The Irish Curtain


On December 3, 2012, the Belfast City Council in Northern Ireland voted to stop flying the British flag daily over its Victorian-style city hall building, ending a 106-year old tradition. Instead, the flag would be flown 18 days a year to correspond with specific occasions. Seeing this decision as an act of Irish Republican aggression, Pro-British Unionists rioted, attacking police officers with Molotov cocktails and setting fire to a bus. Dozens of officers were injured and more than one hundred rioters were arrested. The Northern Irish government had to come up with approximately fifteen million pounds to police the flag protests; economists estimate the riots cost Northern Ireland an additional fifteen million pounds in lost revenue. The surge in violence ultimately brought renewed international attention to a conflict between Irish Republicans and British Unionists that continues today despite the 1998 supposedly conflict resolving Good Friday agreement.

The ongoing hostilities between Unionist Protestants, who favor British sovereignty over Northern Ireland, and Irish Catholic Republicans, who desire a united Ireland, are unsurprising, given the flawed nature of the peace agreement that brought the conflict to an official close. From the late 1960s until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, intense sectarian violence between Irish Catholics and British Protestants claimed three thousand lives, a period known as the “Troubles.” Most Northern Irish identified with Britain, wanting to remain in the United Kingdom; others desired a united Ireland. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), a group of Catholic Irish nationalists, committed terrorist attacks against the British in an attempt to wrest Northern Ireland from British control.

Unionist paramilitary groups like the Ulster Volunteer Force conducted their own terror campaigns against Northern Irish Catholics, often targeting civilians. The Good Friday Agreement between the British government, the Irish government, and eight Northern Irish political parties agreed that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK until a majority in Northern Ireland desired to become part of a united Ireland. It gave everyone in Northern Ireland the right to be recognized as British or Irish (or both), and to hold British or Irish citizenship. Additionally, all paramilitary groups from both sides had to disarm; this stage was not carried out right away, as the IRA did not decommission all of its weapons until 2005. To this day, some groups have still not disarmed.

This history is well-known. What is not widely known is that in the fifteen years since the Good Friday Agreement, little has been done to end the segregation between the two sectarian groups in Northern Ireland. Despite the agreement’s strong language, claiming “principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights,” this persistent segregation has prevented Northern Ireland from truly moving past the mistrust and hostility of the Troubles, providing for an uneasy peace and a barricaded society. There are three times as many “peace wall” barriers between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods than there were during the height of the Troubles. From April to August, during “marching season,” Unionist and Republican groups stage parades to stake their claims to their traditional districts. Polls reveal the entrenchment of British and Irish identities, with only about twenty percent of respondents identifying as Northern Irish. But the deleterious effects of this division are not limited to the occasional spurts of violence and antagonistic marches or even to the “peace wall” barriers between neighborhoods.

The Alliance Party, the only party supported by both Protestants and Catholics, estimates that the duplication of services on account of Northern Ireland’s social divisions costs about a billion and a half pounds a year. There has been a “brain-drain” from Northern Ireland; talented individuals have left Northern Ireland in great numbers for economic opportunity elsewhere. Furthermore, voter participation is down, as power-sharing has become frustrating and divisive. Alliance leader David Ford explains:

Continued divisions in our society impact upon people in many ways, including how we live, how we learn, how we work and how we play. These divisions bring significant human, social, economic and financial costs…By contrast, the creation of a shared future would provide better opportunities for all and significantly assist the development of our economy.

To progress towards shared Northern Irish prosperity, a culture of tolerance and mutual helpfulness must be fostered. The best place to start is the education system, which the Alliance Party recently identified as the key to integration.

Social segregation is especially apparent in education. About 95 percent of Northern Irish children attend Protestant-dominated schools or Catholic schools, with the other five percent attending “integrated” schools. There are five types of schools in Northern Ireland. “Controlled” schools are Protestant dominated and owned by the Education and Library Board with Protestant churches often represented on the board of governors. Catholic “maintained” schools are owned by the Catholic Church, although the Education and Library Board also provide funding.  There are also Protestant “maintained” schools, owned by Protestant churches with some public funding, and voluntary grammar schools. Lastly, integrated schools are partially owned by trustees, while receiving funds from the Department of Education. 51 percent of Northern Irish students are Catholic, usually attending the “maintained” Roman Catholic schools. Protestant children overwhelmingly attend the “controlled” schools. This religious segregation costs the state millions of pounds more than an integrated system would because of the duplication of educational resources. More disturbing is the effect a segregated education system has on the identities of Northern Irish children; because of this system, schoolchildren often reach adulthood barely ever having engaged with their counterparts and fellow citizens.

In October 2010, Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson called the Northern Ireland education system a “benign form of apartheid,” asking, “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.” But there is nothing benign about an education system that perpetuates sectarianism and mistrust, sometimes to the point of violence. If Northern Ireland is to move beyond its troubled past, its youth must be educated in tolerance. Robinson noted, “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.” The current primary and secondary education system fails to prepare Protestant and Catholic children for the diversity of the real world: Kathleen Gormley, a former principal of a Catholic school, asks, "How many children—and I was one of them—go to a Catholic school and then to a Catholic post-primary school, and then go to university or to a job and find that it's mixed?” Unfortunately, by the time students have reached the university level, their ideas about the “other” have in all likelihood been shaped by skewed stereotypes, rather than by continual interaction and personal experience.

Academics in psychology and sociology have studied intergroup relations in regards to prejudice. One prominent theory in intergroup relations is the Contact Hypothesis put forth by Harvard psychologist Gordon W. Allport in 1954. He believed stereotyping and discrimination could be reduced if four specific conditions of interpersonal contact were met. These four conditions included an equal status relationship between the two groups, common goals, intergroup cooperation towards common goals, and a higher authority acknowledged by both groups. Further studies have refined this hypothesis, emphasizing specific conditions under which positive attitudes emerge. The hypothesis has enjoyed substantial support: A 2000 analysis by Pettigrew and Tropp of 203 studies in 25 countries showed about a 94 percent success rate for the Contact Hypothesis. The hypothesis has been refined to more specifically show the conditions that promote tolerance. A much-cited study by Israeli psychologist Yehuda Amir of Bar Ilan University published in 1969 emphasized that increased contact does not always lessen tensions or prejudice. He found that unfavorable conditions increasing tension included contact with individuals of a lower status, and absence of shared goals. In other words, Amir found that intimate contact has a much greater effect on attitudes than casual contact. Favorable conditions, reducing prejudice, included contact between people of equal status, cooperative activities, shared goals, and a supportive social space with institutional support.

The Contact Hypothesis applies to various kinds of prejudice: A 1993 study by Herek and Glunt found that increased contact with homosexuals (for heterosexuals) was more predictive of positive attitudes towards gay men than any other variable tested, despite religious, ethnic, and cultural differences. Similarly, 2011 Novotny and Polonsky study demonstrated that personal contact with Muslims leads Westerners to more positive views of Muslims. Perhaps most relevant to the case of Northern Irish schools is a 2004 study conducted by researchers at Columbia's Teachers College and UCLA examining desegregated schools in the United States, which concluded, “desegregation made the vast majority of the students who attended these schools less racially prejudiced and more comfortable around people of different backgrounds.”

Based on the overwhelming research in favor of the Contact Hypothesis, the best way to engender tolerance is through the promotion of integrated schools, whose students are split about evenly into Catholics and Protestants. To some degree the hypothesis has already been proven true. In 1981, a parenting group established Northern Ireland’s first integrated school, Lagan College, which has the Latin motto, “Unt Sin Unum,” meaning “That They May Be One.” Originally opened with only twenty-eight students, today the school boasts more than twelve hundred pupils. Three more integrated schools opened in 1985. And today, there are sixty-one integrated schools, forty-one of which are primary schools. Organizations dedicated to promoting integrated education include the Integrated Education Fund and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education. The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education enumerates four basic principles: equality, faith and values, parental involvement, and social responsibility.

Equality means having roughly equal numbers of Protestant and Catholic students and board members through an admissions process that ensures an integrated environment. Faith and values means the school is “Christian in character and welcomes all faiths and none.” Parental involvement underscores the importance of including parents in the education process and “ensuring that parents are made fully aware of the school’s integrated ethos.” Social responsibility is the teaching of non-violent conflict resolution, mutual understanding and tolerance to create a “shared civic space.”

Integrating education in Northern Ireland completely would, however, prove controversial. Current education minister John O’Dowd has said that the proponents of integration should acknowledge the desires of parents to have their kids receive religious education: “It is important that in an open, modern society, parents have the right to express a preference for schools that reflect a religious, or integrated, ethos. Indeed it would not be appropriate for me to attempt to force parents to choose one type of school over another.” Framed this way, the issue becomes one of individual choice and the group rights of religious sects versus the fostering of a more peaceful and tolerant society. Still, the academic research shows the importance of sustained, intimate contact between groups in changing attitudes. This kind of contact can only be fostered in an integrated system.

Others believe integration should occur within the Protestant-dominated state system.  However, the Protestant demographic dominance of the state system makes it unlikely that Catholics will begin sending their children to them in great numbers. Additionally, it may be more difficult to provide a balanced account of Northern Irish history in a British-Protestant dominated system. Only an integrated system could foster the “equal status” condition of the Contact Hypothesis.

The societal implications of continued segregation are the perpetuation of the mistrust and hostility that has dogged Northern Ireland for so long. To balance the twin concerns of individual rights and promoting tolerance, a nuanced approach can be taken. Funding to integrated schools can be increased, without limiting the autonomy of parents to make their own decisions for their children. An integrated education system should promote the conditions cited by academics as ones that foster tolerance, such as equal status between Protestants and Catholics within the school and tasks that force intergroup cooperation.

In July 2012, O’Dowd announced an establishment of an advisory group to look into “shared education.” In January, the Alliance Party set an ambitious goal for integration: to have twenty percent of students educated in integrated schools in 2020. Gormley, who is currently Principal of Hazelwood Integrated College, sees a rise in nonintegrated schools moving towards integration, saying, “I was contacted by two principals in the last month to ask how they would move their schools to becoming integrated, so whilst we may see the setting up of more integrated schools, we may see more schools transfer to integrated status simply because the management style is different in an integrated school.” These are promising indicators that both Catholics and Protestants are realizing more and more the costs of indefinite segregation. The economic and social well-being of Northern Ireland depends on Catholics and Protestants deciding to flourish together. Education integration is just the place to start.