The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) signed in 1998 ended “the troubles” In Northern Ireland, which had been ongoing since the 1960s.
The basis of the conflict in Northern Ireland is commonly seen as a battle between Roman Catholics and Protestants but various economic, political and social issues played a part. After the troubles, Northern Ireland had to work hard on addressing the continuing social and cultural divisions. One of the areas where social changes are being initiated is in the field of education.
Education during the conflict
Protestant and Catholic churches were not in favor of integrated education and campaigned for segregation. The link between school and community and religious identity was very strong in Northern Ireland.
When the troubles broke out in 1969, Catholics and Protestants lived in separate communities and were physically cut off from each other by a wall that separated their housing estates.
In the 1970s, a group of parents (All Children together or ACT) tried to break down the barriers as they wanted integrated education. In spite of opposition from church leaders and politicians, they managed to set up the very first integrated school, Lagan College Secondary School. In 1987 the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated education came into being and it facilitated the efforts of the parents to open more integrated schools.
During the troubles, the schools never closed. Despite the fact that they were segregated and still perpetuated social and religious divisions, they did offer some consistency in turbulent times.
Throughout the times of conflict, various educational projects were aimed at reconciliation but the education system continued to mirror social divisions rather than being an agent of change. Educational segregation was not the cause of sectarian division but the division was reinforced by schools with two distinct cultural and political identities.
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Progress after the conflict
When a deeply divided society emerged from 40 years of conflict, the slow process towards reconciliation had to begin. After the conflict, education leaders had the chance to re-formulate the school curriculum and to promote more engagement, understanding and tolerance.
However, the battle for integration has been difficult and has usually been spearheaded by nonprofit organizations and groups of parents. This is despite the fact that integrated schools are often oversubscribed and polling has shown the idea of integration is well supported. This year, parents at six schools in Northern Ireland voted to integrate, although political and religious opposition still exists.
Education during the North Ireland conflict may have been complex and flawed. However, Ireland currently offers a rich opportunity to international students from the U.K. and other countries. Top Northern Irish universities foster inclusive education and focus strongly on diversity.
The GFA contains a pledge to “facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing.” The idea behind this was to facilitate reconciliation and create a culture of tolerance at all levels of society.
According to the pledge, everyone should have the right to choose his or her place of residence and live in peace there. If people wish to live in mixed estates, this should be facilitated.
Unfortunately, violence and sectarian symbols can impede the right of people to freely choose where they want to live but these problems are being tackled by groups who are working very hard to promote good community relations. Building support for integrated education may also help with a breakthrough in dealing with segregation in housing.
In April 2017, the Education Authority (EA) came up with a regional area plan to ensure all pupils were able to access a broad and balanced curriculum. The curriculum would meet their needs within a diverse education system through a network of schools.
Northern Ireland has seen many changes since the troubles. Education has always been under pressure from various external forces and segregation was a legacy of its past. The process towards the integration of education has been slow but the integrated education movement has slowly been bringing about change during and after the troubles. Integration in education is worth fighting for as children are likely to determine the future for Northern Ireland. Integrated education helps to increase understanding of diversity, reduces prejudice, and nurtures community relations.