Integrating Schools and the Challenge of Building Civil Society: Part 2

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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