Integrating Northern Ireland’s divided society

What’s the definition of an integrated society?

Since debate over whether integrated education in NI is a good idea invariably unravels as soon as someone attempts to define what it actually means, I’ve canvassed the opinions of some prominent thinkers from NI’s leading political parties in an attempt to clarify a way forward. What follows are the unedited quotes offered by leading thinkers from each party in response to this question.

What would an integrated NI look like?

UUP: “See NI 1921-Oct 4th 1968. Or, as our party wants to see it described in school classrooms, “The Peaceful Years”. ”

SDLP: “A society based on mutual respect for the diversity of all our people, even the Unionists. The SDLP is committed to forming partnerships with our Protestant brothers and sisters where we spill our sweat, working together to take down their provocative flags. The SDLP believes we must be sensitive to issues of symbolism and identity which is why our party is committed to consulting our unionist neighbours on their feelings with regard to deconstructing the Northern Ireland  state before consigning it to history.”

DUP: “The day Fenians drop their bigoted opposition to Orange marches and Twelfth Night bonfires and join The People of Northern Ireland in enjoying our traditions as the inclusive community events that they are.”

SF: “An electoral disaster.”

Alliance: “Like the Alliance Party of course!  Noo, noo, seriously though, an integrated Northern Ireland should look like Manchester or Birmingham – with some exceptions. You see, one must understand and take account of some of our uniquely Northern Irish sensitivities. For example, celebrating St Patrick’s Day as they do on the mainland, with Irish flags and so on, this would be quite inappropriate – much too divisive for Northern Ireland. We must learn to have a shared future where offensive identity differences are whitewashed away and we all embrace our new state-sponsored Northern Irish identity. This approach is working well in modern France – where it’s quite beautiful this time of year, have you been?”


  • Nation building consists largely of building a set of common symbols that everyone can swear allegiance to. In immigrant societies like the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc. there is a common culture based on the original (settler) population that all new comers are supposed to assimilate to while adding small bits of their own culture such as national cuisine or music to the common culture.

    In most nation-states like Poland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain, etc. there is a common majority culture and national minorities are expected to assimilate to the point of learning the language and basic norms of the dominant society while continuing to use their own languages at home, practice their own religion and if possible exercise a degree of territorial autonomy cultural autonomy. Most difficult are binational states with two roughly equal nations and no real dominant majority. The way for them to work is to exist as federal states with separate territorial divisions based on ethnicity as in Belgium, Switzerland and Canada.

    Because NI has a checkerboard pattern of ethnic integration with small pockets of both nations existing side by side in ethnically-segregated neighborhoods the Belgium model won’t work.

    The best solution would be to try and build a common culture based on the common points of Irish Catholic and British Protestant culture: European identity, Christianity, and territory. This, however, will prove difficult as long as the Irish seem to feel that they are on the cusp of a united Ireland or the British feel that they have lost a golden age. If one half the population lives constantly in the future and the other half in the past then a common present can never be built. Part of the solution might be for the two communities to realize that after centuries of living together they actually have more in common with each other than with the rest of the nation that they aspire or claim to belong to.

  • Brian Walker

    and your definition Ruarai?

  • Mick Fealty

    I think it is meant to be a pastiche Brian… Ruarai?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “Because NI has a checkerboard pattern of ethnic integration with small pockets of both nations existing side by side in ethnically-segregated neighborhoods the Belgium model won’t work.”

    Woah woah woah!

    Have I missed something here?

    Once upon a time we were all Irish men of varying degrees of hostility or loyalty to the Catholic Church and the British overlordship, but now we’re different nations?!!

    Could some one explain then how this nationhood is decided?

    Hobbies? Sports? Interpretation of history?

    Does this mean that some one can go through phases of nationhood in the same way a teenager goes through phases of fashion and music taste:

    “when I was 14 I liked Gaelic football and Nine Inch Nails so therefore I was Irish, but now I like Simon and Garfunkel and the relative economic security of the UK so now I’m British. Although sometimes I’m agnostic on the Union and have a craving to listen to Justin Beiber….”

    Tmitch mentions using what the ‘nations’ have in common, well, how about this:

    The ‘Ulster Scots’ movement is pretty much a back door to Irish culture (unsurprisingly given Scotland’s history).

    If Republicans could drop the use of the Gaelic language and thereby give breathing space to the likes of Linda Ervine then we could get somewhere, the common ground between the two communities grows ever larger from a historical point of view;

    The Gaelic languages (e.g. Edward Carson or even the Red Hand Commando), Folk music, pipe music.

    What about sport? Well, I’m under the impression that shinty was popular in Antrim at one stage. Another gaelic stick sport which apparently is more similar to the old Northern vversion of hurling than the modern one. (still looking into it though)

    ‘Oor Wullie’ has a theory that lambeg drums were once used by the hibernians.

    Dancing: Well the ulster Scots use the Scottish form of a Gaelic style of dance. There is the modernised version of Irish dancing.
    If only someone could do the logical thing and use Northern Ireland’s location as a cultural bridge instead of falsely imposed cultural faultline and perhaps ‘merge’ the two styles then we could have our own style of dancing.

    OH WAIT. SOMEBODY DID. TWO CENTURIES AGO. An abomination that seamlessly incorporates both styles of dance and that is still being used today. But it’s too British for the Irish and too Irish for ‘the British’.

    A history of serving the British army and fighting against. Sometimes simultaneously…

    The Red hand of Ulster.

    Marching. The OO is much bigger than the AOH in NI but they’re hardly that much different to the outsider.

    I don’t know any elderly Protestants from my area of South L’Derry who say that they are not Irish. Of course they say they’re British too, but they were all born into the Empire, where nearly everyone could be of a nation AND be British (e.g. Ghandi in his early years).

    This idea of being JUST British as far as I can tell started with the generation that were teenagers at the beginning of the troubles.

    It’s like the bombs forced a demarcation.

    I hate this chat and I think it’s ridiculous that two people in the same town with the same surname and pretty similar genetic make up are different ‘nations’ just because they want different political masters and have different hobbies and a slightly different religion (globally speaking).

  • Ruarai

    Am Ghobsmacht –

    You raise a good point. When I first heard the “two nations” theory I thought it was a cod but there are those who really do believe it.

    One of the less attractive aspects of the Irish conflict, particularly in its latest iteration and particularly today more than ever before, is just how little differences distinguish the tribes…and yet sectarianism is rampant and deep. As tribal power imbalances are structurally and legally redressed the remaining antagonism over tribal identity differences takes active effort to summon and perpetuate. People start looking for differences to ring-fence (see the Ulster Scots “language” farce, for example, or the dangers that St Patrick’s Day becomes a “Green 12th”.)

    Sectarianism itself is arguably a core component if cultural life in NI. (See how long seemingly unrelated topics when discussed in NI take on tinges of it.)


    I’m not one for social engineering projects so anytime anyone anywhere advocates an agenda to “integrate” via public policy I get nervous. (The enforced unveiling of women in France, for example.) The state is not equipped with either the competence nor the neutrality required to take on such projects, short of a national emergency raising the case for.

    That said, where a test of a healthy society should be the ability to have various kinds of schools, including faith schools, without straining the core social fabrics of the place, NI is anything but healthy and given that reality it really is unsettling to think that all NI’s teachers (never mind its pupils) are educated and trained separately in British and Irish, Catholic and (effectively) Protestant institutions.

    The solution to sectarianism, and specifically the consequences of segregated schooling, cannot start with rubbish thinking like, for example, the laughable insinuation that integrated education already exists as the state sector, ergo, by simply abolishing Catholic Schools and having everyone enroll in British state schools we’d – hey presto – have “integrated” education. That one doesn’t even pass a “nice try” test.

    What should or at least could be done?

    I think we need a much, much bigger conversation about sectarianism in Ireland, especially NI:
    – what is sectarianism is in NI and, indeed, across Ireland, what, who perpetuates it and who gains from it (I do not buy the socialist critique that effectively paints working class communities as victims of it without agency of their own; the gainers are found in all classes)?
    – what’s unfairly and mistakenly maligned as sectarian (e.g. having a constitutional preference is not prima face sectarian)
    – how it continues to poison wider social relations
    – How can we begin to deal with it in a deep-rooted way?

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    Thanks, I should probably quit while I’m ahead.


    Just a word in regards to something you said to BW regarding integration and your very valid concerns about the ability of the state to cope;

    Instead of a mass ‘New Dawn’ where the schools are integrated in a relatively short space of time and the system is under constant pressure and scrutiny (as is normally implied by people like myself), what about softly softly approach under the guise of ‘budget cuts’?

    The province is full of small rural primary schools with falling attendance.

    Surely it would be cost effective (there’s a first for Northern Irish public services) to merge some of these schools as well as a good way to monitor the results?

    Had it started during the downturn then we already would be seeing our first ‘crop’ of integrated pupils leave P7 (assuming they merged in P3).

    Next would be the secondary schools.

    If the parents do start hoofing their children off to a more ‘exclusive’ environment then at least we can find out why; do they simply not want their kids to mix or is more culturally based?
    As in some people mentioned here how the learning of Irish and Gaelic football is a must for many parents.

    We’ve trodden over the GAA and Irish language path many times before, there are ways to make it more ‘accessible’ to Protestants but we’ll leave that for another thread as it always comes up.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “I think we need a much, much bigger conversation about sectarianism in Ireland, especially NI:…”

    Good man.

    I feel it starts with division at school but that record is wearing thin.

    I’m just gonna embark on a path of thinking out loud, please ignore it as drivel as you see fit and be merciful in your response should it warrant one.

    How much of sectarianism is about the ‘lowest common denominator’?

    In my background, ask a suitably bitter (or even slightly tangy) Protestant to describe a ‘bad’ catholic and you’ll probably get the following caricature: Size 2 blade buzz cut all round but with a fringe of hair about 2 inches long.
    A GAA sports bag, a hoodie, trackies, gutties and a green football scarf (either ROI or Celtic) and at least 2 similarly dressed friends on tow.

    This is the Protestant nightmare vision.

    An outsider would just see a young man who is obviously interested in sports. Some more middle class or urban elements may see him as a ‘cultie’. People from the Argyll or Western Highlands might see him as an Irish version of a ‘shinty NED’.

    But a ‘good Protestant’ will see this young fella as provo fodder. Some one who has read very little of Irish history other than the injustices of the planters and is thirsting for revenge.

    “With these ‘kerns’ wandering the streets of Mid Ulster we have to stick together”

    And so it begins, better to befriend semi-decent f*ckhead in your school than risk talking to one of ‘them’.

    As we get older, although we mature (sometimes) the siege mentality manifests itself in a different but still paranoid way:
    A Catholic moves into the farm he just bought off a deceased Protestant’s next of kin. “We don’t want the farm in the sticks so let’s flog it”. Catholic man, needing somewhere to live buys the bargain house, knocks it down and builds new house for him and his family, fair enough.

    But to the Protestant neighbours it’s seen as part of ‘a take over’. ‘THEY’ want their land back. Land that ‘WE’ fought for. So, you end up with dodgy behind the curtain deals where the local lodges work together to find a champion to buy some land before the ‘other sort’ do. As such my family now owns land too far away for their tractors to service on a daily basis.

    All because they don’t want to be surrounded by the Provo fodder/GAA head/shinty NED/insidious agent of Rome.

    That’s one example, I’m sure some one here from a Catholic background can give a mirror image equivalent on the Catholic side.

    We then cement our divisions in a cultural sense too.

    I drink out in Derry when ever I’m home. I go to Paedar O’Donnells . I love the banter in Paeder’s but I am flying under the radar. I have to painfully grin and bear it when the passing comments are more and more malignant and the tunes of the nightly band become ever darker (greener). At the beginning of the night it might be tunes like ‘the butterfly’ or ‘the Rakes of Kildare’ then towards the end of the night they become less and less familiar to me and I know why I’ve never heard them before in my Protestant upbringing.
    Granted, they’re ‘Republican’ songs, not sectarian, but with the trajectory set in motion how much further behind is the sectarian thoughts and bitterness, even if it only affects 10% of the bar?

    Anyhow, it goes from ‘Irish culture’ which I can relate to as the tunes are pretty much the same as those that I grew up with listening to flute and pipe bands to being something more exclusive, “this is OUR Irish culture”.
    But no one is forcing me to drink there, I could go and drink in Talk of the Town I suppose…

    The loyalists do the same thing, a “bit a crack hiy!” is used to justify some of the dreadful songs that I learnt when I was younger.

    It’s embedded even when we don’t realise it and our tribal elders always try to justify it as culture or something that we have ‘the right’ to do.

    I could write all day about this and the sectarianism in Glasgow, but I’ll ease the suffering and stop now.

    Unfortunately the closest thing I’ve seen to a solution for it all is that summarised by PJ O’Rourke: get every one out of NI for a year,

  • Ruarai

    Am Ghobsmacht,

    let me share an anecdote about sectarianism in Ireland that’s always stuck with me.

    About 15 years ago I went to the European Parliament for a week with 23 other Irish 18 yr olds from across the island, including NI. It was a superb week, lots of fun. Our group, like the groups representing the other EU members, would have been disproportionately well-off and middle-to upper middle class. So it goes.

    We’re on the bus going somewhere after a few jars one evening and the group – about 6 of us from the north, 3-4 of which were from Unionist/Protestant backgrounds – was in various pockets of chit-chat, debate and craic.

    Anyways, at one point the signing was inevitably started by a few of those who had gathered on a back corner. Inevitably, a few of the songs sailed way too close to tribalism for such a mixed, i.e. Irish group. Not Provo stuff but old IRA stuff – clearly not appropriate for nor respectful of a mixed group.

    I immediately caught the eye of at least two of the northern Prods and they both, to their eternal credit, managed to put on a brave-smile-and-nod face; far too damn polite to object and sour the evening (overthough thier own participation and welcome had just been shat on).

    The singers were – by the way – some of the most anti-Provo and not even particularly nationalist you could meet, at least one of whom is bound to be writing a Sunday Info column at this point. Their sectarianism was literally just a cultural pasttime dressed up as patriotism and “craic”.

    So there was sectarianism in Ireland down to a tee:

    1, It’s not simply the pastime of those least informed or educated, far from it.
    2, It’s genuinely nasty and disgusting; the idea that one could engage in triumphalist yahoo-ism in the presence of people who are bound to be offended is a sign of smallness, weak character and a contempt for one’s fellow countrymen and women,
    3. People seek their tribe to (a) celebrate and (b) to hide from the other tribe as it celebrate – no one ever celebrates Ireland in a national way. We literally don’t even know how to.
    4. There’s not a chance in hell of Ireland realizing its potential as a nation while people are more loyal to their own tribes than interested in accommodating the other.

    So look, I’m all on for integrated education. But it surely must be based on an integration of ideas and perspectives, an encouraging of individual and tribal interaction and inter-challenging – and not an attempt to wash over tribal differences simply by bundling people into the same room – whether that’s the staffroom or the classroom.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “So look, I’m all on for integrated education. But it surely must be based on an integration of ideas and perspectives, an encouraging of individual and tribal interaction and inter-challenging – and not an attempt to wash over tribal differences simply by bundling people into the same room – whether that’s the staffroom or the classroom.”

    I agree with all of the above Rurai, except that I think bounding then all into the same room is as good as any a place to start.

    It’s a lot easier to dabble with the idea of playing hurling if half of your class is doing it too and if it’s the same for all the other schools in the area.

    Anyway, you made a lot of very good points.

    I hope it is possible to disassemble the sectarian machinery without depending on the ‘government’ but where to begin eh?

  • Barnshee

    “It’s a lot easier to dabble with the idea of playing hurling if half of your class is doing it too and if it’s the same for all the other schools in the area.”

    The way the G A A chooses to organise itself excludes some 50% of the population in N I -its politics first sport second —no prod will take part.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “The way the G A A chooses to organise itself excludes some 50% of the population in N I -its politics first sport second —no prod will take part.”

    Here we go again.

    I won’t take you literally about ‘no prod’ as there are already a few that have slipped through the net and I know several in my (state) school were interested in it.

    In it’s current state the GAA is off putting to Protestants, no quibble there.

    But, on planet Am Ghobsmacht where the all the schools are mixed it’s really difficult to see how the athletic guys in my school who were interested in the sport would not join up if their best mate in their class played too.

    The offset being that a trickle of Protestants could turn into a current of Protestants which would put more pressure on the GAA to change.

    As it stands there is very little in the way of pressure on them:

    “change your ways! Otherwise we’ll give you 80m pounds anyway! I’m warning you…”

  • Ruarai


    you missed an opportunity there to be more constructive.

    What type of issues are off-putting?
    What of of changes would be welcomed?

    You may be surprised how useful laying out what might seem obvious can be.

    That’s what the whole shebang really comes down to: do we actively try to help each other into less antagonistic relationships or do nothing but draw comfort and self-justification from the perceived antagonism associated with the other.

  • Morpheus


    “The way the G A A chooses to organise itself excludes some 50% of the population in N I -its politics first sport second —no prod will take part.”

    Your level of ignorance is astounding.

    For a start Protestant support for GAA in schools on the increase:

    Then moving on the Cúchulainn Cup. Catholic and Protestant children come together to part in regular cross-community GAA competitions:

    Teams taking part include Armagh Cúchulainns; Belfast Cúchulainns; Cavan Cúchulainns; Derry City Cúchulainns; Enniskillen Cúchulainns and Roe Valley Cúchulainns with over 150 players representing twenty schools, and of course their Cúchulainn Team.

    Events like this will play a key role in the future of Northern Ireland and hopefully attitudes like yours are left firmly in the past where they belong