Ulster's children -- key to peace

"I do not know any measures which would prepare the way for a better feeling in Ireland than uniting children at an early age and bringing them up in the same school, leading them to commune with one another and to form those little intimacies which often subsist through life."

The quotation above came from a prominent Irish churchman, James Warren Doyle , the Roman Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin. But the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church opposes integrated schooling -- that is, Protestant and Catholic children at school together -- vehemently, as do Ulster Protestant extremists such as the Reverend Ian Paisley.

It must be pointed out that our quotation comes from the 19th century, not the present one -- so Dr. Doyle's modest proposal does not get him into current trouble.

Indeed, well over a century later, the Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren of Ulster are segregated in separate school systems. The vast majority will never meet their coreligionists until they leave school at 15 ro 18. By that time, the clear and distinct socialization process of Catholic and Protestant families, neighborhoods, and culture will have established the classic tribal attitudes of the divided Northern Ireland population.

The working classes, both Protestant and Catholic, typically grow up in self-demarcated districts in Ulster's towns and cities.They attend separate churches whose doctrines are stricter and less flexible than is typical of Britain as a whole, or the US. They even learn the separate games of their own sect in many cases -- Gaelic games for the Catholic children, rugby for the Protestant ones, and football (probably in separate, religiously associated teams) for both.

Even when those children become young adults and enter factories and offices they may still not meet each other, owing to the segregation of many workplaces into religious enclaves.

And if they do work alongside one another this does not mean they communicatem -- they may harbor the unspoken suspicion or hostility of their ancestors, sharing a wariness of each others' "peculiar" religions and contradictory political allegiances.

The Protestant and Catholic middle classes dom see each other, but the "middle ground" in voting figures for the non-sectarian center party, Alliance, is just 12 percent. The comfortably off generally feel safer supporting those of their own side.

As a middle-class Protestant of the younger generation, I look forward to the day when children can attend school together, learn together, and break down the myths they share about each other's communities.

There is almost no progress on the question of integrated education in Ulster. Some middle-class Catholics will send their children to Protestant schools -- most of them private institutions with a deservedly liberal reputation. But they are a tiny number in the Catholic population, and virtually no Protestants would send their offspring to a Catholic parochial school.

There ism an attempt to educate children together -- but again, it affects principally middle-class children, whose liberal parents will inculcate them with liberal attitudes.

For the two working-class communities almost nothing has been done. Attempts to persuade Northern Ireland and then successive British governments to tackle the thorny question of "shared schools" have failed.

While there is now an act of Parliament making somem provision for shared schooling in segregated Ulster, it operates essentially only in the most middle-class areas and is still in it experimental stages. Governments are afraid to challenge the Catholic bishops and Protestant extremists on this issue.

Shared schooling's critics argue that only by changing the political and economic structures of Northern Ireland can Catholic and Protestant commune successfully -- but that is a tall order indeed. Therefore, even a small attempt to change part of the structure of Ulster society must be welcome.

The critics complain that the shared-schools issue is only "tampering" with the problems of Ulster. My answer to them -- and 70 percent of Protestant and Catholic parents favor shared schools, according to a recent poll -- is that to change our society's structure we must begin somewhere. The schools should be the target.

Some academics contest that there is no strong evidence to show shared schooling will unite the communities. But, as one who has revised his prejudices in school and university, I challenge that.

Americans who lament the segregation of education in their nation should cast their eyes across the Atlantic to Ireland where there is even more segregation.

Let us hope that bishop Doyle's decades-old appeal will have an answer in Northern Ireland soon.

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