GAA Football

Kicking Out: Ending school apartheid the only hope of real inclusion

The Lagan College pupils pictured when the integrated school first moved into Ulster Colleges GAA competition in late 2014. Integrated schools are in a minority in the north but are the framework for healing the tensions of division.

WITH the rolling fields beneath the Castlereagh Hills spread out around it, Lagan College sits on the south-eastern fringe of Belfast.

Forty years ago, it was founded as the north’s first integrated high-school.

With no support from government or church, a small group of parents took the initiative and founded their own school.

Six-and-a-half years ago, Lagan College entered the Ulster Colleges’ GAA competitions for the first time.

From its opening, Gaelic Games had been played on and off. It was on the PE curriculum but despite the presence of 1994 All-Ireland winning captain DJ Kane on the staff, there was little inroad made.

But standing in new red, black and yellow jerseys, the move into official competition in late 2014 was so significant it was splashed across the front page of The Irish News.

Integrated education is very much a minority player in the north yet it holds the key to our future.

Moving towards widespread integration was one of the stated aims of the Good Friday Agreement.

Martin McGuinness’ very first policy decision as Education Minister was to give rare government funding to two integrated schools.

One of them, Ulidia Integrated College in Carrickfergus, had been rejected for funding eight times by the previous education department due to the lack of Catholics required to balance the numbers.

McGuinness and Peter Robinson both spoke about the importance of an integrated focus for education going forward.

Robinson said that separating children from an early age has led to a “benign apartheid” in the north.

“You can’t send young people from different communities to different schools and then wonder why, in later life, we have these problems,” said the former First Minister.

Except that the apartheid no longer looks so benign.

The last 20 years have painted a single coat of white over the green and orange, but the two colours are never far from the surface.

One bad, heavy shower of Brexit hailstones is threatening to wash away the peaceful covering.

How could you expect anything else in a society where, in most cases, Catholics go to Catholic primary schools, Catholic secondary schools and effectively Catholic universities, and Protestants do the same?

There could not be a better example than your writer.

Until I met my wife at the age of 24, and got to know her friends, I knew just one Protestant.

The only reason the tally was so high was because he moved into our county Derry village and got involved in helping train the GAA team.

And guess what? He didn’t have horns coming out of his head, or UVF tattoos on his shoulder, and he didn’t insist the Sash be played in the changing room before games.

I never wanted to be segregated from anyone. I couldn’t care less who or what you are, but there’s no doubt that the separation plays on your mind.

When we’d go swimming at primary school, we’d stop and pick up the Protestant children in Burnfoot. They sat on the same bus but we sat in two groups and barely knew each other’s names.

That summer, there were a few cross-community trips and a few of them went.

There was one girl called Jill. There was possible kissing to be done.

But I was so afraid I’d be cast out of the village if I curted a Prod that I avoided her like the plague.

Even though it was never talked about, you couldn’t help but notice how society segregated you, and that conditioned you to think that they were different.

Encouraging that fear of the other side in future generations is no way to heal a benign apartheid.

Educating everyone under the same roof won’t rid the green and orange, but it would take more than a scrape with a spoon to get to that layer when it comes to big decision.

Because between the responses to Covid-19 and Brexit, we seem to have rewound the clock two decades.

The Integrated Education Fund (IEF) runs regular polls and says the results are in constant keeping with findings since the 1970s.

Parents in the north want integrated education, but they feel that the political parties and the churches have done just about everything in their power to block and discourage it.

The Catholic community had to fight hard for all that it had and has become very protective of its education system, which is effectively run by the church.

Yet the north is secularising massively. 19 per cent in 2017 said they had no religion. The Catholic mass-going population dropped from 81 per cent in 1998 to 52 per cent in 2017. Just 43 per cent of Protestants attend church.

To be tied to a church-driven school system seems crazy.

In sporting terms, it means the options for young people remain restricted.

'Soccer is for Prods, Gaelic is for Taigs and rugby is for grammar school toffs' - that’s been the basic lie of the land for generations here.

Yet there is no longer any nationalist aversion to soccer, and an affinity for rugby has been built up in the younger generation by the Irish team’s success of the last 20 years.

The GAA has no stated position on integrated education but has been running effective cross-community initiatives for years, as have the IFA and IRFU.

Many clubs in mixed areas have made great efforts at inclusion.

Yet in all reality, GAA remains an almost exclusively nationalist sport.

That is no longer through design.

The doors would be flung wide to anyone who wishes to come in. The success of the new East Belfast club is underlying proof.

But put yourself in the shoes of your neighbours down the road that paint their kerbs in July.

The numbers of Polish and Lithuanian surnames have, in just a few years, become a more regular presence than the names of kids from the local Protestant school.

Many have done great work but on the whole, if you were them and they were us, would you go up the road and play Gaelic football?

The ingrained sense of mutual distrust can only be eradicated when we stop telling four-year-olds that they have to go to a different school.

The education system builds a wall between the two sides that no right-minded citizen wants to be there.

By the time you start tearing it down, many are through university and into the workplace, by which time most of their lasting friendships have been formed.

And so it is, and will eternally be, them and us.

The GAA has no authority to make change to the education system, but it can be a central lobbyist in the corridors of government power.

The north will only ever be a truly inclusive place if we stop putting the wall up on four-year-olds.

If the GAA is really serious about inclusion, it must throw its considerable weight completely behind the full integration of our schools.

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