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Benign Apartheid

Mark Devenport | 12:06 UK time, Sunday, 17 October 2010

Three years ago the former Strangford DUP MP Iris Robinson didn't mince her words in expressing her opposition to integrated schools. Responding to the rejection of a proposal for a new integrated post primary school in her area she claimed that the integrated lobby "consists of nothing else other than self-righteous, pompous claims of reconciliation....Far from transcending sectarianism with some stupendous alternative for the provision of education in Northern Ireland, the integrated lobby is an integral part of that sectarian system and feeds off it - without it, it would starve and die."

Fast forward to Friday night and Peter Robinson makes a speech to DUP supporters in which he mentions that his first contribution to a party conference was in favour of integrated education. The leader then goes on to label the current segregated system a "benign form of apartheid" and to propose a ten year process during which the current sectors should be merged. "Consideration should be given" Mr Robinson argues "to tasking a body or commission to bring forward recommendations for a staged process of integration and produce proposals to deal with some of the knotty issues such as religious education, school assembly devotions and the curriculum. Future generations will not thank us if we fail to address this issue."

So how to explain the gap between these statements? Well DUP politicians have consistently argued there should only be one education system - but their point has been that the Catholic church should not have set up its separate schools in the days after the foundation of the Northern Ireland state. As Mr Robinson put it in his speech (using rather less extreme language than his wife) he believes the current integrated schools "more often than not....join in the competition for funds against the other two main education sectors and in truth will never create the critical mass needed to make a real difference."

The Robinson speech appears consistent with the previous DUP approach, although the mention of a commission to deal with a process of transition perhaps points to a readiness to see change in the state sector, rather than simply telling the catholic church it was wrong to go it alone.

So how will the vested interests respond? If the initial response from the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and Sinn Fein is anything to go by, it looks like the Robinson initiative will be viewed as an unwelcome assault.

It's true, as the CCMS pointed out on Sunday Sequence, that across the water faith schools are being encouraged. However (perhaps with the exception of Islamic schools) the relevance of seperate schools to community cohesion and, potentially, future conflict is not as direct in England as it is here. The DUP leader has touched on a very obvious "knotty issue". But do our politicians, church and educational leaders have the will or desire to cut the knot?

UPDATE: Speaking to me a short time ago on "Inside Politics", Martin McGuinness described Peter Robinson's approach as "a big mistake" and a recipe for "a head on collision."


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