When we think of segregation, we think of racially segregated America, bathrooms for whites and bathrooms for non-whites. A part of history that most people are ashamed of, a part of history that we swear never to return to. Segregation in Northern Ireland however means something different. It means a Catholic shop and a Protestant shop. It means green Doctor surgeries and orange Doctor surgeries. It means divided education.
This division in education is symptomatic of a wider national problem. Northern Ireland is thankfully not the same place it was 50 years ago, we don’t have violence anymore. We don’t have a sectarian conflict ripping us apart. These facts are something to be celebrated, however our divisions are not gone. We may attempt to encourage integration, be it through community groups or tearing down peace walls but those divisions are still alive and well. Those divisions are continually being forced upon our society, from a young age. Only 7% of school aged children attend integrated schools, meaning 93% of students attend segregated education.
So, thousands of children every year are kept segregated from those on the other side of the community. We try and unify Northern Ireland and those efforts should be commended but if a child experiences division and grows up only knowing that division then the side of the community that they are kept from will always seem, alien or foreign. A community divided, is a community weakened. It is during those formative years that community integration and unity should be taught, should be celebrated and should be normalised.
Whether you are Nationalist or Unionist, you should strive to see Northern Ireland work, to see children grow up in a better society than the one you grew up in. It should be our goal to make our society better for the next generation, to make that society one of inclusion, one of diversity but also one that sees the term “Cross-Community” as something normal rather than something to be sceptical about.
Thousands of people across the country watched the second season of Derry Girls, the hit Channel 4 show about 1990s NI, in one episode the girls attended a cross community residential filled with many hilarious scenes showing the curiosity about the opposite community. Now while Northern Ireland is a far cry from the society it was in the 1990s there is still a significant divide not just in society but amongst young people. Young people are kept apart for most of their educational careers and taught in separate schools based on religion.
This needs to change.
We live in a different era, it is past time to break the shackles of division and segregation and to integrate. We are not that different. Our cultures may be different but that must not be a barrier to progress.
Progress can only be achieved through consensus, it’s time to start supporting more integrated schools, it’s time to start discussing what divides us. Let’s talk about what subjects will be taught. Let’s talk about the history syllabus. Let’s talk about the Irish language. Let’s talk about Religion. Sensitive topics should be talked about, not kept quiet simply because some people may be disinterested. Let’s build an education system that brings us together. Northern Ireland has to work, as a society we’ve seen a government that has seen scandal after scandal and has collapsed like a house of cards more than once. If we want to make the country work it must be through discussion, let’s make it less difficult to talk to the other side of the community.
Some question whether integrated schools would be able to function. Whether people would send their kids, opting instead for the segregated school. Make integrated schools better, fund them more than their segregated counterparts, financial incentives, more resources. Give the child more say, we are not born with sectarianism. We are taught sectarianism. So let’s stop teaching it. Make integrated education more readily available, make it accessible, not just for the middle class inner city kids but rural areas too.
Education and integration will build a society that we can be proud of, a society for all, regardless of colour or creed. A society of equals.
By Dermot Hamill