Investigations & Analysis - Northern Ireland
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Did Cameron and Obama bottle or botch the schools' debate?

03 JULY 2013

Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama at Enniskillen integrated school
Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama at Enniskillen integrated school

By Steven McCaffery

AFTER escaping the flag crisis and ahead of the main marching season, it is incredible that we’ve somehow managed to squeeze in a divisive row about education.

It shows impressive time management on our part – but where has it got us?

The answer is probably back to where we started.

Downing Street and the White House have flown home having muddied the waters and left a series of unanswered questions in their wake.

Rival education sectors and their supporters have butted heads.

But as the dust settles, it is clear that Stormont leaders will proceed anyway with their original plan to tackle division through shared, and not integrated, education.

And with the debate barely having scratched the surface of the key issues, has it all been a pointless and avoidable row?

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

In the run-up to the G8 summit in Co Fermanagh there was an intense focus on announcements from First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

The violence of the flag crisis underlined the need to bolster the peace process, and against a background of pressure from London, Dublin and Washington, the leaders at Stormont rolled out their blueprint to tackle sectarianism: ‘Together: Building a United Community.’

It contained a raft of initiatives to help heal divisions between Protestants and Catholics, with a key element a proposal for ten shared education campuses.

This fell short of forcing predominantly Catholic and Protestant schools to integrate, but sought to place some in close proximity to encourage greater cooperation and to break down barriers.

Ahead of the G8, senior Stormont sources indicated that they expected the President to endorse the shared education model.

Closer to his arrival, it is understood Stormont was told President Obama would deliver a speech that would cover a range of issues and put pressure “on all the parties” to help build on progress in the peace process.

In his address at the Waterfront Hall he name-checked and praised Stormont’s "united community” blueprint, and he acknowledged the great difficulties Northern Ireland politicians face in tackling age-old divisions.

“I commend their effort to building a united community, important next steps along your transformational journey, because issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity, symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others, these are not tangential to peace, they are essential to it.“

A greater focus was placed on his next line: “If towns remain divided, if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden that encourages division, it discourages cooperation."

The President didn’t mention integrated education but his pointed demand for progress and the feel of his remarks chimed with the integrated vision, and appeared to keep faith with longstanding US support for the integrated sector.

This was more definitively read as signalling a preference for the educational model when later in the day the President and Prime Minister David Cameron visited Enniskillen Integrated Primary School – their only engagement outside the bubble of the G8 conference.

That evening, Stormont leaders nevertheless appeared happy with the handling of events and were already looking to the future, as was reported here.

Within days however Stormont minister Arlene Foster and the principal of the integrated school in Enniskillen clashed in a media report shown here over the failure to include a shared education visit – perhaps suggesting Stormont feathers had in fact been ruffled.

A wider dispute developed, culminating in a more high profile row involving Catholic Bishop Donal McKeown, chair of the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education, who attacked the main Stormont parties and drew rebukes from Mr McGuinness and Mr Robinson.

It was all getting messy and both London and Washington seemed to want to back away from the controversy.

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

The Detail understands that the White House and the US Department of State were responsible for organising the Waterfront speech.

They invited schools from the state controlled, Catholic maintained and integrated sectors who each appeared on the stage and met the President – though an apology was issued to one Irish-medium school for an apparent oversight on an invitation.

It was felt the President had delivered a balanced speech when it came to the issue of tackling divisions in areas including education.

The Enniskillen school visit was – according to a string of sources – the responsibility of Downing Street.

It’s understood the Prime Minister’s staff had a number of potential education venues they could have visited in Co Fermanagh.

One of the list of options was ruled out because of the location and the inability to land a helicopter at the site.

Several other venues, involving various schools with teenage pupils, were proposed. The President and Prime Minister actually drove past one of these alternative options en route to the Enniskillen Integrated primary.

So why was it chosen?

A Downing Street spokesman said: “The matter of education is very much an issue for the (Northern Ireland) authorities.

“The Prime Minister was simply visiting a school while he was at the G8. “

They added: “It was a school in the local area, near to the venue. And it was just part of the visit while he was in the area.”

Did they intend to signal a preference for a fully integrated school system?

“No that’s not the case. That is a devolved issue to be decided locally.”

A spokesman for the US Consulate said: “The President visited an integrated primary school as a guest of the Prime Minister while he was in Fermanagh.”

We are now being told the school was chosen because it was a suitable venue, in a suitable location, and likely to provide the media with the `best shots’: the two premiers with young kids from across the religious divide.

That’s how such decisions are often made – a number of possible locations for visits are scouted and one wins out.

If both governments did want to send a message to the DUP and Sinn Féin that their preference was for fully integrated education, they now seem to want to let the matter rest.

It might otherwise be the case that the G8 was their priority and the finer points of the education debate were a side issue – this was a row that they didn’t see coming.

Either way, it all appears ham-fisted.

DOES IT MATTER?

Northern Ireland society, and as a result its education system, is deeply divided.

As previously reported by The Detail here, almost half of Northern Ireland’s schoolchildren are taught in schools where 95% or more of the pupils are of the same religion.

Every town and city in Northern Ireland has a network of schools that are largely filled by either Catholic or Protestant pupils.

The focus of the recent debate has been on the role of the Catholic Church in maintaining Catholic education – partly as a result of the tone of the sector’s reaction to the Obama speech.

But if a fully integrated system is ever to be achieved the issues to be debated are not just religious, but also political and social.

What would a fully integrated system designed to tackle divisions across Northern Ireland look like?

How would we ensure all schools addressed not just religious, but also cultural and political difference?

Would all schools play rugby, cricket, football, alongside Gaelic games? Would they learn about Orange Culture, study the Irish language, and be taught British and Irish history.

How would we ensure all schools would become religiously integrated in a society where Catholics and Protestants often live in areas dominated by one religion or the other?

Would children be bused to different areas to ensure every school had a sufficient mix of both Protestant and Catholic pupils.

As reported here by The Detail, the United States has had difficulties implementing such policies.

It would be a massive undertaking to implement a fully, and meaningfully, integrated education system across Northern Ireland.

That doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

Integrated schools are already dealing with these issues on a daily basis and shared education projects are also starting to blur boundaries.

It does, however, mean there’s a lot more to talk about.

But reform on such a scale would be quite a task for a society that can’t agree on academic selection, never mind flags.

How would a NI-wide integrated school system look and how would it be implemented?
How would a NI-wide integrated school system look and how would it be implemented? / Press Eye

SHARED FUTURE, SHARED EDUCATION

In 2010 Peter Robinson described the Northern Ireland education system as a “benign form of apartheid” and called for a fully integrated system.

The speech was viewed by sceptics as part of a wider political plan by the DUP to adopt a liberal stance and woo unionists who might otherwise vote for the Ulster Unionists or Alliance Party.

At the time Sinn Féin dismissed the speech and characterised the DUP call for an end to state funding for faith schools as an attack on Catholic education, rather than a vision for integration.

But now the two political parties are singing from the same shared hymn sheet.

They have agreed more integrating is needed but that the policy vehicle should be shared education – a choice which some believe does not go far enough.

In the aftermath of G8 Mr Robinson told The Detail that President Obama is "on the same page as we are”.

On delivering reform, the First Minister said: “Forcing integration isn’t the way, encouraging integration is the way to do it.

“And shared education is a way where you can bring the schools together, either in the same classes from time to time, the same schools, or indeed the same campuses.

“I think that is the right way to go.”

Mr McGuinness said: “If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper, with no education system whatsoever, we would plump for a fully integrated education system.

“But that is not where we are at. We have to deal with the legacy that we have been inheriting.

“I think our approach which is incremental, which is moving forward in a sensible way – I think that is the way to go."

The integrated movement has enjoyed a morale boost and may feel it has something new to build on.

But for the foreseeable future, the education system will be made-up of various sectors operating separately, with Stormont encouraging sharing.

On the eve of the G8 a former White House adviser, Nancy Soderberg whose interview can be read here, warned that a peace process takes two generations to bed down.

The first deals with the political structures, the second generation deals with tackling divisions.

At this stage in the journey, there is little evidence of an appetite from any of the governments for a revolutionary overhaul.

The recent education debate was perhaps a useful marker along the road, but it didn’t drill down into the tough issues.

In that sense it was a bit of a sham fight – but it has been a divisive one.

The British and American governments planned the events that fuelled this row.

They either wanted to back integrated education and have bottled it, or else they didn’t see the sensitivities and so have botched it.

© The Detail 2013