A piece in yesterday’s Irish News caught my eye, in the sense it claimed that there was now 71% support for Integrated Education (from LucidTalk’s online panel), the same proportion that voted in favour of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
Just 7/8% of NI schools are integrated, but that’s huge compared to the handful that followed Lagan College in the 1980s. It and its North Belfast analogue Hazelwood College fed an aspiration that’s only continued to grow since.
There are 68 schools, with more due to come on stream in September. The major restraint (apart from inertia within the system) seems to be the fact that in many parts of Northern Ireland some places (like Derry) live separate lives.
Reading Gerald’s piece this morning about the Belfast of Brian Moore’s recalling a world in which to venture beyond the bounds of your religiously defined community was to risk isolation from everything you loved, you can feel the change.
Today, my old Catholic secondary although still Catholic, draws in many local protestant kids, and in turn, the children of the kids I went to school with there in the 70s now look to other schools, state, integrated or Catholic grammars.
Identity in the greater Belfast region, where Alliance is on the rise in electorally significant numbers, has never been more fluid. Outside Belfast, old suspicions lurk. LT suggests up to 72% of SF supporters want kids educated together.
Yet SF’s Upper Bann Education spokesman John O’Dowd criticised Integrated Education for promoting British Identity, “you can pay homage to the Crown but to no-one else”. Jurassic perhaps, but he reflects feeling in rural, nationalist NI.
Whatever its drawbacks, Catholic education (and latterly Irish medium schools) has been a haven for Irish cultural perspectives (language, culture, and sport) that have endured longer more deeply than sincere religious conviction.
However, Integrated Education, from first seeds dropped in the hard, unyielding soil of 1980 Belfast is today working with the grain of popular change, where IE is practical and opened many other doors where presently it’s not.
Whilst they continue to attract the new, post Troubles (post Boomer) generations looking for a better NI, whilst offering levels of educational achievement which are as good as or better than other sectors of education it will grow.
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