Johann Hari: Peace in Ireland depends on ending the educational divide

Integrated schools are a proven way to dissolve hatred between the religions

Share
Related Topics

While we looked the other way – at a world that was melting, free-falling into depression, and warring over the remaining resources – the dreary steeples were there, waiting for us.

After the First World War, Winston Churchill wrote: "Every institution in the world was strained. Great Empires have been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed... But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world."

Now we are waiting, hunched, for Protestant paramilitaries to retaliate, or the Continuity IRA to launch another atrocity. Back to the future. After the flurry of resurrected hope on Good Friday, there is a low sense of: is this it? Are we stuck watching this nasty little movie forever? We aren't. Everybody has written about the amazing unity shown by the Northern Irish political class in urging people to hand in the murderers. Even Gerry Kelly – who bombed the Old Bailey in 1973 – issued a tender, plangent plea for Catholics with information to come forward.

The world can change; it can get better. But there is another dimension to this story that has been unmentioned this week – and offers the greatest hope of all. If we take the energy from the peace marches and plough it here, into this, we might just dismantle those dreary spires at last.

The Good Friday Process has – from the beginning – been focused on the small elite of politicians at the top. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness have been sitting together – inspirationally – but in the streets and estates beyond Stormont, Northern Ireland has been becoming even more divided.

Dr Peter Shirlow, of the University of Ulster, has conducted the most detailed survey of inter-communal relations in Northern Ireland – and found an almost completely segregated society. Only five per cent of the workforce in Catholic areas are Protestants, and vice versa. Some 68 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds had never had a meaningful conversation with a single person from "the other side". The young are more likely to fear and hate the "Prods" or "Taigs" than any other group. We have been fixing the ceiling, while the foundations fracture.

You can see this when you visit Belfast or Derry. To a British person, they feel like any familiar CloneZone town – except they are layered with a strange hatred you cannot grasp. Taxis will either take you to green or orange areas – never both. The cities are sliced by vast 40ft-tall steel walls, keeping Catholics and Protestants apart. Even the KFC is covered with a mural memorialising a centuries-old battle. Talk to the kids, and they will gleefully tell you the other side stink, or are stupid, or lazy. We are currently spending £1.5bn a year keeping the two sides physically apart.

But here's the good news: there is a proven way out. There is a policy that has been shown to erode these hatreds. They are called integrated schools – and the parents of Northern Ireland are calling for them. Today, only five per cent of children in Northern Ireland go to a mixed school. The other 95 per cent are segregated in sectarian enclaves where they project feverish fantasies on to the other side. Violence is an inevitable bedsore where two uncomprehending tribes rub past each other in a small space.

But that 5 per cent hold the key. A six-year study by Queen's University, Belfast has looked at the long-term consequences of being schooled alongside The Enemy. They interviewed adults who attended these schools – and found that whatever their parents' attitudes, they were "significantly more likely" to oppose sectarianism. They had "far" more friends across the divide, and they identified as "Northern Irish", rather than British or Irish. Their politics were much more amenable to peace. Some 80 per cent of Protestants favour the union with Britain, but only 65 per cent of those at integrated schools do. Some 51 per cent of Catholics who went to a segregated school want unification with Ireland, but only 35 per cent of those from integrated schools do. The middle ground – for a devolved Northern Ireland with links to both countries – was both broader and happier.

It's difficult to caricature people you've known since you were a child: great sweeping hatreds are dissolved by the grey complexity of individual human beings. Think of the young lads who, as you read this, are being persuaded by the Continuity IRA and the Ulster Defence Force to sign up and take on The Others. If they had grown up with crushes on Catholic girls they sat next to in Geography, or playing football with Protestant boys at break-time, wouldn't they be more likely to question the demonisation they're being fed?

But there is better news still. In the most detailed study of Northern Irish opinion, an extraordinary 82 per cent said they support the idea of integrated schooling, and 55 per cent of parents say the only reason their kids don't go to an integrated school is because there isn't one in their area, or they can't obtain a place in the vastly over-subscribed existing schools. There is a pent-up demand in the province for the very mechanism that will – over time – provide peace from the bottom up.

So why isn't it happening? Small minorities of religious sectarians – Protestant and Catholic – have been allowed to dominate the school system. The respective churches have obstructed integrated schools, refusing to nominate people to sit on their boards, and jealously guarding their profitable privileges. Northern Ireland needs its own equivalent of Brown vs, the Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court judgement that desegregated the schools in the Deep South. The church hierarchies will be left yelling, like Governor George Wallace of Alabama, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" – and shamed before the world.

There are brave forces within Northern Ireland fighting for this to happen – and it's a neat historical coincidence that this call comes at the moment when Northern Ireland's school-age population is contracting – and many schools will have to merge anyway. There is currently a surplus of 50,000 excess school paces in the province, and it's set to balloon even further as the birth-rate falls. Schools should be folded together into integrated wholes. All new schools should be mixed by law.

The British and Irish governments can launch a Phase Two of the Good Friday Agreement now, setting ambitious targets for integrated schools to rapidly expand. Martin Luther King didn't dream of a little black boy and a little black girl playing in separate playgrounds, with a vast steel wall between them. No. Our leaders can offer a Northern Ireland where Catholics and Protestants will play together and pair off together. Who knows – a hefty push for school integration could yield, in a few decades, a Northern Irish Obama, carrying both sides in his veins.

The resumed blood-spilling of the past week – and the rock-solid resistance to it – should lead us to a new political cry. Prime Minister Brown, Taoiseach Cowen, First Minister Robinson – tear down this wall between Northern Ireland's children.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP FICO SOLUTION ANALYST

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP FICO SOLUTI...

Data Analyst

£30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable software house is looking ...

SAP PROJECT MANAGER

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MAN...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Developer

£50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A unique and rare opport...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Why black cats make amazing pets, and take good selfies too

Felicity Morse
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star