State Papers

State papers: Catholic bishops discuss integrated education and Irish language with British ministers

Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich led the delegation from the Catholic Church

CATHOLIC bishops voiced their opposition to priority funding for integrated education and their support for the Irish language at a meeting with direct rule ministers at Stormont in 1988.

The meeting between Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich and four other bishops with Secretary of State Tom King and education minister Brian Mawhinney took place in July that year to discuss government proposals for education reform.

The cardinal said they shared the aim of improving standards but objected to the introduction of a new "grant maintained status" for integrated schools which, he said, threatened the position of Catholic schools.

Bishop Patrick Walsh referred to west Belfast where "the situation was aggravated because parents had not supported the bishops’ policy", whereby pupils were not attending their local parish schools but were being sent to others in the area.

As a result, two schools had become "very popular", leaving four others very weak.

However, he felt that the new Corpus Christi College was getting off to a good start thanks to the links which existed with local parishes.

Dr Mawhinney observed that parents in west Belfast had made their views known in a way that had been difficult for the education authorities – and the Church – to ignore.

Turning to integrated education, Cardinal Ó Fiaich said the bishops had difficulty with the proposal to give grant maintained integrated schools capital funding priority over other schools which might be doing an equally good job through ecumenism and "hands across the divide".

Dr Mawhinney reassured them "the proposal was meant as a signal, and even as such was small".

Finally, Bishop Cahal Daly wished to record the bishops' concern about the position of the Irish language in the school curriculum.

Mr King replied that there was no intention of diminishing the importance of Irish, but the cardinal said the language appeared in the government’s proposals in a "downgraded position".

Dr Mawhinney responded that they were talking about education in the next century when people would be competing in a more "international world".

Cardinal Ó Fiaich felt that Irish should be placed on a par with modern European languages and suggested that it should be treated the same as Welsh.

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