THERE are precious few people – outside of religious fundamentalists – who are opposed in principle to the idea of teaching children of different religions together. But, as is so often the case in a region that has been defined in its 100 years of existence by division, the theoretically uncontroversial notion of integrated education is freighted with the burden of 10 decades of sectarian supremacy, suspicion and fear.
A new Alliance Party bill seeks to increase the number of places in integrated schools and set future targets for the annual intake of the integrated sector. There are legitimate concerns that the prioritisation of integrated education ahead of other sectors is inherently unfair, but the way is open for those lobbying for other schools to make their case heard too, and while it is natural that enthusiasts of the maintained, state and Irish sectors will naturally want fair treatment for all, it would be churlish for progressive parties to oppose this bill given that it is a genuine attempt to take another step towards the reconciliation of communities here.
Which is why Sinn Féin, the SDLP, People Before Profit and the Greens are taking nothing to do with the DUP’s grubby hunt for the 30 signatures it needs for a Petition of Concern that would consign the bill to the dustbin.
The leading unionist party claims that it wants to do down this piece of legislation because the state sector – comprised mostly but by no means entirely of Protestant schoolchildren – is in equal if not greater need of the leg-up being given to integrated education by this bill.
But let’s be quite clear on the history of the DUP and state schools: its record has been simply horrendous.
In Belfast in particular, state schools which are performing badly or are seriously under-resourced, have been overwhelmingly represented over the past twenty years by the DUP.
And that party has been content to focus on short-term strategies that centre on promoting a narrative of the DUP being the only party staunch enough to save loyal Ulster from the republican enemy at the gate. A bogus culture war was waged while educational achievement plummeted and school infrastructure crumbled. Simply put: nobody was looking because nobody cared. Now the DUP points to the mess over which they presided and attempts to halt progress in other school sectors that have been infinitely better served by their proponents.
But it gets worse. The UUP has been making significant strides forward in the polls as leader Doug Beattie attempts to model the party as the natural home for stay-at-home unionist progressives. The DUP is urging UUP MLAs to add their names to its Petition of Concern in defence of state (code for Protestant) schools in a crude attempt with an election looming to isolate the UUP and position the DUP once more as the defenders of the flag and faith.
Mr Beattie can expect much more of this as May nears and should prepare himself for it.