15 years after the conflict: Northern Ireland’s school system keeps the issues alive

In 1998 the Good Friday agreement was signed in Northern Ireland, a settlement to promote peace, unify the country and stop the violence. Today 15 years later 90% of the students go to segregated schools.

By Elin Larsson and Natalija Sako

Belfast, United Kingdom: – Sectarianism is still a big problem here. People are not being killed anymore but the politics are still induced by sectarianism and the peace we have is incredibly fragile. As the recent flag protest demonstrates it does not take much to poison political discourse, which is why we still need to do a lot to build a more interconnected society, says Tony Gallagher, professor of education at the Queen’s University in Belfast who has specialised in integration and the education system.

Tony Gallagher. Photo: Elin Larsson

Tony Gallagher is from Belfast and was a student at Queen’s University before he became a professor and he has experienced the conflict first hand. Even though things are a lot better now than when he was young, there are still improvements to be made.  Photo: Elin Larsson

According to him the schools have a vital part in creating sustainable attitudes among the new generations to make sure that peace is intact.

– Once you send kids to a separated school you start certain social processes: friendship networks and cultural patterns which are carried on to the rest of their life and creates a separation. I do not think there is anything wrong in Protestants or Catholics running their own schools as long as they recognize that there is a social cost. No matter how dedicated the schools are to promoting reconciliation, if all conversation only include people from one group it is hard to do it seriously, says Tony Gallagher.

Integration development moving slowly
Even though the violent conflict has ended and a lot of time has passed since, Northern Ireland is still a very divided society. In the school sector this becomes obvious where a lot of children never even meet a person from the other community until they go to university. After the peace a lot of efforts were made to try to reconcile the society. One of the major incitements was to try to create integration in the school system but the development is moving slowly and according to Access research knowledge Northern Ireland 95% of the students in primary and secondary school still go to either a catholic or a protestant (state) school.

 In the early 1970’s a social movement started to create integrated schools but yet according to Access research knowledge Northern Ireland only 6.5% of the children in Northern Ireland are attending this types of schools today. At the same time an opinion polls done by LucidTalk show that over 70% of the population want a more integrated school system.

Colin Knox, professor in public policy at the University of Ulster in Belfast, thinks that the reason is that even though people say one thing they actually mean another.

Colin Knox. Photo Elin Larsson

Colin Knox has done extensive research in how to reconcile the Northern Irish society through education. Photo: Elin Larsson

– We found in our research that people still have a strong alignment to their ethnic identity, so people are still very strong catholic national republicans on the one side or very strong protestant unionist, British identity on the other. The view is that to go into integrated schools you sacrifice your own identity as an individual. In light of that kind of on pass we decided that maybe there is a different way of looking at this and it is around this notion of not integrated education but shared education, he says.

Tina Merron, chief executive officer at the Integrated education fund, a non-governmental financial fund for development and growth of integrated education, on the other hand claims that the reason that the integrated schools are not increasing does not have to do with people’s sense of identity but the political decisions.

Tina Merron to the right. Photo: Elin Larsson

Maddy Bridgman to the left and Tina Merron to the right. They are working for the Integrated education fund trying to increase the number of integrated schools.  Photo: Elin Larsson

 – There is a big demand on integrated schools but the extreme parties hold the power in Northern Ireland. The main parties are the DUP which are strongly protestant and Sinn Fein which are strongly catholic, and both of them want to maintain what they have. It’s in their interest to keep the schools segregated, she says.

Identity and choice of school
According to Tina Merron there is a common misconception in Northern Ireland that you lose your identity if you go to a integrated school.

– My children’s identity is the same whether they go to an integrated school or a catholic school. They are no less catholic just because I send them to an integrated school. Identity is not the issue, it is about who controls education. There is a fear amongst parents that children will loose their identity if they send them to an integrated school, but it is an unfounded fear if you ask any of the parents here at Lough View integrated school in Belfast, she says.

Hillary and Scott Bolt are two of the parents who chose to send their children to the Lough View integrated school in Belfast. Hillary was raised in a protestant family and Scott was born in America but came to live in Northern Ireland many years ago. They agree that you’ll find more mixed marriages in an integrated school than in a protestant or catholic school, but for them the main reason was that they agreed with the value that the integrated schools are based on and they want to make sure that their children met people from different backgrounds.

– We did not want to bring our kids up on one side or the other. I went to a protestant school and I did not meet anyone catholic until I started working. That’s not an experience I wanted my children to have, says Hillary Bolt.

Hillary and Scott Bolt. Photo: Elin Larsson

Hillary and Scott Bolt, have two kids who both go to Lough View Integrated. Sending their children to a segregated school was never an option. Photo: Elin Larsson

Still she understands that people might hesitate to send their children to an integrated school. Both because the few numbers makes it impractical for many families to travel long distances to get to a school, but also because of identity issues and pressure from the rest of the catholic or protestant community.

 – My sister and her husband, a protestant couple, sent their kids to Lagan College, which is the first integrated secondary school, and for a while her in-laws would not speak to them. There is still that pressure from the protestant community. But if you talk to her children today they would say that it made them who they are, they have friends from both communities and feel that it was a really rich experience, she says.

On the other side of the debate stand the faith-based educations where the catholic schools are the biggest sector. Most of the students that attend those schools are catholic but according to Bishop Donal McKeown, the head of catholic education in Northern Ireland, the catholic schools welcome people from other faiths and promote integration.

Bishop Donal McKeown. Photo Elin Larsson

Bishop Donal McKeown is very wellknown in Belfast and considered one of the more liberal representative from the catholic school sector.  Photo: Elin Larsson

 – We already have catholic schools which are the school of choice for protestants as well as people with other faith background because they are better schools. I meet regularly with the protestant education officer to see how we can work together. In the future there is not going to be a catholic or a protestant sector but a faith based or secular sector. I think we would be working very strongly with the protestant church to see how we together can retain a faith based sector, he says.

Solution to the problem
All parties in the educational sector agree that more integration is necessary to create a unified society, but they disagree on the path to get there. The main question is whether schools should be integrated or if there is another way to promote integration such as shared education and getting protestant and catholic schools to cooperate.

– The integrated schools are a good idea but if you are looking at a full integrated school it will probably take 30 to 40 years, we need a society that is more reconciled with our history before people can start taking those steps. Therefor I think the shared education is the best thing for now, catholic and protestant schools that collaborate, use the same spaces and lecturers, says Tony Gallagher, professor at Queen’s University.

Tina Merron from the Integrated education fund thinks that shared education is a good first step but does not see it as solution to reconcile the society.

belfast church

A church next to Queen’s University in Belfast. The city has a lot of both protestant and catholic churches. Photo: Elin Larsson

– I think there has to be a healthy mix of students and staff from both communities. It does not have to go under the name integrated but the issue with catholic schools is that they are not sitting side by side to a protestant everyday for seven years. So theoretically they can talk about integration, but they ca not experience it. A shared education is a good step but it is not enough, the goal needs to be for the children to be mixed all the time and not just a couple of times a month, says Tina Merron.

Northern Ireland has a surplus of schools today according to the General teaching council for Northern Ireland and in order for the integrated sector to grow, the other sectors have to back down. This is another thing that is causing a division in the school sector.

– I think it is silly to say let us just put everyone together and we will be a big happy family, the problem is more complex than that. The catholic schools have something to offer, we give the students a sense of community and ethos. So the answer is not to close faith based schools to give place to the integrated schools, instead we need to find a way to integrate what we already have, through for example shared education, says Bishop Donal McKeown.

Still even though catholic schools say they are welcoming to other faiths, 90% of all the students who attend the schools are catholic, according to Access research knowledge Northern Ireland.

– Do not forget that we have a legacy of a thirty year long violent conflict. Some will have very personal experiences, fathers who got shot in the conflict, and they will see the state as a pressure. You cannot look at this society through the lens of a normal society. A lot of that segregation came about as a result of the conflict in the sense that Northern Ireland was not always highly segregated, but as the conflict arose people sought refuges of the people from the same religion because they felt safe, says Colin Knox, professor at the University of Ulster.

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Background to the conflict
The conflict is centuries old and has two sides:
Protestant Unionist community who believes it should remain part of the United Kingdom.
Catholic Nationalist community who believes it should leave the UK and become part of the Republic of Ireland.

In 1969  – a violent disagreement started. British troops were sent in but soon came into conflict with the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army).

From the 1970’s to the early 1990’s – Northern Ireland basically experienced a civil war. In the 1990’s the violence decreased and in 1988 the Good Friday agreement was signed1

Good Friday agreement:
A political development in the Northern Ireland peace process signed on Good Friday (a christian holiday to remember the crucifixation of Jesus Christ).
Includes a multi-party agreement signed by most Northern Ireland political parties and an international agreement between the British and Irish government.
The agreement set out rules regarding:
The status and system of government of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom
The relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland
The relationship between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom
source: BBC


Division of schools in Northern Ireland

Controlled Schools: Protestant schools (state schools) owned by the Education and Library boards, although they are mostly controlled by their Boards of Governors. The Protestant churches are represented on the Board of Governors.
Catholic Maintained Schools: Catholic schools – owned by the Catholic Church but are managed by a Board of Governors. The Education and Library Boards provide some financial assistance, by financing recurrent costs and the employment of non-teaching staff.
Grant Maintained Integrated Schools: These are essentially mixed schools, for Catholic and Protestant children. They are partially owned by trustees and managed by a Board of Governors, with their recurrent costs being met by the Department of Education.
Other Maintained: Protestant schools, in that they are owned by the Protestant church and managed by a Board of Governors. Like the Catholic maintained schools, they received funding from the Education and Library Boards for the recurrent costs.
Voluntary Grammar: These schools are owned by school trustees and managed by a Board of Governors.
source: CAIN web service, University of Ulster

90% of catholic students go to Catholic schools. 95% of protestant students go to Controlled Schools (protestant)