Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson’s recent comments in support of integrated education have only served as a reminder of the extent of sectarianism and segregation in Northern Ireland.
The DUP leader has called for a commission to be established to examine the development of an integrated education system, stating: “The reality is that our education system is a benign form of apartheid, which is fundamentally damaging to our society.”
He added: “Who among us would think it acceptable that a state or nation would educate its young people by the criteria of race with white schools or black schools? Yet we are prepared to operate a system which separates our children almost entirely on the basis of their religion.”
Few could disagree with his assertion that our divided school system, with the majority of Protestant children educated in state schools and most Catholics sent to government- funded schools run by the Catholic church, contributes to the political malaise. Yet Robinson’s motives are questionable. To put it bluntly, was he simply stirring the sectarian pot?
The flurry of reaction to his remarks demonstrated that whilst the bombs and bullets may be silent, the sectarian mindsets which fuelled the conflict in Northern Ireland remain as entrenched as ever. Ironically for a party that claims to be republican and socialist, Sinn Féin emerged as the most vocal defenders of the Catholic Church and faith-based schools. Others rightly questioned whether Robinson would also agree that our schools are not only religiously segregated but that our education system is also divided by class.
Further evidence of Robinson’s questionable motives in appearing to take an interest in the pernicious issue of sectarianism are visible in the community relations strategy which he and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness published in the summer.
Far from facing up to sectarianism and segregation in their strategy, Robinson and McGuinness are proposing a policy of separate but equal, a recipe for the consolidation and continuance of sectarian division in Northern Ireland. Such proposals are a reminder to socialists and progressives of the challenges we face to overcome sectarianism.
This article appeared in LookLeft magazine Nov/Dec 2010