The case for integration was summed up by a colleague of mine in Young Alliance in an email to me earlier this week — so well, in fact, that the case could almost be made in one paragraph alone. Why is it that when a Falls man and a Shankill man meet on holiday they are both proud Belfast men, yet when they return home that Belfast identity disappears completely?
The fact is that our entire social structure is led by too many political grey heads with too many gruesome memories, whose role in politics depends on keeping us apart rather than bringing us together. Our role is to stop those people whose careers depend on instability.
Let us be clear about what we mean by integration. We are not talking about ‘merging’ people into one single ‘trans-Atlantic American-dominated culture’ where everyone speaks and acts the same. We are talking about ‘sharing’ our distinct cultures, so they can be enjoyed by the many not the few, and so we can all take pride in them rather than fear them. In short, it is about focusing on the highest common denominator, not the lowest.
This party is a classic example of that. Frankly, it would be an anathema for me to be here today speaking to people from just one cultural tradition in Northern Ireland. It would have been plain wrong for me to have chosen a political party which deliberately represented only one section of Northern Ireland society, making no serious attempts to reach out to the entire population. Does that make me personally any less ‘British’? Or any less ‘Protestant’? No, it is simply a reflection that I and my friends and family share this territory and want to get on with governing it for the good of all.
You want an example of integration working? Take this party! Despite our relatively small numbers, our contribution to Northern Ireland politics has far outweighed our numbers — from the Governing with Consent document that set us on the road to the Agreement 10 years before its time, to the establishment of the IMC, to the Agenda for Democracy which did exactly what it said on the tin, setting the agenda for democracy in Northern Ireland in the context of the current political problems. These achievements have come about precisely because this party is already integrated, it is the only Assembly party which seeks to represent everyone, and which leads by example in bringing people together. And a cornerstone of that objective has been our promotion of integrated education.
Let us be clear, there is only one type of person who fears integration. Those whose:
- politics is based on ignorance rather than reason;
- religion based on bigotry rather than tolerance; and
- culture based on false invention rather than true tradition.
No one confident in their politics, religion and culture would have such qualms about sharing it. Such confidence is impossible, however, when our entire political, religious and cultural structure is dependent on a ‘polite apartheid’ rather than genuine sharing.
The fact is that separation breeds ignorance. What we are ignorant of, we often come to fear. What we are fearful of, we often come to hate. Separation is wrong, and it must be ended at the earliest possible age.
We are a liberal party. That means we support the freedom of parents to choose the best education for their children. And it means we are a tolerant party. But let us be clear: we will not tolerate intolerance! I speak as a Christian soul when I say religious bias has no place in our politics — and it has no place in state-funded schools either. Education is not about brainwashing, it is about developing well-rounded individuals capable of making their own choices objectively.
No one is claiming integrated schools will solve all our problems. But our problems often come about initially due to ignorance of the ‘other side’, and it is wrong to breed that ignorance from the very start of a child’s life. In the words, nearly, of someone far greater than myself, I too have a dream: that some day our children will be judged by the content of their character, not by the colour of their school uniform.
A generation from now, if there are any children at all without access to genuinely integrated education, it will be a sad reflection on the visionless leaders of Northern Ireland today. Only we in Alliance can deliver. Therefore we in Alliance must deliver.
Go raibh maith agaibh / Thank you.