The harrowing images from Belfast, Northern Ireland last week of a masked youth throwing a petrol bomb, egged on by a willing crowd of teenagers and adults, are depressing enough. The fact that the petrol bomb hit a security gate (euphemistically called ‘peace walls’) with a mural, which read “There was never a good war or a bad peace” is demoralising. As is too often the case, Northern Ireland has been making the national headlines for all the wrong reasons.
There has been much discussion around the reasons for this violence (as if there is ever a justification for hijacking and torching a transit bus). From Brexit and the ‘Irish backstop’ to loyalist allegations of the Police Service of Northern Ireland being too soft on Sinn Fein, it is clear that cross-community relations remain fractured, especially in working-class neighbourhoods.
As we mark the 23rd anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement – one of Labour’s greatest achievements – the re-emergence of the scourge of violence on the streets of Belfast is a reminder of the work still to be done in healing and reconciling a divided society. But should we really be surprised? After all, over 90% of children across Northern Ireland continue to be taught in a segregated system.
The GFA includes a clear pledge “to facilitate and encourage integrated education”, which brings pupils and staff from Catholic and Protestant traditions, as well as those of other beliefs, cultures and communities together in one school. Over 20 years later and the latest cross-party accord – the New Decade, New Approach settlement, signed in January 2020 – commits the Northern Ireland executive to “support educating children and young people from different backgrounds together in the classroom”. Progress has been unforgivably slow. At present, there are 65 integrated schools across Northern Ireland, educating children from pre-school to 18 years old, representing 7% of the school population.
I am one of the lucky few. From a Protestant working-class family, living close to the Shankill Road, I attended Hazelwood College, an integrated school that is situated on a sectarian interface in north Belfast, from 1999 to 2006. Indeed, my school twice played host to visits from Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. It might sound like a cliché but before enrolling at Hazelwood aged 11, I had never met someone from ‘the other side’. Our school days are often seen as formative years, and that was certainly true for me. In attending Hazelwood, not only did I receive a first-class education and build friendships and relationships that will last a lifetime, but the values of tolerance and mutual respect were instilled in me. My school days prepared me to go out into an increasingly diverse and plural society.
Dr Mo Mowlam, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was a passionate advocate for integrated education. She singled out her desire to see the realisation of the GFA’s commitment to educating children together, whilst acknowledging the challenges: “It will take generations to achieve, but it is a very important aspect of building a lasting peace in Northern Ireland and something I believe in passionately.” There are seeds of hope in making this a reality.
The long-awaited Independent Review of Education, established by the Department of Education, was set up “with a focus on securing greater efficiency in delivery costs, raising standards, access to the curriculum for all pupils, and the prospects of moving towards a single education system”. This review provides an opportunity to truly fulfil the GFA pledge “to facilitate and encourage integrated education”. I fear that to miss this opportunity will only make the work of peace-building and reconciliation even more distant.
The precarious scenes of young people engaged in street violence stands in stark contrast to the hope and promise that accompanied the Good Friday Agreement two decades ago. Nobody said that building a lasting peace would be easy. Mo Mowlam understood that “you don’t deal with bigotry, sectarianism and hatred overnight. It takes generations to change in a meaningful way.” The need to make urgent progress in taking forward integrated education has never been clearer. We owe it to our Mo, and we owe it to future generations to make it happen.