The First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Peter Robinson, last Friday called for an end to government funding of Catholic schools. This, he claimed, was part of a push towards an integrated education system. The education of Protestants and Catholics in separate schools in Northern Ireland, he said, is “a benign form of apartheid”.
And what, we ask ourselves, is really behind this démarche?
According to Mr Robinson: “We cannot hope to move beyond our present community divisions while our young people are educated separately.” So, he mounts a frontal attack on one of the foundations of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, because actually what he would really like to do is abolish the Catholic community. That would overcome divisions between the communities all right: if you dissolve the communities, you dissolve the divisions.
The secularisation of Northern Ireland, a kind of religious scorched earth policy, would be one kind of solution, of course. And it could be that what Mr Robinson actually fears is that the process of secularisation, which is affecting both communities, and which he can do nothing to halt, will in the end leave the Protestant community weaker than the Catholic community. For, although the sex abuse scandal has left the Irish Catholic Church reeling, it may be that its rapid resulting decline has now bottomed out.
In 2005, a joint study by academics from Queen’s University, Belfast, and the University of Ulster, found that the Catholic Church in Ireland had seen a sharp drop in attendance from 90 per cent to 62 per cent in 15 years. Discouragingly for Mr Robinson, however, the report found that whereas Catholics were more likely to stay with the Church but simply attend less, Protestants tended to move away from churches altogether.
Mass attendance is now probably a good bit lower than that 62 per cent, but is still one of the highest in Europe. And the Irish Church has cleaned up its act and is fighting back: last year, a report of a new survey was published in the Irish Times under the headline “Mass attendance in Ireland is up”: it had risen by some four per cent in the previous 12 months.
The real point about Mr Robinson’s attempt to suppress Catholic education in the name of community relations is that our schools are not now, nor have they been, the problem: on the contrary, they have been part of the solution. I remember, years ago, talking about this perennial accusation with the late, great Mgr Denis Faul, an opponent not only of what he saw as the British human rights record in Ulster – internment without trial, army and police harassment of civilians, ill-treatment of suspects in custody, and so on – but also of IRA brutality, which he courageously condemned in the face of constant and repeated threats to his life.
Wherever he could, he worked to improve relations between Protestants and Catholics: but he also denounced the integrated schools movement as a “dirty political trick” to undermine Catholic education. He conjured up a dire future for Catholics if it was successful, predicting that “pictures of the Sacred Heart and Our Blessed Lady would have to be removed to avoid offending Protestants, and in their place we would get Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Dick Whittington and his cat”. He was an admirer of Pope Benedict; and he really believed that only Catholic schools stood in the path of the “monster” of “soulless secularism”. And who will say that he was wrong? Peter Robinson, no doubt; but he may not be an entirely neutral commentator.
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