When Lord Londonderry attempted to introduce integrated education to a nascent Northern Ireland state in the 1920s, he faced opposition from both Catholic and Protestant churchmen, as well as politicians drawn from the two main communities here. In 1998 the Belfast Agreement contained provisions by which the parties undertook to encourage integrated housing and education. As regards integrated housing, any progress which the NIHE attempts to make is often accompanied by opposition from both Sinn Féin and the DUP. Witness, for example, the controversies about mixed housing provision on the Crumlin Road gaol site, or in Enniskillen.
Although integrated education occasionally is accorded lip service by both sides, neither is prepared to seriously promote its expansion, certainly at the expense of the existing segregated system. The Catholic Church remains one of the prime proponents of segregated schools and education minister Caitriona Ruane has concentrated her efforts on further segregating Northern Ireland’s education system, with her obsession for Irish Language Medium schools. Neither are unionists shy of evoking the spurious defence of parental choice, whenever the integrated argument is seen to be too robust.
Of course choice is important. Ultimately the responsibility for educating a child rests with its parents and it is the state’s job to enable them to discharge that responsibility by the best means possible. A ‘choice’ argument should not, however, be used to obfuscate half-hearted commitment to the principles that integrated education in Northern Ireland is positive, welcome, needs to be encouraged and exerts a constructive influence on our society. After all, the integrated movement has been very much been driven by parental demand from its inception.
A report by the Integrated Education Fund has stressed the importance of persuading church leaders that integrated schooling is not inimical to religion and is overwhelmingly beneficial to children. From the IEF’s perspective, that is a laudable aim. Sustained and genuine commitment from the education minister and from politicians across the spectrum would add weight to its cause. A simple acknowledgment that integration and sharing is a best case scenario for Northern Ireland’s young people would be a start. Concrete encouragement for those schools which seek integrated status, and schools within both the controlled and voluntary sector that wish to cooperate with each other and share resources, must also be forthcoming.
With DUP and Sinn Fein in the ascendant the ‘shared future’ has been both literally and figuratively dropped. Those who have a commitment to making Northern Ireland an inclusive and normal part of the UK, should not allow the principles of integration in either housing or education be cast by the wayside.