I went to a mixed school filled with students of different genders, religious beliefs and identities. The way I was educated may seem typical to some, but in Northern Ireland it is far from the norm. My education is what all young people in Northern Ireland should be entitled to. But our political leaders haven’t taken enough action.
More than 90% of schools in Northern Ireland are segregated, meaning most young people are educated in either a state-funded school that predominantly attracts Protestant families or a school funded by the state but maintained by the Roman Catholic church.
Despite my mixed upbringing – my mother was raised Catholic while my father grew up in a Protestant household – I knew that young people were somewhat disconnected from each other depending on the school they went to. At a young age, I begrudgingly took first communion classes with the local Catholic school, and at secondary school watched a friend walk regularly to the Catholic boys’ school nearby for Irish lessons.
Young people in Northern Ireland are segregated not only by the schools we go to but also by the languages we speak and the sports we play: where some schools offer rugby or cricket, others provide Gaelic football and hurling.
My parents, who attended small, segregated schools in opposite communities at the height of conflict, hoped my education would not be framed by such divisions. My nondenominational school made this a reality. But 7% – the number of young people educated in integrated schools – is distressingly low. A fear of violence doesn’t invade our schools as it did when my parents were children. Communities are predominantly peaceful, equal, but still apart.
Integrated education in Northern Ireland has never been more important. In April, we saw the worst rioting on our streets in years; buses were hijacked and cars set alight close to my home. There was violence at our peace walls, where petrol bombs were hurled over the divide. The worst part? Children as young as 13 were throwing them.
But what we saw wasn’t just disturbance over the workings – or ill-workings – of Brexit. Several of our leaders have consistently shown their willingness to whip up resentment about Northern Ireland’s place in the deal. But a complex trade arrangement did not push young people towards bricks and bombs. What we saw was members of this generation being lured into anger and hostility – a hostility propped up by a system that keeps them apart.
Young people are separated in the very place where we learn and build relations. Significantly, segregation disproportionately harms working-class families. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has highlighted “persistent underachievement” among Protestant boys entitled to free school meals. And while paramilitary activity is still active in working-class communities, segregation only fosters hostility and harms vulnerable, disillusioned young people who can be misled by violent actors.
Integrated education isn’t just needed, it’s overwhelmingly wanted: 71% of people in Northern Ireland think it should be the norm, and integrated schools are consistently oversubscribed.
Still, this mandate isn’t new. The Education Reform Order of 1989 placed a formal duty on the Department of Education to “encourage and facilitate” integrated education. It was honoured in the Good Friday Agreement through these very same words. The Education Act created more pressure for shared education. And later, in the New Decade New Approach agreement, which brought our government back from a three-year hiatus, all five parties agreed to an independent review of our fragmented system, a process that’s only just begun.
But it’s a testament to both the urgency for integrated schools and the negligence of our political leaders that reform has been driven by community action. The Integrated Education Fund (IEF) has helped several schools that have achieved this status since Northern Ireland’s first school became integrated in 1981. Not one of these 68 schools was integrated through government organisation.
Tina Merron, the chief executive of the IEF, tells me: “Every integrated school has come into existence by parents’ groups setting one up or by an existing school transforming to integrated status … the end result is a testimony to months, if not years, of hard work by parents, teachers and governors.”
Despite statutory duties and overwhelming support for integration, our political leaders have failed to act on numerous mandates that would allow a new generation of young people to be educated together.
Our two largest political parties, the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, have collectively dominated the ministerial portfolio for education, but neither has pushed for integration. For them, keeping schools religiously segregated means keeping their own communities, identities and vote base intact.
But these divisions are already broken and outdated, and don’t represent young people in Northern Ireland today. Every year, more young people are ditching sectarian labels, which no longer reflect the subtleties of how we define ourselves. Those engaging in violence are a minority.
Support has also fallen for the DUP, and we’re likely to see shifts in voting behaviour at next year’s assembly election, with popular support for the non-sectarian Alliance – the party that has shown the greatest commitment to integration – catching up to the DUP.
The cross-community party recently backed the integrated education bill currently making its way through the assembly, which would bring provision for integrated education. Despite popular backing, the bill still faced criticism from several parties for overshadowing the ongoing review, a process set to take at least another year. In the meantime, our political leaders are still issuing harmful threats to collapse the assembly, and young people are still being drawn into violence.
As tension still simmers in Northern Ireland, young people need to see active steps taken by our leaders to end segregation, and to respond to decades of mandates for integration.
Young people should feel they belong in any school regardless of their religion, or lack of religion. More than that, they should not feel segregated from others based on harmful, obsolete sectarian criteria.
Integration is a matter of urgency in Northern Ireland; it must be the norm.
Abby Wallace, a student at Queen’s University Belfast, won the Guardian Foundation’s Hugo Young award for political opinion writing 2021 for this piece