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A New Day for Northern Ireland

As the peace process is resurrected in Northern Ireland, this article, adapted from BC news, September 2000, looks at the prospects for a lasting peace and at the attempts being made to build bridges between schools from different communities.

'With the armoured cars/ And the bombed out bars… I can only pray for a bright new day/ In the town that I loved so well.'

When Irish pop tunesmith turned folk troubadour Phil Coulter wrote those words in the seventies, he wasn't talking about Belfast, but another divided town seventy miles away, whose name itself is bound up with the conflict which has divided Ireland for centuries.

Protestants call it Londonderry, which is its official name in the six counties that make up Northern Ireland. Catholics call it Derry, the name you'll see on signs in the other twenty-six counties that comprise the Republic. In Belfast they call it Stroke City, so frequently is it referred to as 'Derry stroke Londonderry'.

Coulter's song 'The Town I Loved So Well' was written in the dark days of the Troubles and has resonances on both sides of a schism that is very much, as the Belgian singer Jacques Brel put it, about 'certain songs and certain dates'. Coulter's conviction that the past must be transcended because 'what's done is done/ And what's won is won/ But what's lost/ Is lost and gone forever' is a sentiment that has united an increasing number of people, as the death toll of the Troubles has risen to nearly 3,500 lost lives.

In recent years Northern Ireland has had more than one bright new day. There was 31 August 1994, when the Provisional IRA announced its cease-fire, only to end it eighteen months later with the bombing of a building in London's Canary Wharf. Or there was 3 December 1999 when Unionists and Nationalists sat down together in government, bringing to an end twenty-eight years of direct rule from Westminster. Devolution lasted only seventy-two days, after which the fledgling power-sharing assembly was suspended in a dispute over the decommissioning of IRA weapons.

In the brilliant May sunshine, the beleaguered people of Belfast were greeting another bright new day. An unexpected promise from the IRA to open their weapons dumps to inspection put the peace process, which some had feared was dead and buried, back on track. When the date of 30 May was set for St Michael's School form Cootehill in County Cavan of the Republic to make the sixty-mile trip up the road to visit Ballinderry Primary in County Armagh in the North, they could never have guessed it would be the day that the devolved government would sit again in Belfast. The date may prove to be a significant one, to put a full stop to the strife that began on 4 January 1969 when an attack by Loyalist extremists on a civil rights march by Catholics and Protestants proved the catalyst that sparked the current round of troubles. Or it may prove to be another false down. Optimism is cautious in Northern Ireland. It goes with the territory.

There is, on the surface, nothing remarkable about two schools from neighbouring states organising an exchange. But in Northern Ireland things are rarely taken on surface level.

For the largely Catholic population of the Republic, the six counties to the North may be a dimly perceived territory, associated with violence and strife. In turn many in the Protestant community of the North view the southern counties with suspicion. It was the declared intention of a section of the Protestant population to engage in armed opposition to becoming part of an Irish Republic which initially led to the partition of Ireland in 1920.

The separate systems of schooling means that Protestant and Catholic children generally attend different schools, both in the North and in the South. In the North particularly it means that a Protestant can have entered university or working life before meeting a Catholic socially, and vice versa. For Catholic school-children from the South to mingle with their Protestant counterparts from the North, as was the case in this exchange, is rarity.

The teachers and the pupils of the two schools were not exactly indistinguishable. Although they hail from a town that lies within a few miles of the border with Antrim in the North, the St Michael's children speak with a rolling and lyrical accent which belongs, identifiably, to Eire. The Ballinderry children have a sharper and more urban-sounding accent. It is an accent that anyone from across the water in England, Scotland or Wales would associate with television news reports of the Troubles.

'This has got to be the future,' said one of the school's governors, indicating the children, happily playing games, chatting about pop music and swapping e-mail addresses.

But the historical rots of resistance to co-existence are deep seated. One of the schools scheduled to take part in the North South Schools Programme had to pull out because, although the Head was committed, he was overruled by his Board of Governors who did not want their children to travel to the Republic. 'We had to work hard to attract Protestant controlled schools into the scheme,' says Steven Colton, who has administered the Central Bureau project for the British Council. 'We were delighted to be able to get eight of them to sign up. It's particularly important that we get schools from working class areas participating. Those are the children who are more likely to be drawn into terrorist activities and get imprisoned or even killed if those old ideas are not changed.'

The project, found by the EU Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland, is responsible for twenty schools exchanges, and has sent the same number of student teachers from the North of Training Exchanges to the Republic.

Ian Thompson, the Ballinderry headmaster, describes the border as being 'very much a psychological barrier for many in the North. Despite how close we are to it, there are a number of children in our school who had never been to the Republic prior to this project.'

There was, Ian Thomson tells me, one boy who didn't make the trip to the South, where his classmates put on a performance of 'Daniel in the lion's den'. 'It isn't a problem with Catholics,' says Ian, 'because we have been involved in the Education for Mutual Understanding programme here for about twelve years. But his parents may have felt that going to the Republic was just a step too far.'

Although Ian comes from a mixed background (his mother's family is German Catholic) he was raised within the Protestant tradition. His father was a Scot who came to work on the roadworks in the North. 'Deep down inside, there is a part of that bigotry in me too,' he says bravely and openly. 'It is something that is a part of the culture here. Going down to the South and being welcomed by the children in Irish, which is a language that is virtually foreign to me, was something that I personally found very moving, to see the real human face of the Republic. That sort of reaction is something that no report into this project could show. The people who have funded this sort of project do not have a way of measuring how much good has been done in that respect.'

It is a gruesome pun to say the old ideas die hard. Passing through Lisburn, on the short drive from Belfast to Ballinderry School, we pass a well-heeled housing estate, which could have been anywhere in the world, were it not for the billboard that stands on the entrance road proclaiming its Loyalist status, and displaying the Red Hand of Ulster.

The interpretation of signs such as this is where much of the ambiguity that surrounds the peace process is sited. To Catholics it represents the intransigence of the protestant majority in the six counties over human rights and reform, and is a provocative symbol of superiority. To Protestants it represents the community's stand for its own rights against the forces of the Jacobites in the seventeenth century, and the Nationalist forces who established the Free State in the Twenties, following the Dublin uprising of 1916. Even the football team you support can be provocative. At the numerous scuffles and confrontations that surround the marching season that commemorates the victory of Protestant William of Orange in 1689 at the Battle of the Boyne, the insignia of Glasgow Rangers is often visible among the Loyalists. The hooped shirts of their Glasgow rivals Celtic can frequently be seen among the protesters.

The advent of power sharing means that the British Council has three ministries to deal with in Northern Ireland: Arts and Leisure is controlled by the moderate Loyalist party, the Ulster Unionists; the moderate Nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, takes the lead on Higher Education, Training and Employment; and Education is covered by Sinn Fein, often referred to as the political wing of the IRA. 'Working with Sinn Fein will be a new departure for the British Council,' says Lynda Wilson, the Council's Belfast Deputy Director, 'as it was not previously a recognised party. Also they would view any organisation with the word "British" in the title with some suspicion.' Sinn Fein have however taken up the British Council's invitation to participate in the Oxford Foreign Services programme, which brings young diplomats over to Northern Ireland. 'I think because it is an opportunity for them to put over their party-political viewpoint to some potentially very influential people,' says Lynda.

Interestingly both Lynda and director Peter Lyner, the British Council Director in Northern Ireland, feel their job would be made much easier if the organisation was called the UK Council. Not only is it more accurate, since the term Great Britain does not include Northern Ireland, but it is also less politically loaded. Although United Kingdom refers to the monarchy, there is a feeling that the abbreviation UK comes across as a more modern and neutral term than 'Britain', which is seen in Northern Ireland as being one that has Loyalist implications. The Union Jack flag which is featured, however discretely, in the British Council's logo, is also associated with a Loyalism which does not make the Council's job easier. In fact the Union Jack flag is not accurate to the current makeup of the United Kingdom. The three crosses that make it up are of St George (England), St Andrew (Scotland) and St Patrick, which represents the whole of Ireland. This last part was added by Oliver Cro}well (not a popular figure among Nationalists) to symbolise his conquest of Ireland.

'Human rights,' says Lynda, 'is an issue on which we can build bridges with the Nationalist community. But we need to find others. One of them might be the issue of language for example, which is obviously an issue in Wales and in Scotland. Here in Northern Ireland, we not only have Irish Gaelic and English, we also have Ulster Scots, which is increasingly recognised as a language in its own right. You have papers from the Executive translated into Ulster Scots.'

This is a time for cautious optimism in Northern Ireland. Everyone knows how quickly the Assembly fell the first time and how big a small stumbling block can prove to be. But now that there is hope of coming to some agreement on the huge issue of the decommissioning of terrorist weapons, the stumbling blocks are rather smaller. 'If you were to listen to the SDLP and to the Ulster Unionists, you would find that ninety-five per cent of their views on the problems of the North would be the same. If they can just achieve consensus on the five per cent, them you would have a government.'

And when that happens, Northern Ireland really will have a bright new day.


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