As Northern Ireland decides, Bradley Lightbody says education must be a key concern for the new assembly
THEY ALL wore black balaclava masks but I knew them all and they knew me. It was the morning of my first A-level examination in June 1974, but a barricade of burning vehicles blocked my route to school at Whitehouse on the northern edge of Belfast. The Protestant Workers' Strike, which brought down the first attempt at a power-sharing assembly in Northern Ireland, was in full swing.
Most of my contemporaries were there that morning busily hijacking vehicles and taunting the police. My head was full of King Lear but their heads were full of outrage at the prospect of Catholic involvement in government.
Two weeks earlier I had met my first Catholic counterparts - Radio Ulster had arranged for a mixed group of sixth-formers to discuss the issue of integrated education. It was the height of the "troubles", but we all endorsed fully the concept of integrated education. We realised that the tribal chants of division were largely the product of a divided education system.
Later, during my first week at university in England, the nature of the division in Ireland was crystallised for me by a chance conversation. I overheard myself being described as "Irish" and I offered the instant correction "Who's Irish? I'm British". It was an automatic, conditioned response. I was born and raised in Belfast, but it might as well have been Leeds. My school curriculum was a faithful copy of the standard English school curriculum with no concession to the fact that I was Irish.
In contrast, the Catholic sixthformers I met followed a curriculum rich in Irish culture with many all-Ireland links. Our two schools were only half a mile apart, but light years in terms of political and social identity. The monocultures produced monomania on the barricades.
Tribal identification was forged across the entire school curriculum. A case of integrated nationalism! Literature was either English or Irish. The history of Ireland was either a history of Catholic rebellion and betrayal, or English invasion and suppression. The maps in my geography textbook gave the landscape of the United Kingdom but blank white paper for the south of Ireland. Today I still remember my Pennine geography but I could not place the Wicklow Mountains on a map.
There was no exposure to Irish dancing, music, drama or Gaelic. The separation was even maintained on the sports field, with separate school leagues for Association football or Gaelic football and hurley or hockey.
Twenty-four years later I wonder how much has changed. The class of '74 expected immediate change but the cul-de-sac politics of extreme Orange and Green intervened to ensure no dilution of tribal identity.
The recent referendum has created a mandate for change and education must be at the forefront of that change. Young people are more alert than ever to the choices involved. They live in a shrinking world as Europe converges and the Internet delivers the global village.
However, the challenges are formidable. First, there is an intense 300-year history of mutual hostility. Second, the breakaway extremes of Orange and Green eschew compromise and seek to restore the barricades of 1974 in stubborn denial of the fact that coercion has only ever produced temporary solutions. This denial reflects fear and a burning sense of injustice on both sides.
Education has a vital role to confirm and recognise the wrongs committed and to explode the myths and half-truths. A curriculum that contains a fusion of Green and Orange will legitimise both traditions and remove fear.
The first step is to realise that integrated education is a very emotive issue because it represents the advance of secularism on a very religious island. Instead, the focus should be on an integrated curriculum that reaches into every school and promotes a common educational experience. However, in circumstances of falling rolls or the construction of new schools then the provision of single integrated schools should be the first consideration.
The Millennium represents a new age and September 2000 is an opportunity for a "Millennium curriculum" to prepare young people for mutual co-operation and respect, rather than mutual hostility and opposition.
Already discussion has started on a common history of Ireland, but a forum is required to review every subject including regular inter-school projects, sport, teacher exchanges and sixth-form co-operation.
A key task for the new Northern Ireland Assembly will be to develop an inclusive, rather than an exclusive, school curriculum. Education alone cannot produce peace, but once there is mutual understanding and trust the weapons will be left to rust.
Bradley Lightbody is head of history at Dewsbury College, West Yorkshire