Barack Obama criticises Northern Ireland’s ‘segregated schools’

President Barack Obama has criticised faith-based ‘segregated’ schooling in Northern Ireland as ‘encouraging division’ and ‘discouraging cooperation’. His comments were made in a speech on Monday, ahead of the G8 summit, to 2,000 young people:

‘Because issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity—symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others—these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it.

‘If towns remain divided—if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs—if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.

‘Ultimately, peace is just not about politics. It’s about attitudes; about a sense of empathy; about breaking down the  divisions that we create for ourselves in our own minds and our own hearts that don’t exist in any objective reality, but that we carry with us generation after generation.

‘And I know, because America, we, too, have had to work hard over the decades, slowly, gradually, sometimes painfully, in fits and starts, to keep perfecting our union. A hundred and fifty years ago, we were torn open by a terrible conflict. Our Civil War was far shorter than The Troubles, but it killed hundreds of thousands of our people. And, of course, the legacy of slavery endured for generations.

‘Even a century after we achieved our own peace, we were not fully united. When I was a boy, many cities still had separate drinking fountains and lunch counters and washrooms for blacks and whites.’

Faith-based admissions cause ethnic, religious and socio-economic segregation in England and Wales, as well as in Northern Ireland.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, Chair of the Accord Coalition, commented, ‘The dangers of social segregation caused by dividing children into faith schools applies not only in Northern Ireland but in the rest of the UK too. We should learn from the terrible example of the Province and how decades of mistrust, although caused by other factors, were reinforced by the faith-based educational system. Separating children at the school gate is not the way to teach them about an inclusive society.’

Professor Ted Cantle of the iCoCo Foundation commented, ‘Separate schooling teaches children that their differences are more important than their similarities. More than that, they divide whole communities by defining social networks. It takes an outside view, like that of President Obama, to see what we cannot see for ourselves: a school system based on religious selection is divisive. No wonder the United Kingdom’s system is almost unique in Europe.’

Pavan Dhaliwal, BHA Head of Public Affairs, commented, ‘Barack Obama’s groundbreaking comments on the issue of faith-based segregation in schools reveal two things. First of all they show just how unusual the situation appears to an outsider, with very few OECD countries allowing such segregation. And secondly the parallels he draws between segregation by schools on the basis of faith and the race discrimination that has taken place in the United States show the seriousness of the situation. President Obama’s comments must act as a wake up call for politicians across the UK to act on this pressing issue.’