Catholic Education In Norn Iron

Discussing the 1960s Civil Rights movement in “Northern Ireland” with American Civil Rights activists, it is never long before the question of Education arises. Put simply, Education was a key “black” demand in Alabama and Mississippi in the early 1960s but did not figure at all in the Norn Iron Civil Rights agenda……aimed at improving the rights of Catholics and Nationalists.

The reason was simple. Segregated Catholic Education was at least as good as the State (effectively Protestant/unionist) Sector. Which makes the current news stories about changing the Education system more intriguing.

The link between State and Education is fascinating. Take United States, France and Britain……..and although I know absolutely nothing about Education in these nations……it will not stop me from having a view… much on the perception than the constitutional reality.

As I understand it, USA has seperation of powers…a fairly “liberal” dogma (although for Europeans that Pledge of Allegiance that we see young American kids make seems a bit anti-liberal). When we hear of schools outside the “state sector”, the perception at least is that these uniform-wearing schools (usually Catholic or Jewish) are a form of private education, outside State provision. Yet oddly there is a political tug of war and surely a dilemna for a “conservative” who adheres to the letter and spirit of the American constitution on property rights and gun control……but is anxious to protect (particuarly) Christian education.

Take France. A secular nation which prohibits religious symbolism in schools. Essentially a compromise.. a reflection of the anti-clerical (occasionally anti-Catholic) nature of successive leftist revolutions…something which most French people clearly accept, it is as much a symbolic aspect of France as the American child pledging allegiance to “the Flag”. Yet this French convention is said to be undermined not by Catholics but by Muslims. Enforcing this protocol of not having overt religious symbolism in French schools is a dilemna for “liberals” who quite properly want a France, free of religious dominance but also a France which embraces “Diversity”. Thus trying to enforce a ban on young Muslim women wearing a burqua (sp) or headscarf seems a difficult balancing act. Conversely of course, the French extreme-Right see an opportunity to exploit.

Take Britain. Education was a role first taken on by “churches” as a way of improving the condition of the masses. It pre-dates “public” education. “Faith Schools” as they are now called are for Church of England, Catholic, Jewish and increasingly Muslim sectors. And again its a struggle between conservative and liberal and even dividing opinion in surprising ways. A secular society………..and is that really possible in Britain if the Head of State (the Queen) MUST be a member and indeed Supreme Governor of the Church of England?… one that would tend to think of religion as being a matter for the “home” or “church” rather than the “school”. The British secularist tends to see “faith schools” as a privelege paid for by the State. They tend to be viewed as “better” schools and there is anecdotal evidence that parents exaggerate a religious belief to enable their children to be enrolled in “better” schools. Of course it is also true that some of the most exclusive of Britain’s schools have a strong religious ethos.

But I think it is also fair to say that Britain has a long standing suspicion of “religious education”. Take the situation where a young man can be born and initially educated in Yorkshire……goes abroad to be educated further in his religion and returns to England…….as  a terrorist and launches a bombing campaign in London. It couldnt happen? Well actually it has happened twice……

Guy Fawkes was born in York and went abroad to Catholic Europe where he studied at Catholic colleges, fought a “Holy War” in the Netherlands and returned to England. He unsuccessfully plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Shehzad Tanweer was born in Bradford went abroad to Islamist Pakistan, fought a Holy War in Afghanistan and came home to England. He was one of the four suicide bombers who killed over fifty people in London in July 2005. There is a long standing suspicion of the “enemy within”. Catholics and Muslims.

“Faith Schools” divides “conservative opinion”. “Faith Schools” divide “liberal opinion”. The default conservative view is that a faith school is a right and a good thing. But while English sentiment is now no longer hostile to Catholicism……it is deeply suspicious about what goes on behind closed doors in Muslim schools in inner city England. The suspicion is not necessarily about “terrorism” but rather that Muslims subvert a sense of Englishness…however defined. Yet the default liberal view is that a faith school is a bad thing. And they agonise that girls and young women are being taught a set of values inconsistent with western feminism. But likewise liberals are concerned properly that British society should be multi-cultural.

“Northern Ireland” is …as always… different. The starting point should be the statistics. Around 315,000 children are in full-time education in Norn Iron. About 158,000 of these (a majority) attend “Catholic” schools, almost fully funded and supervised by the State. About 139,000 attend “State” schools (the Protestant churches nominate some people to boards to retain an ethos). The balance of 18,000 children………..most attend “Integrated” schools which have sprung up over the past twenty or so years……..some attend “Irish language” schools (taught thru Irish).

It is clear that although Norn Irons general population is no more than 45% “Catholic) and that nationalist parties such as Sinn Féin and SDLP attract 42% of the adult vote..the majority of children at school are actually Catholic. It has demographic consequences.

Catholic Education has had a chequered history in Ireland/Norn Iron. It has never been in the interest of a colonising power (In this case England) to have an educated class among the colonised. Formal Catholic Education was actually illegal in Ireland from 1723 until about 1780. To be educated formally meant adopting the official Protestant religion, which led to the setting up of “hedge schools” …..rural schools where the Irish poor were educated informally by local men with some education. The degree to which these were tolerated or even supported by the governing classes is fascinating.

Towards the end of the 18th Century, the British Government started to tolerate Catholicism even setting up the Catholic Seminary in Maynooth, County Kildare in 1795. Catholicism was actually seen as an ally against Republican France and Napolean Bonaparte.

Two significant developments in Britain in the 19th century were designed in part to neutralise Irish nationalism. Catholic Emancipation itself in 1829 and the democratic and liberal changes such as Education rights……”killing Ireland with kindness”. The effect of increased education….literacy ……was actually to boost nationalism.

The position of Catholics within Norn Iron 1922 onwards and Education was linked to their general status. Unionists claim that Catholics isolated themselves from Norn Iron structures. Catholics argue that they were deliberately excluded from structures. In fact….BOTH are right. The arrangements agreed between the new Unionist Government and Catholic Bishops provided for a considerable amount of autonomy in “Catholic” Education. Bishops retained a lot of power and Government provided most of the money.

Things changed a lot when the British Labour Party reformed British education after World War Two. And “Northern Ireland” followed suit.Essentially an Examination/Test at age 11…..allowed for two forms of secondary education. Better students transferred to Grammar Schools and this system has been in existence since.

The seeming irony is that after 1945 the Catholic Grammar Schools produced the generation of leaders who would come thru the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Of course it is not an irony at all…….the teachers (priests, nuns, Christian Brothers, lay teachers) were nationalist to a man ( and woman!) and their mission as they saw it was to produce Catholics who had the education to deal with the worst excesses of casual and organised discrimination.

I myself am a product of a Catholic Primary School in West Belfast (1957-1963) and Catholic Grammar School (1963-1970).

Certainly 2011 is not 1957 (or 1963) and necessarily I cant “compare” how it might have been in another system. I believe we were taught “nationalism” as much as Catholicism. When I was about nine years old, I was in a class where a teacher explained the difference between a mortal sin (one that loses your soul) and a venial sin as…………”if you shoot a policeman its a venial sin….if you shoot and miss, its a mortal sin”.

I expect at one time or another most Catholic children have been “taught” that. But essentially History is the key. 1963-68 the course began with 1485 and ended up with 1945. The first history textbook by a writer called Fallon started at Bosworth (the English battle where Richard III lost his throne to Henry Tudor) but each chapter was basic English history with sub sections on initially the Reformation and (always) Ireland…….from Silken Thomas onwards. Now of course there may not have been any overt propaganda but necessarily Fisher, More, Campion, Clitheroe were “martyrs”. Necessarily the O’Neills and the Earls were “heroes” and as I recall that was a pattern…….your enemys enemy is your friend………whether at the Battle of Flodden or the Battle of Yorktown…….or the Spanish Armada, Mary Queen of Scots, Guy Fawkes, the Royalists, Bloody Judge Jeffries,  the Jacobites, the French at Quebec, George Washington, United Irishmen, Napolean (after a shaky start), the Russians in the Crimea, the Afghans, the Germans in WW1…….to not quite the Nazis.

Of course it wasnt always overt. The teachers comment on the Black Hole of Calcutta that it “served the bastards right” was of course an exception but the tone was the important.

Obviously this was my experience in a specific place (West Belfast) at a specific time (1963-70) and no doubt there are different or similar experiences for other Catholics in Omagh, Enniskillen, Newry, Derry, Armagh, Ballymena. And no doubt History can be neutral, benign and anaemic and …….bland. But as any study of the rise of nationalism in mid 19th century Europe shows………nationalism is about defining differences….. a check list of geography, culture, language, religion, history, identity, folklore,….check all or most and youve got a nation.

People detect an irony….a false one…..that Sinn Féin and SDLP are actually opposed to the “selection” of children into (State or Catholic) grammar schools for the gifted at age 11 with the consequent marginalisation of children without seeming academic ability……in spite of the fact that many of these SF and SDLP politicians have benefitted from grammar school education. Indeed the latest SDLP politician (Sean Rogers) to enter Stormont (co-opted to succeed Margaret Ritchie is a retired principal of a grammar school.

It is a simple fact that in Norn Iron, the nationalist parties Sinn Féin and SDLP are also socialist, a direct consequence of the egalitarian nature of their (often) grammar school education. Likewise it is a simple fact that unionist parties such as the DUP and UUP are conservative.

So Peter Robinson and the DUPs “outreach” to Catholics needs to be exposed for what it is. The DUP are a political party which has never shown any respect for nationalist or Catholic “rights”. So his attempt…………even if genuine to break the link between the Catholic parents of grammar school children and nationalism …… doomed. His espousal of the primacy of children being educated together is as “political” as the intent of his unionist forebears nearly a century ago.

A homogenous Norn Iron is a unionist Norn Iron. Thats Robinson’s intent……dressed up as liberalism. Thats why nationalists (SDLP & SF) would be mad to buy into it.

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1 Response to Catholic Education In Norn Iron

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