he is incapable of writing a balanced blog and trawls cyberspace looking for the next anti-Catholic or anti-Irish subject that he deems important enough for others to comment on.’

    For the record I don’t believe that statement but it’s out there and it’s now your responsibility to concentrate on falsifying it.

    “The Catholic church are using state funds to develop their congregations income and influence by retaining locals and by recruiting immigrants.”

    Church attendances in most denominations are falling so how exactly do the Catholic Church use state funds to ‘develop their income and influence’? Where is the evidence to back that statement up?

    Maybe Slugger needs a rule that if you make a statement then back it up and if you have an opinion then back it up with the facts that gave you that opinion.

  • Mick Fealty

    I’m just saying that its better/more effective to falsify someone’s erroneous arguments than call them names. The Catholic Church clearly draws benefit to itself in running its own school estate… How can it not? But there are positive mitigation of that…

  • Morpheus

    I didn’t call him a name Mick, that would be playing the man – I said his statement was paranoid ignorant drivel. Which it is.

    I am the product of a Catholic education and am now a perfectly balanced, rounded individual capable of free, independent thought. I was not made into some sort of mindless automaton which runs to the beckon call of the Church. I can make my own mind up about important issues to me which most of the time flies in the face of the Church and I do not feel pressured to trudge to Church every Sunday so I feel compelled to hand over my money.

    For the record, I believe that our children should educated side by side because we live on a tiny insignificant speck on a global scale – we have 2 evenly balanced camps and decisions should be made on that basis. Should we have separate education? No, fix it and move on. Should we have separate housing. No, fix it and move on. Should the flag of 1 camp lord over everyone? No, fix it and move on.

  • Reader

    An Sionnach Fionn: Is O’Dowd the education minster for Catholics only?
    Not even them. Three successive SF education ministers have failed to remove academic selection from the maintained sector.

  • Ruarai

    Very good post, Mick.

    New Rule for Speechwriters: If you have nothing substantive to say, steer clear of topics of substance. (And check your local sources are diversified.)

    One point Mick: You write: It’s also worth pointing out that in contrast to the past most Catholic schools in Northern Ireland are funded wholly by the state

    1.If so, it’s equally worth pointing out that “the state” means tax payers; it’s not some sort of charity. (Well, in NI actually…but you see the point.)

    2. Britain is not a secular society in the formal sense with a strict separation between Church and State. The State taxes its citizens to privilege one Church and its Head of State sits atop that Church. Consequently, this debate cannot be based on the working assumptions that drive the conversation in a modern country like the United States. Obama’s speechwriters were clumsily ignorant of that and much else in this instance.

    3. Mick, you cite the various headcount ratios in various schools in the context of discussing integrated education but this only adds mud to the question at hand: what is integrated education, a question as old in Ireland as Pádraig Pearse’s essay, The Murder Machine, his reflections on the British education system in Ireland.

    Aquifer’s definition, above, gives the game away.

    Which is a great shame because we do need a real conversation about integration in education and wider society, not a stupid game that conveniently, uncritically and dangerously suggests that the solution to divisions in Ireland is to manufacture a British identity from the kids up.

    Memo: it’s been tried guys, many times. Never worked, never will.

    Grow up and let’s have a serious debate about integrated education.

  • sectarianheadcount

    Obama is aware that Catholics educate their children separately in lots of places without any problems? Little country called England for a start. And does that not suggest that RC schools aren’t really the problem? The President might want to ask himself what would cause more trouble in the United States. Segregated Catholic education or another country claiming sovereignty over six states on the NE seaboard…

  • mr x


    Ulster has between 50 000 and 80 000 spare school places and at least half of those are in maintained schools.

  • mr x


    He’s from Chicago home of the most bigoted and corrupt Catholic Church in the world.

  • pauluk

    A hat tip would have been nice, Mick!

  • Zig70

    Clegg has been helicopter in as well
    Obama sends his schools to a religious school as well.
    Double standards abound. Where’s Pete when you need him?
    Diversity is not the issue, vilification of the other side is and this agenda is just adding to it.

  • Granni Trixie

    Going right back to the 60s, “mixed schooling” was mentioned by Oneill as an element of what needed to happen in reforming NI. Geddit? One of a number, not a panacea though in terms of tackling sectarianism it is a vital element. I think it’s interesting in itself that prior to the troubles a la 68, we have the same analysis and solutions in people’s minds.

    Its not rocket science but growing up in separate schools results in subtle but different cultural outcomes. I speak as someone in a mixed marriage where I am often surprised at how much my husband and I differ in our frame of reference, reflective of our different knowledge base and experience. Though this factor
    makes life more interesting, I can see the problems which can arise from ignorance and lack of shared experience. No way are catholic schools in say England the same as Catholic schools in Ni (same as flags issue, context is everything).

    I am also informed in support for integrated education by having taught in an excellent Catholic school and as a Governor of an Integrated college. What we need is political will and leaderships to reform the education system. I would like to see integrated schools as a norm with Irish medium etc welcomed for their specialism.

  • Aye, there’s the rub, Granni.
    If you want integrated or mixed schools, you will have to have integrated school sports too. It isn’t “Catholics” who would oppose that with all their might.