Many people have given their views on Peter Robinson’s now infamous speech on Integrated Education a few weeks ago. The reaction to the speech has been interesting if predictable. The speech itself, however, is one of the cleverest pieces of politics in the last number of years in Northern Ireland and marks the first time in a long time that Robinson has managed to be both tactically and strategically cunning; though his ability to implement his strategy is of course significantly limited by the coalition arrangements which he and Dr. Paisley before him have been trapped in since the DUP entered power sharing.
Robinson’s call for integrated education managed to wrong foot nationalism to a very significant degree. The narrative preferred by many within nationalism and republicanism is that they are the progressive force within NI politics. Robinson, however, by this speech managed to claim the mantle of the liberal, progressive forces on this issue. There are valid arguments to be made in favour of allowing faith based education but Robinson reasonably pointed out that in a divided society such as Northern Ireland this is highly problematic.
Robinson’s mentioning of the unacceptability of allowing division of children by race conjured up images of the United States’ segregated education system of the 1950s and cast, fairly or not, the supporters of confessional education systems in the same light as the die hard segregationists of the deep south. One could almost hear a Mississippi lilt to the claims by the Catholic Church and nationalist politicians that they wanted separate but equal schooling systems. The more nationalists became enraged by Robinson’s remarks the more they painted themselves into the corner of appearing to support the division of children on religious grounds: something which (again rightly or wrongly) many outsiders have for years proclaimed to be one of the major causes of the divisions in Northern Ireland.
Nationalists may have accused Robinson of wanting to “wind up Catholics” and of being a sudden convert to this cause. Again, however, Robinson had a defence: he pointed out that the first speech he ever made at a DUP conference was in support of Integrated Education. Furthermore Robinson did not even proclaim a desire to ban Catholic schooling: he merely suggested that if a private religious organisation; be that the Roman Catholic or Free Presbyterian Church wanted to have its own schools then it should pay for them. The Catholic bishops were able to mount some sort of a defence suggesting that a “Catholic ethos” was a valid and valuable option within education and that faith schools were recognised as a useful addition to schooling provision within mainland GB.
Sinn Fein, however, had much more problem: they were reduced to complaining that the loss of Catholic schools was part of a devious attempt to turn young nationalists and republicans into unionists. This piece of paranoia provides a fascinating insight into how some republican activists view the purpose of education. The majority of nationalist or unionist parents (like parents the world over) presumably feel that the most important things children learn are non political. Arithmetic seems to have precious little political content unless one wishes to restart controversy about the use of base 10 (I have always favoured base 12). Reading and writing are also remarkably apolitical at primary school at least. Even at secondary school there are relatively few subjects which can have political connotations: the manner in which electrons move around the nucleus of an atom seems reasonably apolitical; Pythagoras’ theorem seems unlikely to be different in a Catholic as opposed to a state school; Shakespeare, studied the world over, has many political things to say but few relate directly to current NI politics.
However, there is a degree to which SF is correct and a single education system would be a grave threat to republicanism. The simple reality is that state schools are much less “Protestant / unionist” than Catholic schools are “Catholic / nationalist.” Some though by no means all state schools fly the union flag and some sing the national anthem albeit rarely. The CoI typed religious service in assembly is minimal and difficult to regard as from one side of the other. Religious education is actually fairly minimal in state secondary (or primary) schools. The religious element is much more to do with the large numbers of committed Christian (mainly women) who teach in many state primary schools than any policy position. That religiousness is more of the gentle Jesus meek and mild variety (I mean that in no way as an insult) than any more partisan or theological analysis of religion.
Catholic schools clearly have significantly more religion taught than state schools, especially at primary level. However, it is the cultural aspects of nationalism which are likely to be of much greater interest to Sinn Fein. These aspects such as Gaelic football and the Irish language along with the perception amongst unionists anyway of a nationalist analysis of history are more likely to be of concern to SF. They are, however, also likely to be of relatively lesser concern to very many Catholic parents. Most parents of all denominations know that whatever its merits Irish is unlikely to become the lingua franca of anywhere in the future; furthermore most parents know that however much their children enjoy sport very few are able to make a successful career from it. Hence, the danger is that although Sinn Fein may bitterly oppose any proposals nationalist parents may be much more sanguine. The Catholic church may also oppose the changes but their control of their own community is so massively undermined nowadays that again they may have less influence than they might like.
The Protestant churches have also complained. However, this is fairly foolish: as I mentioned above the large amount of evangelical Christian influence on state schools especially primary schools comes in large part from the high numbers of committed Christians who become teachers. The periodic appearance of a Protestant minister or the presence of such people on the boards of governors of state schools is not the main driver of religious influence. Furthermore since practising Protestants are split amongst so many different denominations, ensuring a fair influence from the different brands of Protestantism is actually impossible. Hence, one could argue that it would be fairest to have no ministers on the boards of governors of schools.
Robinson has immediately become the darling of the Integrated schools movement although whether or not his vision would include their own vision of schooling is unclear. The Integrated schools movement has tended to guard “Integrated” status extremely jealously. It also tends to promote a certain fairly ecumenical religious position and middle of the road cultural position.
The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education on its website states the following about Integrated Education :
“It is about cultivating every individual´s self-respect and therefore their respect for other people and other cultures. Integrated Education means bringing children up to live as adults in a pluralist society, teaching them to recognize what they hold in common with each and to accept and enjoy any differences.”
Robinson’s vision is as yet undeveloped but it might well be much more in keeping with a British or even American concept of education with very little religious or cultural baggage and such issues very consciously left at the school gate. It might be more about developing them as people and educationally and leaving discussion of cultures and differences for outside organisations.
Politically what Robinson has done is a master stroke. I have frequently described him as tactically sound but strategically flawed. However, this issue has been tactically and strategically brilliant. He has with a single speech managed to make himself appear liberal and progressive, not that he is necessarily otherwise. He has, however, out manoeuvred the UUP in the minds of many progressives and has presented himself as a true champion of liberal and indeed mainland British values. Although a few UUP members have recently been leaving for Alliance it is likely that a number of civic unionist UUP (and even Alliance) voters may be eyeing the DUP with considerably more favour than they were a scant few weeks ago.
In contrast a few hard line supporters may be alienated from Robinson but more will be enjoying the discomfort of the republicans and the Catholic church and will appreciate the support the Robinson has gained form liberals. In addition many will not mind the very distant prospect of their children or grand children being educated with Catholics: the reality is that at secondary school very many of them already are.
Of course after all that political brilliance and no matter how much Robinson genuinely believes that Integrated Education can offer long term assistance to community relations here; there is an underlying problem. The mutual vetoes and paralysis in our system means that no matter how enticing a prospect this may be for many people in Northern Ireland, the proposal can very easily be blocked by Sinn Fein. That problem of mandatory coalition, the unworkable mechanism of government and the need for complex vetoes was once the reasoning behind the DUP opposing the Belfast Agreement and demanding massive change to it. The fact that the changes the DUP negotiated at St Andrews were much less than what was necessary is the strategic blunder which Robinson is still trapped with. Brilliant as this latest move is, it has not affected that fundamental problem. That does not mean, however, that all in Northern Ireland who do believe in a progressive and modern democratic society should do anything other than welcome his words and work and argue for them to result in positive actions.