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It's time to end the segregation in Northern Ireland

Peter Osborne suggests the best way to overcome prejudice is through relationships

Peter Osborne

IT IS SHAMEFUL that in 2016, most people’s lives in Northern Ireland are set out for them by the time they are four or five years old. It is then that children are sent to segregated schools, beginning a pattern of segregation.

One mother from a rural background explained to me once that she didn’t think about that pattern until her son and her neighbour’s son started school. They were inseparable, she said, until at five years old they walked to the bottom of their shared laneway. One turned left and the other turned right – to go to different schools.

They have diverged at the bottom of that laneway ever since, she said.

One might go to play Gaelic, the other cricket. They went to different youth clubs, and would socialise in different parts of town. They’re still friendly she said, but it’s not the same.

Growing up divided

I was brought up in Ballybeen, Co. Down, in the 1970s. I have gone on to do a range of things that I couldn’t have imagined doing back then, that most people from an estate like Ballybeen don’t get a chance to do. Especially those who, like me, failed their 11 plus.

I have been part of a movement trying to resolve some of the most challenging issues in this still divided society.

Source: AP/Press Association Images

University changed my life but not because of the qualifications that I earned. I was taught to think for myself and to challenge many of the assumptions and prejudices that I had absorbed. I started to have relationships with people who were different to me. I didn’t even properly meet a Catholic until I went to University at 18. This was normal where I’m from.

I found that it is better, closer and honest relationships that dismantle prejudice. When they are cut short, another opportunity for reconciliation is lost.

Stop the education segregation

In 1965 Martin Luther King led a campaign in Chicago against what he called ‘the infamous wall of segregation’ in education.

Yet in Northern Ireland 50 years on the morally indefensible is defended, the socially unjustifiable is justified and a financially bonkers system of separation is tolerated by otherwise sane and sensible people.

With money tight, we spend millions of pounds, for example, on separate teacher training facilities and provide for dozens more teachers than are actually needed in the system.

Here’s a radical suggestion: Let’s do teacher training where it should be done – at an existing university. We could create many more local jobs by using the existing facilities differently, like relocating some government departments from an already over-crowded Stormont estate into the heart of south or west Belfast. What a message about inclusion and belonging that would send out.

We could save capital and revenue costs. Fewer teachers will be trained, ending the drain of young, enthusiastic, talented newly trained teachers exasperated that there are so few jobs available because there are so many teachers trained.

And those adults that apparently can’t be trained together as teachers may just learn something else by developing relationships with each other.

Source: AP/Press Association Images

Policy and service delivery should never be about protecting structures or particular interests. It should always be about getting the best for the people it serves – in this case the taxpayers and the teachers and the children being taught.

Understanding the causes of division

For wider society our aspiration should not be to better manage separation, but to overcome underlying causes of division.

All those years ago when Martin Luther King led his campaign to end segregation in education, one of his nemeses, Governor George Wallace, declared himself in favour of segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.

Governor Wallace was on the wrong side of history. So are those that resist ending segregation in education here. It’s only a matter of time.

Peter Osborne is chair of the Community Relations Council.

Read: Enda Kenny wants an open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland 

Read: Poll: Do you want to see a united Ireland?

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