New GAA President Jarlath Burns is an impressive and visionary man…

I am going to stray into the unfamiliar territory of the Gaelic Athletic Association for this post. As a sports-mad half-Irish boy growing up in London, my games were football (soccer in Ireland) and rugby (although I was occasionally seen on the touchline at the GAA’s London ground at New Eltham). At the risk of being controversial, I would describe Gaelic football and hurling in Northern Ireland as objectively sectarian pastimes, since few if any Protestants play them and the GAA has made only limited efforts to recruit them (apart from the new club in East Belfast). The experience of young Darren Graham, the Protestant Fermanagh under-21 county footballer (whose father and two uncles, members of the UDR, had been murdered by the IRA) who gave up Gaelic football in 2007 after years of sectarian abuse, did not help.

However I would like to congratulate Jarlath Burns, former captain of the Armagh football team and south Armagh secondary school principal, on being elected last week as president of the GAA. Burns is an impressive and visionary man. I saw him on the BBC earlier this month talking in remarkable tones about his beliefs, interests and aspirations. He said then:

“I have a serious curiosity and interest in British culture and Unionist culture and Orange culture. We have the Orange Order in our school all the time talking to our young people, to get them to understand what that is about, what parading is about, what walking to give witness to their sincere belief in their reformed faith is about. If we show in our organisation that we have sympathy and an understanding for the culture of the Protestant people in Northern Ireland, maybe then, when we ask them to respect our culture, they will. Because it can’t be our culture and nobody else’s. There’s a significant British population who reside in this part of Ireland and they feel under siege and they are misunderstood in many respects and they become outraged and furious about many things because they feel their backs are against the wall. And because we are becoming a majority we can [say] ‘yahoo – we can do what we want with our flag and anthem’. But I think the GAA is a good example of how you do those things sensitively. We are proud to be Irish. The Irish flag is my flag, it’s not everybody’s flag. What I am trying to say that I would be open to a situation in a new Ireland, in a new Ireland that wants to be fully inclusive of all traditions and faiths, that it may be a compromise we have to make, and it wouldn’t be a very big one for the big prize of having a united Ireland, which would be a dream for me.”

I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone from the nationalist or republican tradition in Northern Ireland talking about their Protestant and unionist neighbours in such a sensitive and generous way. But then Burns is a remarkable man who is the principal of a remarkable school. St Paul’s High School outside Bessbrook near Newry (high schools are for those children to do not make it to selective grammar schools in the North), is a 1,700 student Catholic maintained secondary school in a largely Catholic area, but which also opens its doors to pupils from the largely Protestant villages of Bessbrook and Newtownhamilton for recreational and ‘shared education’ activities.

For Burns, the happiness of the child comes first. “The biggest challenge facing education is how to end the hegemony of the grammar school”, he told journalist Frank Connolly for his 2022 book United Nation.”1 Middle class Catholics and Protestants have the loudest, most articulate voice in education. If we removed the unfair selection system, the raison d’etre for elite grammar schools would no longer exist.”

Such academic testing at an early age has also led to the unfair situation where non-selective high schools like St Paul’s take a far higher proportion of children with special needs – from autism to dyslexia – than grammar schools. “It is a question of values which, in our school, are built on integrity, truth, compassion and kindness. We never give up on a pupil. We believe there is something special in every child,” said Burns.

“We need a completely new model of education,” he went on. “A united Ireland should not be the North welded on to the South. We have to reimagine how we do education. We need to understand that young people do not exist solely for the purpose of school, but should be allowed to live happy, carefree lives, enjoying the outdoors and [getting] involved in sport, music, reading for pleasure, poetry and the arts.

“In our school, up to the age of 14 we do not impose excessive homework on the pupils. We try to make them enjoy the experience of education and, during this time, we work on building their resilience. We wonder why mental health is such a huge issue with teenagers. It is due to the pressure they are under. Instead, we teach our junior pupils about their local history and geography. We set our own curriculum. At their age, we were picking blackberries and climbing trees, not buried in homework.”

The result, not surprisingly, is an over-subscribed and highly successful school with pupils from a wide catchment area. It provides an unusually broad curriculum, from the strongly academic to the vocational, and its pupils have a record of high achievement in GCSE and A level exams. In a recent school inspection, it was judged to be ‘Outstanding in All Areas.’

Burns believes his ‘shared education’ model , rather than a fully integrated system, is more realistic in a divided society like Northern Ireland. Since he became principal in 2013, he has adopted a policy of reaching out to the Protestant and unionist community in south Armagh; “In an area where nationalists dominate, we have devoted a lot of time to reaching out to the Protestant community, which suffered over the years in south Armagh. We have taken confidence-building measures to assist them, including by bringing in the Orange Order and PSNI former Chief Constable George Hamilton to talk to our pupils. It would be a disaster for the Protestant community if their schools were to close, and they have depended on St Paul’s for resources to ensure that does not happen.”

It is therefore common to see pupils from the smaller Newry and Newtownhamilton high schools walking the corridors of St Paul’s and accessing subjects that are not available in their own schools.

Burns has also encouraged pupils to attend the annual Pride event in Newry. “When we marched for Pride in Newry in 2015, some of the more right-wing elements [of] the community expressed disappointment and protested. We wanted to send out a message to the LGBT pupils in our school that was not a question of simply tolerating or accepting them, but of celebrating our diversity and our humanity. It was controversial, but I contacted the CCMS – which controls Catholic schools – before the event, and their reply was, ‘You are the principal, it is your decision.”

He argues that in a new, all-island education model there should be a move from content-based to skills-based learning and an emphasis on problem solving and IT literacy: “Our education system currently produces well-qualified people with few skills or common sense, and this is the natural outcome of a focus on exams rather than actually learning. Teacher training should be streamlined and current obstacles to young graduates from the North teaching in schools in the South eliminated” [And vice-versa. AP – wearing my hat as former secretary of SCoTENS, the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South, which sends young trainee teachers from both parts of Ireland to do part of their teaching practice in the other jurisdiction].

“The powers of the boards of governors and trustees, which promote the unfair system of academic selection in the North, and the fee-paying secondary system which only wealthy people can afford for their children in the South, have to be challenged. Of course, a united Ireland won’t be a utopia. There will always be those with money [who] can get access to private education or healthcare. But that does not mean we cannot try to create a fairer and better system of education for future generations.”

In a ‘new Ireland’ education system, Burns would like to see all children transferring at 13 from primary school to their local or regional non-selective secondary school, whose admissions criteria would not be set by the school, but by the education authority. Each school would have an emphasis on transferable skill acquisition and would have meaningful vocational pathways for pupils to prepare for apprenticeships or trades as well as for universities and institutes of technology. He would offer a post-16 choice between a five subject or three subject option, which would mirror the Leaving Certificate/A level models. Both of these systems have their advantages and disadvantages, but he prefers the A level system which, he argues, prepares pupils more effectively for third level study.

I only wish there were more generous and anti-sectarian nationalists like Jarlath Burns around. I met him 23 years ago at St Patrick’s Grammar School in Armagh (also a non-selective school), when he was the captain of the Armagh team which had just won the 1999 Ulster title, and I was giving the commencement speech at that school’s annual prizegiving. My other memory of that occasion – 18 months after the Good Friday Agreement – was the shock expressed by a local Catholic professional man that such a prestigious Catholic school would invite a Protestant with an English accent like me to give that speech.

1 United Nation: the case for integrating Ireland, pp.64-68

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