The ground truth from Belfast

BELFAST — In recent days there have been several hijackings and burnings of vehicles in Northern Ireland by armed and masked youths.

They took place in Catholic working class projects, where wall murals depict IRA “martyrs” from the Troubles of more than a decade ago. In hard-line Protestant districts, paintings of masked loyalist terrorists on gable walls intimidate any young Catholics thinking of going there.

While there may be shared government in Northern Ireland between the political representatives of the Protestant and Catholic communities, the kids in these ghettos rarely mix with anyone “on the other side.”

So what happened to integrated education — the idea, launched in 1987, that by bringing Catholics and Protestant children together in a shared learning environment they would learn to respect and accept each other? More than two decades on there are a mere 61 integrated schools in all of Northern Ireland, serving a divided population of 1.75 million. That is two less than last year, and makes up only five percent of the total number of schools.

The movement to bring children together in the classroom has high-profile support in Northern Ireland and abroad.

Last year President George W. Bush and his wife Laura visited East Belfast’s Lough View Integrated Primary School as part of the ongoing endorsement of successive U.S. administrations for integrated schooling in Northern Ireland as a means of building trust and understanding between children. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg toured Hazlewood Integrated College in North Belfast, and declared that “integrated school students symbolize the new Northern Ireland — a Northern Ireland where all the community is working side by side for the benefit of all.”

The number of integrated schools will fall further when Armagh Integrated College closes this summer after five years, having failed to attract enough pupils for long term viability.

“One of the reasons for the closures is that enrollment is falling for all schools,” says Fionnuala O’Connor, founder with her husband David McVea of Forge Integrated Primary School in South Belfast, and author of a 2002 book on the topic, “A Shared Childhood.” This, she believes, is because of a decline in births in the boom years of the 1990s when mothers were able to go out and get good jobs.

However, the problem for integrated schools goes much deeper, she points out. There are two types of regular schools in Northern Ireland: those run by the Catholic Church, and state schools largely attended by Protestants. The limited impact of integrated schooling has more to do with a lack of drive and state funding from the power-sharing government, which is based on a perpetual two-community system, rather than any lack of parental enthusiasm.

A survey carried out in May 2008 found that 43 percent of Northern Ireland parents preferred integrated education for their children, compared with 29 percent for state schools and 22 percent for Catholic schools, and 84 percent of respondents felt that integrated education was important in developing peace and reconciliation.

“There is little doubt that the Northern Ireland of today is very different to the place it was even 10 years ago,” according to Michael Wardlow, chief executive of Northern Ireland Integrated Schools, who wrote about the survey in the Dublin-based Irish Times. “In that context our devolved government appears to be of the view that financial investment will consolidate this peace and that if enough jobs are created, we will somehow forget our differences.

"This is a flawed, and indeed dangerous, position to take. We are a society built on a fault line of sectarianism and unless we deal with the underlying problems, we are in danger of building our ‘shared and better future’ on an unstable foundation,” Wardlow wrote.

He warned that “when the seismic wave of underlying sectarianism and bigotry comes again” the governing edifice will collapse as it consolidates differences. Keeping integrated schooling at bay is popular with the Catholic school sector and the dominant Protestant party, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), maintains O’Connor. “It is a cross-community winner because it keeps children apart.”

More GlobalPost dispatches on Ireland:

Row over naked portraits

Ireland returns to an old love - the potato

Fear returns to Northern Ireland