Life

Leona O'Neill: Integrated education can help plant the seeds of peace and unity

As the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches, Leona O'Neill wonders why we are still educating our kids in Catholic and Protestant schools and still being 'guided' by a political process that relies on pitting us against each other to secure votes...

1998: Eight-year-old William Murray pictured at the New Life mural on the Shankill Road which was painted the day after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Picture by Alan Lewis
1998: Eight-year-old William Murray pictured at the New Life mural on the Shankill Road which was painted the day after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Picture by Alan Lewis 1998: Eight-year-old William Murray pictured at the New Life mural on the Shankill Road which was painted the day after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Picture by Alan Lewis

WE WILL soon mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. I will celebrate it, I will appreciate it. Without the work that went into the Good Friday Agreement and the peace that followed, who knows if you or I would be here, if our children would be here.  

The Good Friday Agreement changed a lot of things, but in many ways things that should have changed have stayed the same. We are still a very divided community. We largely live in different areas according to our religion, are educated in different schools for the same reason, and because of this a lot of our young people are not mixing in ways that would lend themselves well to a normal shared society. 

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 socialized, 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 didn’t properly meet and become friends with a Protestant person until I went to college in Belfast. And what a revelation that was. I found that 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 rather ‘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. And 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. We can’t let them take power. They are out to destroy everything that you hold dear.

Sound familiar? I’d say so, 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 will Northern Ireland look like on the 50th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement? Will we still be educating our kids in Catholic and Protestant schools? Will our peace lines get higher or be taken away altogether? Will our sick political processes still be pitting us against each other to survive at election time? Who knows, but one thing is certain, the first steps towards a normalised education mean moves away from segregated education. 

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. That will be us in Northern Ireland in 2048 when we are marking the 50th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement if we don't make change now.

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. We have come so far since 1998. There is still some road to travel.