Life

Jake O'Kane: Separate education – what better definition of insanity could there be?

While I understand parents wanting to pass on their faith, surely that transmission should take place in the home, not the schoolroom. If religion was that important why would anyone consider abdicating that sacred responsibility to some post-pubescent who'd just finished a teaching course?

If we are ever to have anything resembling normality, then the foundation on which that society is built will involve us educating our children together

ON THURSDAY night past I was on stage at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, performing at a benefit gig for the Integrated Education Fund (IEF). I'd been asked to do it a few times before but said no as I'd always felt conflicted – not about the cause – but about working for free.

Blame Game host, Tim McGarry, who's a fervent IEF supporter – there's no length that man won't go to for the cause... of getting an OBE. Only kidding!

After torturing me to perform, eventually I relented. I checked with him whether I could say whatever I wanted. He said I could, which was great as I was going to anyway. So, in front of an Ulster Hall packed with IEF supporters, I began my act by shouting: "Integrated education is not the answer."

 

After what I'm sure seemed like an eternity to the shocked audience, I explained that while I didn't believe integrated education was the whole answer, I did believe it was an integral and essential part of the answer to Northern Ireland's problems. If we are ever to have anything resembling normality, then the foundation on which that society is built will involve us educating our children together.

 

Having torn ourselves apart for over 40 years in one of the most vicious and violent internecine sectarian conflicts of the 20th century, Northern Ireland – two decades into the 21st century – still sees sense separating its children along religious lines from the ages of four to 17. What better definition of insanity could you have?

Those politicians who argue for the compromise called 'shared education' only exhibit their moral cowardice, as shared education is to education what intelligent design is to evolution.

While I understand parents wanting to pass on their faith, surely that transmission should take place in the home, not the schoolroom. If religion was that important why would anyone consider abdicating that sacred responsibility to some post-pubescent who'd just finished a teaching course?

 

My experience of integrated education precedes the IEF or even the birth of many in the audience in the Ulster Hall last Thursday night. In 1978, when I was 17 years old, RTÉ sent a television documentary team north to make a programme about integrated education. Unlike friends who were desperate to participate, I wanted nothing to do with it. I saw the show as southerners coming north to poke at us warring savages, through the bars of our cage.

 

Of course, I was one of the first boys chosen, as the programme-makers recognised I was a bolshie wee runt. The production team turned out to be a bunch of hippies who'd decided to add to the Catholic and Protestant school mix by having a Protestant grammar and Catholic secondary.

The grammar school boys had posh accents, gleaming white shirts, school tie, and crisp black blazers on which were emblazoned their school insignia. Theirs was a 'feeder' school for the likes of Oxbridge, while my school had become a 'feeder' for the H-blocks. The producers realised they'd blundered after the first day's filming when many of the Protestants boys went home missing both their money and blazers.

As they'd only allowed two days for filming, a team of social workers were brought in on the second day to moderate our behaviour. They began with what they called 'trust-building exercises'. The one we enjoyed most involved us crossing our arms on our chests, closing our eyes, then letting ourselves fall backwards into the arms of the boys from the other school.

 

I won't tell a lie; the Protestant boys caught us. However, when roles were reversed, and we had to do the catching, the room resounded with the thump of grammar boys' backs hitting the floor. While frantic social workers screamed at us we calmly explained it wasn't our fault, as the Protestants were unnaturally slippy and impossible to catch.

 

I've always believed in karma and in my case the circle was closed over the summer when we bought my son his big-school uniform. As he put on his new blazer I admit I'd a lump in my throat, as I realised I'd seen that blazer before, 41 years previously, on a boy I'd just dropped on the floor.

 

What could I do? So, I got him to cross his arms on his chest, close his eyes, and fall backwards, and when he hit the ground I told him: "Lesson one, never trust anyone who promises to catch you."

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