Angst and Hatred Continue to Roil Everyday Life in Northern Ireland

Minister’s Call to Cut Funds for Catholic Schools a Case in Point

By Joe Leary
Special to the BIR

Many Irish Americans express wonderment as to why, after all the progress towards peace and understanding, Northern Ireland still has sporadic violence and such difficulty in bringing Catholics and Protestants together.
The answer is found in the deep angst, ignorance, and even hatred that lies hidden beneath everyday life in Northern Ireland. The most public evidence of this are the 98 -- and the number is growing -- “peace walls” spread throughout Belfast and beyond that are required by popular demand to keep the two sides from harming each other. Any tourist visiting Belfast will be shocked by the ugliness and pervasiveness of these security walls.
And this past month we were reminded once again of the unknowing audacity of senior Protestant leadership when Peter Robinson, the head of Paisley’s old Democratic Unionist Party and current government leader of the assembly as First Minister, called for the elimination of government funding for Catholic schools.
The education of young people – regardless of religion -- is considered so important to the future of a successful nation that both Ireland and Britain (including Scotland and Wales) have for nearly 100 years provided free education to its people. Now we have a Northern Ireland Protestant leader calling for the elimination of funding for Catholics.
Robinson wants to deny Catholics educational funds as a cost- cutting measure, forcing Catholic parents to send their children to integrated State schools. This proposal, if endorsed by the current majority, will predictably cause a widening of the rupture between the two sides and dramatically raise the possibilities of broad violence and civil unrest.
Why, then, is he suggesting such a course? Many feel that Robinson is playing to his hard right-wing constituency without caring about the consequences for the Catholics. He is trying to prove that he is tough and will not bend to the growing influence of the two nationalist parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP.
His political future is cloudy at best given his loss in the Parliamentary election and his wife’s recent infidelities. He is trying to maintain his leadership position, and every good Unionist knows the best way to do that is by Catholic-bashing. Paisley made a career of using the same strategy.
But in this case, even Paisley disagrees with Robinson; he has been quoted in the Belfast Telegraph as saying now is not the time to change the educational system in place.
In responding to Robinson’s remarks, Cardinal Sean Brady, the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, said, “ Recent suggestions that schools in Northern Ireland should be forced into one single state system are a stark warning to all those who respect diversity and the rights of parents. It seems strange that people in Northern Ireland are being told they should accept a lower standard of rights and freedoms than they would have in Britain, Scotland, or the South of Ireland.”
The strong, secret underpinnings of Northern Ireland society show themselves from time to time and for Irish Americans it is well to be attentive.