Practicing Peace

March 17, 1994|By ANTHONY J. F. O'REILLY and FIONA STEPHEN

BOSTON — Boston. -- Whatever lies in the future for Northern Ireland, the only certainty is that the people, not the politicians, will eventually make the real peace by accepting each other with tolerance and mutual respect.

When choosing to turn away from long-acceptable patterns of prejudice and violence, men and women at the grass-roots level are often ahead of the politicians. In Northern Ireland, a community-based movement to establish integrated schools for Protestant and Catholic children has entered its second decade with vigor and a determination to make a difference.

Three new integrated schools were opened last fall -- two in Belfast, another in Armagh -- bringing to 21 the total number of such schools now operating throughout the province. The first integrated school, Lagan College (despite the name, the equivalent of an American high school), began classes in 1981 with just 28 pupils. Enrollment at Lagan now tops 800 and for all integrated schools exceeds 4,000.

The emergence of integrated schools reflects growing readiness for peaceful, constructive change within many parts of Northern Ireland. In the past six years, an average of two new integrated schools have started up each fall; three more hope to open later this year.

Occasionally perceived as a movement by and for the middle class, integrated education in Northern Ireland has always drawn pupils from across the social spectrum. At Belfast's newest integrated primary school, for example, nearly a quarter of enrolled pupils live in what are called ''one-community estates,'' sprawling public housing developments which are typically segregated and where on both sides, sectarian violence and high unemployment are sadly common.

Before 1981 and the founding of Lagan College, primary and secondary education in Northern Ireland was segregated de facto if not de jure. Even today, state-run ''controlled'' schools are mostly Protestant and despite recent curriculum reforms they reflect the tradition of the English and Scots settlers in Northern Ireland. ''Maintained'' schools are operated by the Catholic authorities and naturally their ethos is exclusively Catholic. The cultural division between the two sectors is clear from the different sports students play -- cricket on the one hand, Gaelic football on the other.

Because integrated education did not exist for their children, parents had to invent it. Integrated education is not a movement of social planners dictating to unwilling subjects. It is a private effort by and for those who will benefit most. Every new integrated school begins only when parents from both Protestant and Catholic communities gather to declare their intentions to create together an educational environment of tolerance for their children.

A further key element in the success of integrated schools is a carefully planned structure governing membership and management of each school. Representation of either cultural group never falls below 40 percent of enrollment. This guarantee seeks to prevent one group from becoming dominant, a situation which can lead to inequality or bias, conscious and otherwise. The 60-40 ratio reasonably well reflects Northern Ireland's population, incidentally, with the majority Protestants making up 57 percent of the 1.5 million total.

Parents' commitment to integrated education is restricted only by available resources. Mothers and fathers have built many integrated schools literally with their own hands, and they regularly volunteer throughout the school year as janitors, carpenters and painters. Contributions by charitable trusts and foundations lighten the financial burden on parents.

Northern Ireland is a remarkably youthful society with one quarter of the population under 16. As successful as the integrated- education movement has been up to now, enrollment constitutes only 1.1 percent of the school population. Visionaries dream of seeing a third of pupils in integrated schools by 2000. That will be a daunting challenge. At least one integrated school at primary level and one at secondary level in each of the province's 26 district council areas is the minimum necessary to make integrated education a realistic option for parents. The movement's growth will continue to rely on the partnership of parents, private foundations and a newly supportive government.

Research has helped demonstrate what common sense has long proclaimed: That children from divided communities who learn together and play together acquire tolerance and an ability to see through bigotry's folly. Integrated education may not be a panacea in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else, but it can play an important role in forging a reconciled society ready not just to preach peace but also to practice it.

Anthony J. F. O'Reilly is chairman of the American Ireland Fund. Fiona Stephen is chief of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, Belfast.

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