The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 established a devolved parliament in Stormont (Belfast), under the ultimate authority of the British Parliament, for six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster, severing what would become Northern Ireland (under continuing British sovereignty) from the emerging sovereign Irish Free State in the South. In contrast to Lebanon, the borders of Northern Ireland were dictated by demography: it was ‘the largest area [of the Irish isle] which could be comfortably held with a majority in favour of the union with Britain’.129 Here, societal cleavages crystallised in parallel to the solidification of the border in the 1920s and early 1930s, and religious denomination emerged as the primary marker of identity. To their respective counterparts, Catholic came to mean (Irish) Nationalist and disloyal to the Stormont parliament, while Protestant came to mean (British) Unionist and loyal to Stormont. As Akenson puts it, the hostile reciprocal perceptions of Catholics as ‘traitors’ and Protestants as ‘oppressors’, became ‘self-fulfilling predictions’.130
At the time of partition, schools in Northern Ireland (like schools in Ottoman Lebanon) were largely under the control of local churches.
The Irish Education Act of 1831 had established non-denominational, free elementary education in Ireland under the premise that ‘admitting children of all persuasions should not interfere with the particular tenets of any [religious denomination]’.131 Yet, clerical campaigns succeeded in bringing most schools under the control of the Protestant or Catholic clergies, and schools evolved into denominational establishments ‘that served their own faith communities’.132 Thus, by the late 1800s, Ireland had a dual and unequal education system separated along denominational lines. Separate schools protected and reproduced the Protestant distinctive identity within a majority Catholic Irish isle, and provided Catholic children with ‘a Catholic education, on Catholic principles, with Catholic masters and the use of Catholic books’.133
This section considers education policies at the establishment of Northern Ireland (1920-1946), under Unionist political hegemony (1947-1967) and during the Troubles (1968-1998), before briefly introducing the Belfast Agreement and subsequent educational reforms. Reflecting on the complexity of Northern Ireland’s education system, Bell asserted that ‘if you were starting from a blank sheet of paper this is not what you would start from, everybody is in agreement with that’.134 This historical analysis of the political function of education in Northern Ireland shows that the complex structure of the education system is due to the fact that different education sectors became further markers of identity. Before and during the conflict, the Protestant/Unionist community and the Catholic/Nationalist community employed ‘their’ schools to reinforce religious and national cleavages and convey allegiance or opposition to the British state.