Facing History – Educating for a Civil Society after Collective Violence

I received an invitation to participate in an online forum hosted by a programme called “Facing History”. The discussion was on “Educating for a Civil Society after Collective Violence”, and had four case studies: Germany, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and South Africa. I made the following contribution:

I am an American who has lived in Northern Ireland for the past 10 years. I also work as a Policy Officer for the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, which is a cross-community political party.

I was motivated by two of Tony Gallagher’s original questions:

  1. US schools are not integrated by race or economic status
  2. Is school integration necessary for rebuilding civil society?

Education policy is pretty much the domain of individual states in America, and Paul Frankmann provides a fine description of the situation in Ohio (which is coincidentally where I’m from).

What may be of particular interest to this forum is the nature of the education system in Northern Ireland, where a religiously segregated system has been formal public policy for decades.

With the foundation of the Northern Ireland state, a 1923 law established three classes of schools: Controlled, Maintained, and Voluntary. Controlled means control by the state. Originally this meant that only fully controlled schools got 100% state funding, hence known as “state schools”. Catholic schools are in the Voluntary sector. The effect of the 1923 law was for Voluntary (Catholic) schools to lose all state funding except teachers’ salaries and heating costs.

One should remember that in the Republic of Ireland, primary and secondary education is effectively under the control (to this day) by the Catholic Church.

In Northern Ireland, the Catholic Church complained about the discriminatory funding effects of the 1923 law, and Protestant churches complained that the law was too secular. The law was updated in 1930 to bring 50% funding for Voluntary schools and to allow religious instruction in Controlled (state) schools. State funding to Voluntary (Catholic) schools was increased to 65% in 1947, and 80% in 1968; they are now 100% funded by the state.

In a sense, the 1923 law represents a more familiar American-style separation of church and state. Any attempt to secularise the education system in Northern Ireland would fail, and there is no effort for this. Integrated education will have to compete as just another sector in the NI education system. (This is also the case for the Irish-language education sector.)

Considering the very segmented education system in Northern Ireland (there’s a state-funded elite grammar sector, too), I have found it remarkable that the public (state-funded) school system in America has survived for so long. Indeed, I discovered that the American system originated from the Scottish model. There, the education system was segmented along denominational lines. The response was to establish “communal” schools, whereby everyone in a geographic community would be educated together. It was a radical concept at the time, and its premise is not as universally accepted (esp. in NI as well as England) as it is in the US.

The downside to this community-style education system is that in a free society, people are free to move, and in the modern age of suburbia, inner cities get left out, particularly in the hyper-devolved taxation system in America. *Some* or even *many* US schools may not be integrated on race or economic status, but it is not official public policy, as the religious segregation policy in Northern Ireland is.

Integrated education may not be necessary, in that it must be imposed upon parents and children, but it should definitely be supported by public policy. Presently, it is quite a struggle to establish a new integrated school. Worse, the ones that exist are regularly oversubscribed (lack of available places), with no positive action by government.

As Elaine has pointed out, religion is used in Northern Ireland to place identity labels onto people, to prejudice others in the same manner as racism. Indeed, there’s something called the “telling process” here, where one person asks another a set of questions, to determine whether that person is Protestant or Catholic. Karen Murphy’s remarks illustrate this well. It can even get absurd, e.g. “But are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”

Elaine goes beyond integrated education when she suggests investigating the past and what is meant by diversity. Discussing the past in a deeply divided society is of course a very sensitive topic. This gets into policies of community relations.

What I found remarkable is that how little attention was given to community relations, after achieving devolved government with the Good Friday Agreement. You would have thought it would be top of the agenda. Unionist and nationalist parties were unable to agree a way forward on community relations.

However, there has been a recent proposal by civil servants here for a shared future. Their document is actually called A Shared Future, and many sections of society responded to it, including the Alliance Party’s response to A Shared Future (my employer).

This will require a consensual way forward for dealing with the victims and survivors of the Troubles. Many comparisons are made with the Truth and Reconciliation Forum in South Africa, but the circumstances are importantly different that would make a duplication of that model unsuccessful in Northern Ireland.

Instead, we argue for a victim’s forum, whereby those who wanted to come forward could tell their own experiences, as part of an official record. In many cases, those who have suffered feel as though they have been ignored and forgotten, while other high profile cases and political actors capture the media and government’s attention. In any case, there must not be a hierarchy of victimhood, where some victims are deemed to be more significant than others.

Ultimately, though, I agree with Cheryl’s (Jackson, TN) belief of the need to develop the concept of “we”. This is sorely lacking in Northern Ireland. The entanglement of religious identity, history, culture and politics is complicated enough. But the more we can start talking about working together, and appreciating what we hold in common, while celebrating our diversity, then the more optimistic I will be about our shared future here.

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