Leona O'Neill: Integrated education is essential to protect our children from the mistakes of our past

Sectarianism should have been annihilated long ago, but instead we are still repeating the mistakes of our past. It's time for everyone to get behind integrated education so that children on both sides of the community will learn early on that they aren't that different from one another, writes Leona O'Neill

Integrated education gives kids from different communities the chance to mix from an early age

I'M A Catholic and when I was growing up I didn't have any Protestant friends. I lived in a predominantly 'Catholic area', I went to a 'Catholic school'. When we socialised, we went to places in 'Catholic areas'. Not because we didn't like Protestants, because we were kept apart, the Troubles were raging and that segregation was completely normal.

I remember being at school and we were to walk to another school in the, at the time, predominantly Protestant Waterside area to play a netball match as part of a school league. I remember our teacher telling us to bring in tracksuit bottoms to walk in and something to cover our school jumpers so that we weren't identified as Catholics on the journey. And we thought absolutely nothing of it, because it was normal.

Truly, I didn't properly meet and become friends with a Protestant person until I went to college in Belfast. They were exactly the same as us. They had the same fears, the same distrust that had been handed down to them. They had never met a Catholic before and were astounded to realise we were actually sound.

That was in the early 1990s. When the Good Friday Agreement was signed we were promised change. We were promised peace. Part of that promise should have been to combine and unite our communities in a way that the future will look a lot brighter than the dark past in this place.

The reason my Protestant friend distrusted Catholics was because he had no experience of us apart from the demonised picture that was painted for him by others, coloured also by the brutal violence of the day. And it was the same for me.

These notions were perpetuated by some of our political leaders back then, for whom it was good strategy to keep us in our own trenches. Apart is better. Apart is safer. You can't trust those people. They are out to get you. They are out to take away your Irishness/Britishness (delete as appropriate). We can't let them win. Sound familiar? It should, because it is the rhetoric still used by both sides to keep this sick society on life support and it's set to poison yet another generation.

What we saw on the streets of Belfast and Derry in recent weeks was hatred, of 'the other side', of people they deem to be protecting 'the other side'. Young men, no more than 14-years-old, throwing petrol bombs over each side of the peace wall, caring not who it lands on, because those beyond the wall have been de-humanised and demonised. Their lives don't matter in their eyes.

There are of course social and economic issues at play in these events, but part of what makes up this toxic jigsaw is pure sectarianism. Hatred of the 'other side'. That cancer should have been annihilated long ago, but it wasn't – and now another generation will suffer because of it.

And Irish president Michael D Higgins agrees with me. He has said that segregated education in Northern Ireland can no longer be justified. President Higgins said educating pupils based on their religious background is "abandoning them to parcels of hate and memory that others are manipulating".

Instead of throwing money at paramilitaries to become 'normal', we should be pumping money into educating our children together. Ensuring that, from a young age, they see no difference between each other. If we are to have any future, this has to become a reality.

We can't keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Albert Einstein said "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results." That is us, here in Northern Ireland.

We need hope for a better future. We need to invest in a better future for all of us and integrated education will plant those seeds of peace and unity.

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