Obershall concisely summarises that ‘the Troubles had three major clusters of collective violence’: the first, starting in 1968, was followed by the 1973 British peace initiative at Sunningdale; the second, starting with opposition to the Sunningdale Agreement and power-sharing executive, was followed by the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement; the third, marked by Republican and Loyalist violence, ended with the Belfast Agreement on 10 April 1998.165
Having established direct rule over Northern Ireland in 1972, London attempted to pacify the province through an ambiguous balancing of sticks (counterinsurgency and military interventions) and carrots (social policies promoting the social inclusion and equality of the Catholic community). During direct rule, the education system emerged as the primary ‘institutional scapegoat for the conflict’.166 Rather than the product of primordial religious differences, the fragmented education system was now seen as an independent factor contributing to inter-communal strife. Research indicated that ‘at best, prejudices are not diminished by education and, at worst, they are in fact strengthened’.167 Thus, British officials called on Northern Ireland’s schools to promote understanding and harmony between the Unionist/Protestant and Nationalist/Catholic communities through their curricula and by encouraging contact between children from different backgrounds.168
The most ambitious attempt to employ schools for peace-building occurred during the short 1974 power-sharing executive. In April 1974, Northern Ireland Education Minister Basil McIvor called for the Assembly to create a new class of schools, ‘shared schools’, which would involve both the Protestant and the Catholic clergies in their manage- ment.169 McIvor argued that ‘the mixing of school children would contribute to the reduction of community tension in Northern Ireland’ and envisaged that all controlled and Catholic maintained schools could, over the long term, evolve into ‘shared schools’.170 Despite initial resistance, the power-sharing executive committed to support the establishment of shared schools. Chadwick argues that ‘the 1974 decision showed that a Northern Ireland government, in which both Catholics and Protestants participated, could act to allow for shared schools’.171 Certainly, the Protestant clergy appeared ‘prepared to give at least a guarded welcome to the idea of shared schools’, mainly because mixed education could undermine Catholic control over some schools.172 Still, the Catholic hierarchy was opposed outright.173 This opposition did not escalate only because the fate of ‘shared schools’ was intertwined with the destiny of the powersharing government: when the power-sharing executive collapsed in May 1974, the plan for mixed schools was sidelined.
Subsequent governments endorsed the ambition to create mixed schools but recognised that ‘integration will be best served by leaving it to develop ... quietly, without publicity and certainly without overt pressure from Government’.174 The 1978 Education Act stated that future policy ‘should not create or perpetuate barriers against integrated education’ and provided mechanisms for transformation of controlled and maintained schools to shared establishments.175 Despite giving a powerful signal of intent, and laying the ground for the establishment of a third educational sector, the 1978 Act failed to create momentum for integration of the existing schools: no school transferred to mixed status.176 The first integrated school, Lagan College, was created in 1981 by an independent parent-led civil society organisation: All Children Together.177 In the 1980s and 1990s, the expanding network of integrated schools impacted upon the educational discourse in Northern Ireland, making it difficult to express open political opposition to the mixed education of children belonging to Catholic/Nationalist and Protestant/Unionist backgrounds.178 The success of integrated education also confirmed that initiatives for inter-communal mixing could thrive when independent from clerical and political pressures.179
For its part, the Department of Education of Northern Ireland (DENI) started providing resources and material to facilitate joint activities among pupils from state-controlled and Catholic maintained schools. It also introduced the voluntary cross-curricular theme of Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) whose aims and contents are explained in Chap. 5.180 In a 1982 circular, it clarified that DENI ‘is not questioning the right to insist on forms of education in schools which amount to segregation’ but qualified this ‘right’ as being ‘coupled to an inescapable duty to ensure that effective measures are taken to ensure that children do not grow up in ignorance, fear or even hatred of those from whom they are educationally segregated’.181 Still, the Catholic clergy remained suspicious, and maintained that ‘short of banning religion altogether, there is no greater injury that could be done to Catholicism than by interference with the character and identity of our schools’.182 National identity, religion, community and school remained one and the same: only by attending Catholic maintained schools could children become part of the religious (and national) community.
State ‘intrusion’ in schools culminated with the 1989 Education Reform Order (ERO), which aimed to standardise the educational experience of all children in Northern Ireland. First, the 1989 ERO introduced a statutory curriculum to be implemented in all state-funded schools, which provided core contents for history education and institutionalised EMU as a compulsory cross-curricular theme.183 The introduction of a statutory curriculum opened a debate about the status of religious education, leading to the joint formulation of a core religious education curriculum by representatives of the Catholic Church and of three Protestant Churches (Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist). This was a symbolically important step towards dialogue and reconciliation.184 Yet, it was also a limited step: to this day, it is unclear whether it is even possible to speak of a common religious education curriculum in Northern Ireland due to the flexibility of the religious education syllabus. Two, deeply different approaches to religious education persist in the Catholic maintained and state-controlled sectors, confirming that religious denomination remains a fundamental and impermeable marker of communal identity in Northern Ireland, and that schools remain an instrument for reproducing and conveying it.185
Second, the 1989 ERO expanded funding for the activities that brought together children from controlled and Catholic maintained schools and institutionalised them under the rubric of Inter-School Contact Schemes.186 Echoing arguments voiced in the 1920s, the Catholic maintained sector opposed both EMU and inter-school activities because they might offer opportunities for proselytism.187 It also argued that EMU and inter-school contact could ‘undermine the traditions of the society’, thereby implying that separate schooling was instrumental to the integrity and thriving of two supposedly mutually exclusive cultures in Northern Ireland.188 Finally, the 1989 ERO placed a statutory requirement on DENI ‘to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education’: to this end, the government provided full funding for integrated schools. 189 Both the state-controlled and the Catholic maintained sectors raised cries of ‘social engineering’.190
These protests were temporarily silenced by the 1993 ERO, which established full state funding for all schools that adopted the statutory curriculum and accepted state representatives on their governing boards. The 1993 ERO responded to London’s increasing political emphasis on parental choice in education, but also reflected Northern Irish concerns. In the late 1980s, research had found that the standard of education in Catholic maintained schools was lower than in state schools. Policymakers were deeply aware that schooling exacerbates violent identity-based conflicts when different religious, national or ethnic groups have access to education of differing quality. To redress this imbalance, the state started funding Catholic maintained schools on a par with state-controlled and integrated schools.191 For its part, the Catholic Church modified the schools’ management structures and created a Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS).192
In 1995, Smith observed that Northern Ireland’s education system was ‘a genuinely segregated system ... but in almost all the publicly measurable ways few obvious differences could be found’.193 Indeed, state-controlled, integrated and Catholic maintained schools followed the same curriculum, participated to the same inter-school activities and were funded by the same state agencies. Yet, they remained managed by separate bodies, and catered to different sections of Northern Ireland’s population: as such, most schools remained markers of identity and belonging.