Law & Courts

Reconcilable Differences

By John Gehring — November 01, 2003 18 min read
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Parents in Northern Ireland have put their faith in schools that unite Catholics and Protestants.

Driving his old Volvo through the narrow streets of Londonderry, Colm Cavanagh spins another yarn as daylight disappears and dusk settles over the city. A lanky man with a dry wit, Cavanagh, like many in Northern Ireland who always seem ready with a tale on their tongues, has little trouble fishing for one still swimming around from his boyhood memories.

“I remember one day playing in front of a house, and a man, a neighbor of ours, came to the door,” the 57-year-old says. “He was a Catholic man who owned a grocery store. He was coming to say that my mother should buy her groceries from a Catholic like him and not from the Protestant store that she went to. There was this kind of feeling that you should support your own side. So even the spending of a dollar to buy your groceries was a political act. You could sense this was really a futile way to live.”

Cavanagh heads up a steep road and pulls over at a spot that offers a spectacular view. The second largest city in Northern Ireland, Londonderry looks sleepy and quaint from this lofty perch. Church steeples dot the horizon, and the lazy Foyle River flows like something out of a postcard, its slow curves dividing the land into what locals call the city side and the water side. In the distance below, on the city side, is a working-class Catholic enclave known as the Bogside.

Parents in Ireland have put their faith in schools that unite Catholics and Protestants.
—Photograph by Cathal McNaughton/Getty Images

On this peaceful spring night, it’s hard to conjure up the chaos that broke out in 1972, when some 20,000 Catholic protestors rallied against years of political gerrymandering favoring Protestant unionists and unionist control over the best housing and jobs. Perched along a section of the city’s imposing 17th century fortified wall, British soldiers fired down on the demonstrators, claiming later that they’d been provoked by some in the crowd. Thirteen young Catholic marchers were killed. “Bloody Sunday” made news around the world. A memorial honoring the dead stands in the Bogside today, and several wall murals by local artists depict events from that afternoon.

Bloody Sunday epitomized the kind of madness, fueled by centuries of animosity and bloodshed over political identity and religion, that Cavanagh, his wife, Anne Murray, and other war-weary parents refused to believe would be the future for their children. “You feel helpless when you have paramilitary organizations shooting each other, or the army killing people,” says Cavanagh, who, like his wife, is Catholic. “The politicians seemed unwilling or unable to find an answer, and people just said, ‘I’m not going to wait for someone else to solve the problems.’”

And, indeed, they didn’t. In 1991, they founded a school, bringing together Catholic and Protestant students as well as teachers willing to break with the separatist tradition. More than a decade later, Oakgrove Integrated Primary is part of a growing national movement, one in which schools are possibly achieving what politicians for decades have failed to do.

Over pints of beer and glasses of wine at a neighborhood barbecue one afternoon in 1990, a group of parents in the city-side section of Londonderry began talking about opening an integrated school. Mostly Catholics, the parents had been discussing Northern Ireland’s “11 plus” exam, used to place a select group of high-achieving 10-year-olds into academically rigorous schools. From the topic of academic segregation, the conversation meandered into the touchy ground of addressing religious segregation in a completely new way.

It was a daring idea. No school like it had ever existed in Londonderry, whose very name can be a litmus test for political identity.

It was a daring idea. No school like it had ever existed in Londonderry, whose very name can be a litmus test for political identity. British loyalists often call the city Londonderry, while Irish republicans who envision a united Ireland call it Derry. Throughout Northern Ireland, most students attend either Roman Catholic schools or state schools that are de facto Protestant, and those who teach in them usually do so along lines of religious affiliation. It’s not uncommon for Catholic and Protestant students to remain relative strangers until they go to university together in Scotland or England.

For Cavanagh and Murray, the thought of breaking the mold began a decade earlier in Belfast, where they had attended meetings with an eclectic mix of parents who’d formed a group called All Children Together. They weren’t married at the time, but the two Londonderry natives were drawn to a movement they sensed could be a powerful force in changing attitudes. ACT opened Northern Ireland’s first integrated school, Lagan College, in 1981. Cavanagh and Murray’s first child, Nora, was born the following year. The couple and other like-minded friends drew inspiration from a dozen more integrated schools that opened across the country during the rest of the decade, as well as what appeared to be a thaw in the rigid segregation of Londonderry’s existing schools.

In 1990, though, the group realized that what seemed like a trend toward integration was, in reality, a pattern in which Catholics were taking over formerly Protestant-managed schools. It was “merely a snapshot of a transition which was going to end up with all the Protestant children moving away,” Cavanagh recalls. “So if we wanted to have integrated schools, it was going to be necessary to start and create new integrated schools.”

While daily violence is now rare, graffiti and slogans from the IRA and other groups serve as a stark reminder of the 3,000 killed, almost one-third of them 20 years old or younger, during the past three decades.
—Photograph by Cathal McNaughton/Getty Images

With help from the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and the support of charities, a core group of parents began planning. They recruited both Protestant and Catholic teachers, met with families of both denominations, and found an old housing office that belonged to the city council. Opponents of the idea ranged from staunch defenders of the status quo, who saw no reason to question the existing educational system, to those who dismissed the effort as a quixotic experiment in social engineering. Some Catholic and Protestant clergy argued that students should be taught within their own faith communities. An integrated school, other critics said, would be a betrayal of tradition. But opposition did not slow down the parents.

When they put an ad in a newspaper announcing the first public meeting for those interested in starting an integrated school, they hoped 50 people would attend. Two hundred showed up. Planning for the school took over the lives of many parents. Bernie Webster, one of the founders, remembers many meetings over dinners held in the houses of supporters. Parents often brought their young children, who became adept at modeling the behavior of the adults.

“We noticed the children were not playing normal games,” Webster recalls. “They were playing with clipboards and taking minutes at the meeting.”

Today, Oakgrove Integrated Primary sits on a leafy campus of oak and sycamore trees on Londonderry’s water side. One morning in late May, parents are packed in the gym for a short school production, snapping pictures as the youngest students sing songs using words they’ve learned to spell in class. Some belt out their parts with ear-piercing enthusiasm. A few freeze up and barely manage to squeak out their lines. Afterward, a small woman with oversize energy makes the rounds, chatting with parents and congratulating the little ones on a job well done. It’s Murray, who’s been Oakgrove’s principal since it opened, and she’s getting the day off to a feel-good start in this two-story brick building where sunlight floods through large windows, student artwork covers the walls, and kids head to class in snappy uniforms of green and gray.

A law passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1989 charges the country’s Department of Education with the responsibility of encouraging integrated education.

Four hundred students ages 5 to 11 attend Oakgrove, whose name, like the city’s, comes from the old Gaelic word daire. (“Derry” is a variation of daire, which in English means “oak grove.”) The primary school and a sister “college” for students ages 11-18 that opened in 1992 are part of a mainstream integrated education movement that began in earnest in the mid-'90s. In 1997, about 8,000 Northern Ireland students were enrolled in integrated schools. Today, roughly 17,000 students attend 53 integrated schools across the country, though that represents just 5 percent of the school going population. Waiting lists are common. An average of 900 students are turned away each year because there are not enough schools to meet demand.

While the parents who founded the country’s first integrated school in Belfast in 1981 were essentially on their own, a law passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1989 charges the country’s Department of Education with the responsibility of encouraging integrated education. Parents who start a new school must still come up with the funds and classroom space, but the education department refunds the money if, after three years, the school meets criteria for long-term viability. Integrated schools strive to have at least 40 percent of students and staff members from the Catholic tradition and at least another 40 percent from Protestant backgrounds. At the very least, 30 percent of an integrated school’s enrollment must be adherents of a community’s minority religion.

Integrated schools, like their traditional counterparts, follow Northern Ireland’s religious education curriculum, which mixes both Catholic and Protestant beliefs. While the schools have a Christian ethos, students are also exposed to other religious traditions. For parents who want specific instruction—so their children can receive the sacraments of the Catholic church, for example—separate classes are held once a week. School assemblies don’t shy away from religion, either. During Lent and Christmas, for example, students are invited to give presentations about the meaning of the religious season.

Murray says that an integrated school is one of the relatively few places in Northern Ireland where Protestant and Catholic youth can spend time together and build friendships and respect. “What we have here is a safe space and a feeling of trust that has built up where we can explore the hard issues,” the 52-year-old explains in her office, where a copy of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech hangs on the wall and a small sign, engraved with part of a Michelangelo quote, “Still learning,” sits on her desk. “Integrated education is not a quick fix or a magic wand,” she continues, “but it sends ripples through other schools. The state system and Catholic schools are aware of us and ask themselves, ‘What do we do in terms of reconciliation in our community?’ That was a question that wasn’t being asked before.”

Not that things are always perfect. Once, when the Oakgrove students were learning about “people who help us,” one staunchly unionist parent, a police officer, showed up for the class presentation dressed in full riot gear, an outfit that didn’t sit well with republican parents, who view the British as little more than an occupying power. “It raised the whole issue of how we accommodate people from a republican background and a loyalist background and all of the other people in the middle,” Murray says.

Eating lunch with a group of friends at a picnic table outside Oakgrove this afternoon, a shy 11-year-old named Sarah Morgan explains what she likes about her school as friends nibbling on sandwiches listen in. “You get to learn about different people’s backgrounds and make friends with them,” the soft- spoken Protestant student says. “We all get along here. People aren’t concerned about religion.”

Even before establishing Oakgrove more than a decade ago, Cavanagh and Murray were no strangers to social justice issues. Cavanagh received his law degree in the Irish Republic, from University College Dublin. It’s the school, he says, “where Catholics went.” Protestants traditionally attended Trinity College, also in Dublin. After graduating, the then-23-year-old son of a beloved town doctor who had delivered Cavanagh’s future wife decided his country had plenty of barristers but not enough people working to build a more hopeful future. Eager to travel before heading back to Northern Ireland, Cavanagh packed his bags for Tanzania. For three years, he worked for a United Nations development program and visited Burundi, Rwanda, South Africa, Malawi, and other African countries.

Colm Cavanagh, one of the parents who started Oakgrove Integrated Primary in 1991, has worked for peace since the height of “the Troubles.” Today, he leads efforts to revitalize—and integrate—Londonderry’s waterfront.
—Photograph by Cathal McNaughton/Getty Images

“It gave me a mind-bendingly insightful understanding of how the world is and works,” he says. “Obviously I have a particular attachment to my own corner of the planet, but I regard all countries as my own and all people as my brothers and sisters. Every war is a civil war.”

When he returned to Londonderry in 1972, Cavanagh began working for a group called Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international interfaith pacifist organization. This was during the height of “the Troubles,” the haunting term used to refer to the sectarian and political violence that has for so long defined Northern Ireland. Cavanagh remembers sitting in his office one day, addressing invitations to a reconciliation conference, when seven bombs set by paramilitary groups exploded in the city center. He met Murray, also a Londonderry native, in 1976, after several like-minded people who’d worked in other developing countries formed an organization to focus attention on global issues. Murray had just returned from the Sudan, where she was visiting her sister and exploring a country with its own tribal and ethnic conflicts. The two were married four years later.

Murray began teaching full time, which she’d wanted to do since she was a girl. “Teaching was a job that dealt with people rather than things,” she says. “I always felt it was a job that would make me feel good—helping others learn. I also probably wanted to be in charge.”

For years, even though she’s Catholic, she taught at a traditional Protestant school, and her three children, Nora, Grace, and Hugh, were students there. They’d later move with her to Oakgrove in 1991, where she was asked to serve as principal. A teacher for more than a decade at that point, Murray was at first reluctant to take the job. In the end, she couldn’t pass up the chance to lead a school that stood for so much of what she wanted to see take root in her hometown. Her experiences in the mainstream education system—where students were sorted by academic ability, gender, and religion— had left her burned out and disillusioned.

“Every way you could think, we were dividing children up instead of bringing them together,” she says. “We just felt that integration was too obvious and sensible and necessary in terms of reconciliation for this community.”

Marie Cowan still remembers the days when bus drivers were too scared to go into the Bogside after Bloody Sunday. On those mornings, the young Catholic teacher would walk children to school as Irish Republican Army gunmen and British troops fired at each other.

“Living through all of that makes you feel that there had to be some way forward for Northern Ireland and the children,” says Cowan, who grew up in the Bogside and was one of the thousands of marchers in the streets the day several Catholic protestors were shot and killed in 1972. “We saw the students coming into school just totally traumatized after that experience.”

Among those who helped open Oakgrove Integrated Primary in 1991, Cowan a year later became principal of Oakgrove Integrated College, its sister school, which occupies a somewhat foreboding, run-down former mental hospital. (A new facility overlooking the Foyle River is scheduled to open in fall 2004.) Along with her daily work as principal, the 57-year-old also sits on an education department committee that’s studying the future of integrated education.

‘This school helps open your mind. You’re always going to meet people with different religions. You’re going to have to work with them. You might as well start while you’re young.’

Brian Devane,
Oakgrove Integrated College

While she’s optimistic about the growth of integrated schools, Cowan believes the government needs to do more to open new facilities. Over the past three years, she’s been forced to turn away 85 applicants because of a lack of space. “There is a great demand for integrated education, and that is the department of education’s problem,” she says. “They can’t keep up.”

It’s an exam day at the school, and this afternoon, inside classrooms, students sweat through essays and toil over algebra problems. After they’ve finished, some students hang out with friends as others head off to play football (soccer to Americans). Having freed himself from his school uniform, 18-year-old Brian Devane is wearing a tank top and shorts. A Catholic, he says an integrated education has given him the chance to befriend Protestants. He even plays on a largely Protestant football team outside of school.

“Too many people live in the past,” he says. “This school helps open your mind. You’re always going to meet people with different religions. You’re going to have to work with them. You might as well start while you’re young.”

For Nial Gill, a Catholic teacher at Oakgrove Integrated Primary, that’s the kind of thinking that could someday liberate the country from years of division. “If you look out there, those students don’t see any differences in themselves, even though they are aware of it,” Gill says, pointing out a window at a group of children playing outside. “We look at those children, and we see hope for Northern Ireland.”

Grace Murray-Cavanagh, Anne and Colm’s 20- year-old daughter, says that her experiences with integrated education helped her make both Catholic and Protestant friends whom she still is close with years later.

“I think that it would have been much harder to meet Protestants if I hadn’t gone to an integrated school because of the social geography of our city,” she says. “During the Troubles, many Protestants moved to the water side, and the Catholics stayed on the city side of the Foyle River. If anything, I think going to an integrated school has made me see that the divisions between the communities are all in our heads. Respect is the value most promoted at the schools, and that is where the essence of integration becomes clear. We are all different, unique individuals, and we just don’t fall into two camps—Protestant and Catholic.”

While the seemingly daily violence common in Northern Ireland two decades ago has given way to a fragile peace, much of the country remains divided. In Belfast, a little more than an hour’s drive southeast of Londonderry, more than a dozen “peace walls"—high concrete barriers often topped with barbed wire—divide “interface” areas, where Catholics and Protestants live side by side. The government erects the walls to protect people from rocks, gasoline bombs, glass, and other objects thrown by rioters.

In Londonderry, the country’s second-largest city and site of the “Bloody Sunday” riots, children of different faiths once had little contact.
—Photograph by Cathal McNaughton/Getty Images

Tensions flare during July’s “marching season,” when unionist members of the Orange Order and others parade through the streets to celebrate events such as the Battle of the Boyne, when King James II, a Catholic, was defeated by the Protestant William of Orange. The defeat restored political authority to Protestant unionists who, over the years, stripped Catholics of power with a series of laws that ensured the economic and political dominance of Protestant settlers. Ireland was not formally divided until 1920, when the largely Protestant north was split from the predominantly Catholic south, which is now the independent Irish Republic. More than 3,000 people have been killed and some 40,000 injured in the Troubles since 1969. Almost 30 percent of those killed were younger than 21 years of age.

Cavanagh and Murray, in their own ways, remain committed to transforming a place for many years broken in both geography and spirit. After some time working with a community youth group, Cavanagh now serves as the chief executive of a $500 million harbor development project. While he has traded in grass-roots activism for the board room, his calling is the same. The vision for the waterfront project is sweeping in its ambitions: to create 8,000 jobs over the next 10 years, desegregate the city center, and create more mixed Protestant and Catholic communities. Murray will remain at Oakgrove, she says, until her seemingly endless well of enthusiasm runs dry.

Darkness covers Londonderry as Cavanagh drives home tonight, winding through neighborhoods where walls wear the stark political graffiti of the Irish Republican Army and the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force. The painted images of soldiers and the propaganda slogans are silent reminders that history’s hand still holds a tight grip on this beautiful part of the world. But 12 hours from now, in the classrooms of the Oakgrove schools, a new day will bring with it the possibility that this grip may be loosening.

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