So you think Catholic schools are ‘cultural apartheid’ and that they are what’s keeping this a divided society. How absurd, you say, if we were to talk about Catholic and Protestant universities: no one would tolerate the idea for a moment, and yet we have separate schools at primary and secondary level. Catholic schools may be a benign form of apartheid, you tell us, but they’re apartheid just the same. In fact the morality of their existence is questionable and it’s time the government stopped funding them. “As a society and administration we are not mere onlookers of this; we are participants and continue to fund schools on this basis. And then we are surprised that we continue to have a divided society”.
Well said, Peter. Like yourself I’m against anything that fosters division between Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. Like you I’m against funding organizations that promote sectarian division and whose morality is dubious. Supposing, for the sake of argument, there was an organization that permitted only Protestants to join it – that’d be pretty reprehensible, I’m sure you’d agree. An organization that would expel any of its members if it found they had married a Catholic. An organization whose members every year, for months on end, would parade the streets and roads of this part of Ireland, with banners and tunes and speeches glorifying the memory of the day when the forces of Protestant King William defeated those of Catholic King James. If such an organization existed – and thank God it doesn’t – I know you, Peter, would lead the charge against them and would insist that not a penny of public funds go their way.
But let’s stick to the schools. You’re right, Catholic schools do indeed recruit Catholic children; but if you check you’ll find that they’re equally available to any Protestant children who might wish to attend. (The same as far as I know applies to Protestant schools, although Protestant parents are much slower to have their children attend a Catholic school than vice versa). The thing is, Peter, I spent most of my day-job working life going in and out of both Catholic and Protestant schools, sitting in their classrooms, their staff-rooms, talking to and listening to staff members and pupils alike. And do you know what? Never once in thirty years did I hear a teacher utter a word that might have been interpreted as sectarian or encouraging of divisiveness. In fact the contrary. So if children are absorbing sectarianism and a contempt for those of a different religion, they must be getting it somewhere else than in their schools.
But maybe you think the very fact of having separate schools means that sectarianism flourishes? You may have a point. But mightn’t it be better to mend some other things first – like the fact that the great majority of people here prefer to live among their own sort? It’s not just the great unwashed working class either. Look what happened in leafy south Belfast when the new Catholic middle class started moving in: mass migration of Protestants to the safety of North Down. So maybe a heave against segregated communities rather than where they went to school. (By the way, where do you live, Peter? Many tai – I mean Catholics around?) And then there’s the history of employment here – from the shipyards to the nice man who took Martin McGuinness’s name, the first job he applied for, and showed him the door the minute Martin said what school he’d been at.
So yes, maith thú, Peter, I think you’ve shown great leadership in this. But I’d hate to think you were tilting at sectarian windmills when there were real, in-your-face sectarian organizations and social patterns stopping the integration traffic on every side. In a way, though, I’m not that surprised. Because you are where you are because you do stand on the shoulders of a giant, don’t you? That colourful clerical man who, for so many decades, in his speeches and actions, did all he could to stamp out division and bitterness, and bring us all together. Or to change the metaphor, the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.