Integration in Northern Ireland progresses, despite headlines | Brian coney
VSConsidering recent headlines, you could be forgiven for thinking that Northern Ireland was heading back to much darker days. The disturbances observed in Belfast remain a legitimate concern, with deep-rooted socio-economic roots. And we have received a stark reminder of the unrest surrounding the investigation into the Ballymurphy massacre. However, despite the obstacles, there is much to suggest from a population that is determined to make a healthier and truly integrated society function.
You can trace this commitment to the changes that liberate the country from its cyclical history of ethnic conflict and mutual mistrust. In the 23 years since the Good Friday Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland have repeatedly expressed that there can be no return to bloodshed and brutality in the name of national identity. This is reflected in the rejection by young people of being British or Irish, in favor of a fluid and fully inclusive Northern Irish identity. A recent poll suggest that while 51% of those over 65 consider themselves British, only 17% of 18-24 year olds identify in the same way.
Positive impacts can be observed on the ground, in a seemingly banal way. Take the launch of East Belfast GAA in a historically loyalist part of the city last year. Formed by former GAA players David McGreevy and Richard Maguire, his motto “Together” rendered in English, Irish and Ulster Scottish has doubled as a demand for members of Roman Catholic and Protestant circles. A sport traditionally associated with the Catholic Church and with nationalism rooted in a staunch stronghold of Protestantism: this would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Now his success in having competitive and cross-community teams in football, hurling and camogie looks like a tangible victory for cross-cultural relations in the city.
Since the founding of the state of Northern Ireland 100 years ago, discord over religion and nationalism has been at the root of everyday concerns such as the invisible wall of economic inequality. Looking back, it is obvious to many that a segregated education system creates and perpetuates such cultural estrangement. According to most recent public data, 93% of children in Northern Ireland attend separate schools for religious reasons, but a recent survey indicates 69% of people think that every school should be included. As up to £ 1 billion has been devoted over the past decade to initiatives to reverse the fallout from segregation. It is quite clear that a restart of shared education is due.
With an official overhaul of the system expected later this year, Northern Ireland’s first integrated Irish preschool is trying to lead the way. Scheduled opening in East Belfast in September, Naíscoil na Seolta (or ‘Nursery of the Sails’ – a nod to the city’s shipbuilding past) is a dual proposition: an integrated inter-community school and a school that will teach in Irish, offering the many recognized benefits of bilingualism in education. “If we were to teach children French, Spanish or Italian, they would have the same advantages,” Annelies Taylor, president of the school, told me recently. “But by teaching them Irish, we teach them their culture, their origins, their history. It’s about teaching them that they have a place. It’s also about locating them in Belfast as an Irish community, rather than a polarized community.
Having been raised in rural Northern Ireland myself, Taylor’s words resonate with me. One of my earliest memories as a pupil in a fully Catholic primary school was being assigned a pen pal for a fully Protestant school in Belfast. It might not have been in Irish, and it often felt like contacting someone halfway around the world, but our correspondence never touched on questions of country or creed. And why would they do it? Forty years after Lagan College Belfast, becoming the first school in Northern Ireland to teach Catholic and Protestant children under one roof, the 64 integrated schools that followed indicate that many young people and their parents are not interested to division.
The current composition of integrated schools in Northern Ireland (40% Catholic, 40% Protestant and 20% other / none) is a faithful reflection of our society – a society where, for example, the Polish and Somali communities live peacefully side by side on Ravenhill Road in Belfast, and its biggest arts festival, Belfast Mela, is coupled with a joyful celebration of cultural diversity. By seeking to teach English and Irish to young children of all origins, Naíscoil na Seolta responds to this thirst for inclusiveness.
The three-year stalemate in power-sharing in Stormont stemming from, among other things, an Irish Language Bill – legislation that would essentially give Irish equal status to English – has shown that our main political parties are not above militarized language for political purposes. But thanks to the Alliance, the country’s oldest interfaith political party, which successfully proposed a compromise that honors both an Irish Language Act and an Ulster Scots Act, occupy common ground turned out to be crucial. There is no doubt that the Irish can and must play a role in the new Northern Irish identity, but we need breakthroughs and compromises at all levels.
Beyond the essential work of organizations such as the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE), protestant-bred language rights activists such as Annelies Taylor and Linda Ervine have traveled a considerable ground to legitimize the claim of the Irish. for everyone. In addition to being a co-founder of Naíscoil na Seolta and chairman of East Belfast GAA, Ervine founded the Irish Language Project Turas in 2011. Created to ‘connect adults in Protestant communities to their own history with the Irish language’, it helped bring about a radical change in the perception of the language in Northern Ireland.
Separation has created a long overdue obstacle to healing and the advancement of society. The vague notions of religious and cultural supremacy, nurtured from generation to generation, are now really at odds with the direction most people in Northern Ireland are really going. However, with the integrated schools currently available oversubscribed, it is clear that the promise of our common future must now meet the demands of our common present.
True reconciliation begins with understanding, which often comes from compromise. Let’s celebrate, rather than just accommodate ourselves, each other’s culture.