Building a Shared Future from a Divided Past

Promoting Peace through Education in Northern Ireland

Authored by: Tony Gallagher

Handbook on Peace Education

Print publication date:  September  2009
Online publication date:  February  2011

Print ISBN: 9780805862522
eBook ISBN: 9780203837993
Adobe ISBN: 9781136874529


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Since its inception, Northern Ireland has been a society marked by a deep fissure between its two main communities who are divided on the basis of religious, national, and political identity. The territory itself has been the site of a political and identity struggle involving the British and Irish states, with an irredentist Nationalist movement seeking to move it from the former polity to the latter. From the 1960s through to the 1990s, this political vortex produced years of political violence in which the societal fault lines became more pronounced and, arguably, more intense. The past decade has been spent attempting to construct a peace that remains as yet unsteady and fragile. The focus of this chapter is on the education system in Northern Ireland, which has, in many respects, reflected the wider divisions in society. The vast majority of young people attend one or other of the two parallel school systems that are de facto segregated on the basis of religion. Not until 1981 was the first formally planned integrated school opened for Protestant and Catholic children. Despite this, many have looked to schools and the education system more generally to address issues of reconciliation and tolerance, whether through the curriculum, joint activities, or other forms of sharing. This chapter reviews and evaluates the main developments in this work and outlines the main priorities of the current policy framework, which aims at promoting a shared future for Northern Ireland. This policy opens the possibility of reimagining the contribution of schools by challenging the institutional barriers that have divided children and young people while avoiding the “zero-sum” politics that has bedeviled this work in the past. It is a complex account, with few clear lines of direct causality. There are many examples of action that were based on goodwill but that had limited evidence of impact. And there are many examples of action based on a commitment to the positive potential of education and the desire for a better future for young people.

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