By Sean O’Neill (THE TIMES, 03/11/06):
A PRIMARY school teacher in Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s posed his class of nine-year-old boys a tricky theological question: “Hands up those of you who think Protestants believe in God,” he said.
Only five of the thirty-two Roman Catholic children in the class raised their hands. The rest either didn’t know or, for one reason or another, imagined that Protestants worshipped some unknown deity.
I was one of the ill-informed children and, as the teacher tried to explain that Protestants believed in exactly the same God that we supposedly did, clearly remember experiencing a rising sense of shame at my ignorance.
There was another uneasy feeling. Why, if Protestants were also Christians, were they in different schools; why did we never meet any of them; and what was the fighting all about?
Some years later, as a sixthformer at a Catholic school, I helped to organise a charity event and approached the local Protestant grammar school to try to make it a cross-community affair. The stern answer came back from the headmaster that his pupils would not be participating.
I left Northern Ireland the following year, eager to escape a society scarred by segregation. In my first week at university in London I met a student from Belfast who became my first Protestant friend. Two decades on we remain close, sharing a loathing of the segregated school system in which we were educated.
The sense of shame I felt as a nine-year-old now returns as cold anger every time I hear ministers, bishops or others who really should know better claiming that so-called faith schools are progressive and will encourage “community cohesion”. They cannot, because by their very nature these schools create division.
Northern Ireland should stand as a stark lesson that segregating children breeds distrust, hatred and violence. The paramilitary war may be over but the Province has a new reputation for racial hatred, with high levels of attacks against immigrant communities.
When British cities are becoming ghettoised and fear of foreigners is running high, there should be no truck with those who want to isolate five-year-olds in opposing religious camps. Education is too important to be entrusted to men who want to emphasise the differences between children rather than what binds them together.