By Unionist Lite
Peter Robinson has ruffled more than a few segregationist feathers with this speech to Castlereagh Borough Council on Friday. This is the relevant part where he explains his views on our divided education system:
“In the area of education it has been said that considerable savings could be made with the creation of a Single Education Authority. I still hope that agreement can be reached in moving away from the five education and library boards to a single authority. This is not a difference of principle but one of detail and I am hopeful that it can be resolved in the next period of time. However, in the meantime I believe that a simple and speedy solution to achieve savings would be to create a single education and library board under existing legislation and leave the issue of additional powers to another day.
“Moreover, I feel I have to point out that the real savings in terms of education will not be gained by simply creating a single educational administrative body but by creating a single educational system.
“For me this is not just an economic but a moral question. We cannot hope to move beyond our present community divisions while our young people are educated separately.
“Not many of you will believe that my first contribution as a speaker at a DUP conference was on the issue of integrated education – and I spoke in favour.
“If one were to suggest that Protestants and Catholics would be educated at separate Universities it would be manifestly absurd; yet we continue to tolerate the idea that at primary and secondary level our children are educated separately. I believe that future generations will scarcely believe that such division and separation was common for so long. The reality is that our education system is a benign form of apartheid, which is fundamentally damaging to our society.
“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.
“As a society and administration we are not mere onlookers of this; we are participants and continue to fund schools on this basis. And then we are surprised that we continue to have a divided society.“The limited number of Integrated schools in Northern Ireland do offer a choice but more often than not they join in the competition for funds against the other two main education sectors and in truth will never create the critical mass needed to make a real difference.
“I entirely accept that such fundamental change will not happen overnight but that is no excuse for further delay in making a start. I know that we will face difficulties in dislodging the vested interests that are so strong in this sector, but I am absolutely convinced that we must.
“I don’t in any way object to churches providing and funding schools for those who choose to use them. What I do object to is the State providing and funding church schools.
“The transition must begin and must be carefully planned and programmed. It may take ten years or longer to address this problem, which dates back many decades, but the real crime would be to accept the status quo for the sake of a quiet life. The benefits of such a system are not merely financial but could play a transformative role in changing society in Northern Ireland.
“Consideration should be given to tasking a body or commission to bring forward recommendations for a staged process of integration and produce proposals to deal with some of the knotty issues such as religious education, school assembly devotions and the curriculum. Future generations will not thank us if we fail to address this issue.”
A snapshot of the reactions…
Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness:
“If Peter thinks taking on the Catholic Church, the Catholic bishops and indeed the Protestant churches for that matter and other interest groups is a sensible route to go, I think that is a big mistake. “
Donal Flanagan, Chief Executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools:
“He is certainly not speaking as an educationalist because everybody knows that ethos adds value to education.”
“The Catholic Church has also contributed substantial funding and resources for the provision of Catholic schools over generations, and this has ultimately saved the taxpayer money.”
SDLP Leader Margaret Ritchie:
“On the one hand he says the most visionary thing ever said by a DUP politician about our divided society, and then he spoils it with an old-fashioned political sideswipe at Catholic schools.”
The SDLP’s education spokesperson Dominic Bradley:
“Mr Robinson’s comments are an attack on the right of Catholic parents to have their children educated in the ethos of their faith, a right which they have literally paid for down through the years in Northern Ireland.
“He is simply electioneering in nakedly sectarian terms in an attempt to win votes.”
Sinn Fein Assembly member John O’Dowd:
“The DUP do not seek an integrated education system, they seek the end of the Catholic education sector, there is a difference… The Catholic sector provide a school property portfolio of millions if not billions of pounds towards education…”
Jude Collins, Republican journalist:
“So yes, maith thú, Peter, I think you’ve shown great leadership in this. But I’d hate to think you were tilting at sectarian windmills when there were real, in-your-face sectarian organizations and social patterns stopping the integration traffic on every side. In a way, though, I’m not that surprised. Because you are where you are because you do stand on the shoulders of a giant, don’t you? That colourful clerical man who, for so many decades, in his speeches and actions, did all he could to stamp out division and bitterness, and bring us all together. Or to change the metaphor, the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Does Peter Robinson truly believe in the secular society, where religion is “relegated” out of the public space back to where it belongs, into the private and personal? I really do doubt it.
However, his motives are to a large extent irrelevant as he has succeeded in opening up a debate here which needed opening up. The ferocity of the reaction he has received has surely proven that those (even self-described “progressives”) who argue for an education system segregated along religious lines know they are on the backfoot morally.
If progress is to be made towards a truly pluralist society in Northern Ireland, then the advantage created here by Robinson needs to be pressed home.
Martin Luther King:
“Segregation is the adultery of an illicit intercourse between injustice and immorality.”