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 CatholicVote.org:

“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.

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