Mowlam: 'It takes generations to change bigotry'

Donald Macintyre
Click to follow
The Independent Online

You can take Mo Mowlam out of Northern Ireland but you can't take Northern Ireland out of Mo Mowlam. Later this month she will fly to New York, Washington and Boston to raise money for one of the projects dearest to her heart: integrated schools that cross the religious divide.

As Northern Ireland Secretary she was unable to advance the cause as much as she would have liked, but she has long thought that "If people can grow up together and study together they are much more likely to be able to live together''.

This weekend she is at a meeting of the International Conflict Group, a high-powered collection of trouble-shooting politicians to which she was appointed by Tony Blair. Tackling the roots of conflict clearly inspires her interest in integrated schooling.

The problem is not going to be solved with short-term fixes, or quickly – "You don't deal with bigotry, sectarianism and hatred overnight. It takes generations to change in a meaningful way" – and she has been convinced of the importance of integrated schooling "ever since one of my [Protestant] civil servants told me he had never met a Catholic until he went to university''.

The Sinn Fein education minister, Martin McGuinness, has increased funding for integrated schools, possibly as a quid pro quo for additional funding for Irish schooling – in her time it was hard to extract much commitment from the main parties for it.

Ms Mowlam is anxious to explain that she is not raising funds in opposition to existing Catholic and Protestant schools but for improvements, from buildings to IT, sports facilities to science labs, in existing integrated schools, to provide a level playing field so that "when parents operate their choice about where to send their children, the integrated schools have as good a chance of being chosen''.

She thinks, long term, there is a connection with what she is trying to do and the events of last week. But she says the problem won't be fully understood – and therefore solved – without some reference to the context.

"One has to say that the Ardoyne mothers are determined to walk the difficult road [to the school] in part because they're the product of the past 30 years.

"They grew up in violence, as did the loyalists, and having experienced that they are determined to walk to school in a certain way now that their confidence is up. They aren't going to give in. And the loyalists feel the same: they're not going to give in because they're not going to lose any more..."

In the short term, the answer is clearly in negotiations. In the much longer term, integration should be at least part of the solution in "dealing with bigotry and hatred in the future''.