Northern Ireland: Making Sense of Pride and Prejudice with Sensibility

The BBC has discovered the English Civil War and is currently running a documentary type programme illustrating, in part, the connections of some of its events in respect of Scotland and Ireland, in particular the contemporary problems in Northern Ireland politics.
Perhaps viewers in mainland Britain, and indeed elsewhere, where they can pick up the broadcast, may get to understand more fully the part that that conflict (preceding and following it) played in accumulating the historical baggage left behind in Ireland which set the scene for Ireland’s Civil War, which also manifests itself sporadically in communal disturbances in 21st century Northern Ireland.
The continuing outbreaks in North Belfast, around the route taken to their Catholic primary school by pupils as young as four, is a deplorable, unwanted start to the year 2002. So also was the assassination of a 20 year Catholic postman as he was about to start his early morning duty, responsibility for which is claimed by a Loyalist paramilitary group.
Teachers in Catholic schools, as well as their co-religionists, in the postal services have been threatened by this same group who state that they regard these workers as legitimate targets. There is not the slightest semblance of a significant grievance or political element in this action - it is simply sectarian in nature and is rightly and widely condemned in both communities.
Latest reports say that this cover group, the Red hand Defenders, has been stood down or disbanded by their mentors in the UDA (‘Ulster Defence Association’) itself proscribed as an illegal body by the UK Government.
Perhaps this fracture, or dissent, among Loyalist paramilitaries may lead to a more intelligent analysis and recognition that their activities are viewed with abhorrence in the eyes of the general population in both Britain and Ireland.
There are clear lessons for them and others to be drawn, for such incidents, which brought expressions of solidarity, irrespective of religious affiliation, among postal workers who stopped work for 24 hours in Northern Ireland as a mark of respect to their murdered colleague and in Britain a silent pause was observed in the postal services to associate them with their fellow postal employees.
Many thousands of people throughout Northern Ireland, despite inclement weather, marched together to demonstrate their opposition to these threats and sectarian killings, demanding that the perpetrators should cease their murderous activities. There seems to be no control over their actions by the political section of their organisation.
As regards the Ardoyne / Glen Bryn confrontation, the rising generation, wherever they are educated, must not be subjected, internally or externally, to conditioning which will be likely to recreate the acceptance of the communal violence and antagonisms, such as that which surrounds the Holy Cross Primary School at the Catholic / Protestant interface, as the norm.
One radical way, that could or should be taken (probably won’t) is to embark on the integration of schools in a positively sustained way. I know it is easy for me to say, as someone raised in the majority East Belfast community (and now unattached to any belief system), but the secularisation of the whole educational system is certainly a prerequisite for nipping this canker in the bud.
The process could commence with primary schools, the denominational names changed, the locality determining their new titles, and a common curriculum instituted. Those who wish their children to be given an understanding of their own beliefs (personally I am opposed to indoctrination) could arrange for it to take place separately from the school, as I experienced it in the 20’s and 30’s in East Belfast.
If society is to successfully integrate the variety of ethnic and religious groupings to enable them to participate fully in a homogenous plurality it is absolutely necessary to lay the foundations at the beginning of the educational system.
This is also a lesson to be learned in England, Wales and Scotland, especially in England where they have mistakenly embarked on an extension of faith-based schools.
Paradoxically, the the Educational Board of the Church of England is becoming concerned about the strict control being exercised over entry to their schools by their governors, which seems to prevent acceptance of children unless their parents are attached to the church.
The easiest way, in the case of these schools, would be to operate unrestricted entry, remove the denominational attachment and set up separate Sunday Schools for the children of parents who wish them to receive acquaintance of their own beliefs.
There will, of course, still be differences of belief in the future, but these, in a civilised society, can be conducted robustly, with intellectual vigour, without descending into communal violence, murder and mayhem.
That is the task of our new political structures, we need politicians of sufficient stature to, by example, achieve stability, tolerance, parity and co-operation.
The question is, have we got them, are they capable of rising to the occasion?
In the words of Seamus Heaney (the spirit of them): can we at last overcome and jettison the burden of our history and make it rhyme with hope?

: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, 20 January, 2002.

Samuel H. Boyd

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