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What Peter Robinson wants is a religious scorched earth policy

The Church is doing better in Ulster against the new secularism than the Protestant churches

By on Thursday, 21 October 2010

Educating Catholics and Protestants in separate schools is a 'benign form of apartheid', according to Northern Ireland's First Minister, Peter Robinson (Photo: PA)

Educating Catholics and Protestants in separate schools is a 'benign form of apartheid', according to Northern Ireland's First Minister, Peter Robinson (Photo: PA)

The First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Peter Robinson, last Friday called for an end to government funding of Catholic schools. This, he claimed, was part of a push towards an integrated education system. The education of Protestants and Catholics in separate schools in Northern Ireland, he said, is “a benign form of apartheid”.
And what, we ask ourselves, is really behind this démarche?  
According to Mr Robinson: “We cannot hope to move beyond our present community divisions while our young people are educated separately.”  So, he mounts a frontal attack on one of the foundations of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, because actually what he would really like to do is abolish the Catholic community. That would overcome divisions between the communities all right: if you dissolve the communities, you dissolve the divisions.
The secularisation of Northern Ireland, a kind of religious scorched earth policy, would be one kind of solution, of course. And it could be that what Mr Robinson actually fears is that the process of secularisation, which is affecting both communities, and which he can do nothing to halt, will in the end leave the Protestant community weaker than the Catholic community. For, although the sex abuse scandal has left the Irish Catholic Church reeling, it may be that its rapid resulting decline has now bottomed out.
In 2005, a joint study by academics from Queen’s University, Belfast, and the University of Ulster, found that the Catholic Church in Ireland had seen a sharp drop in attendance from 90 per cent to 62 per cent in 15 years. Discouragingly for Mr Robinson, however, the report found that whereas Catholics were more likely to stay with the Church but simply attend less, Protestants tended to move away from churches altogether.
Mass attendance is now probably a good bit lower than that 62 per cent, but is still one of the highest in Europe. And the Irish Church has cleaned up its act and is fighting back: last year, a report of a new survey was published in the Irish Times under the headline “Mass attendance in Ireland is up”: it had risen by some four per cent in the previous 12 months.
The real point about Mr Robinson’s attempt to suppress Catholic education in the name of community relations is that our schools are not now, nor have they been, the problem: on the contrary, they have been part of the solution. I remember, years ago, talking about this perennial accusation with the late, great Mgr Denis Faul, an opponent not only of what he saw as the British human rights record in Ulster – internment without trial, army and police harassment of civilians, ill-treatment of suspects in custody, and so on – but also of IRA brutality, which he courageously condemned in the face of constant and repeated threats to his life.
Wherever he could, he worked to improve relations between Protestants and Catholics: but he also denounced the integrated schools movement as a “dirty political trick” to undermine Catholic education. He conjured up a dire future for Catholics if it was successful, predicting that “pictures of the Sacred Heart and Our Blessed Lady would have to be removed to avoid offending Protestants, and in their place we would get Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Dick Whittington and his cat”. He was an admirer of Pope Benedict; and he really believed that only Catholic schools stood in the path of the “monster” of “soulless secularism”.  And who will say that he was wrong? Peter Robinson, no doubt; but he may not be an entirely neutral commentator. 

  • Shane

    William your faith in Catholic schooling is misplaced. Catholic schools in NI are every bit as secularized as state schools (Protestant churches transferred their schools in the 1920s). It's astonishing for Cardinal Brady and other prelates to attack Robinson's suggestion by appealing to a Catholic ethos. The Catholic bishops since the 1960s have been the greatest enemy of Catholic education, more formidable than any secularist or Protestant fundamentalist, and have approved and imposed utterly heretical catechesis, in spite of repeated pleas from parents. I don't want to see Catholic schools nationalized, because I'm confident that the post-conciliar crisis is coming to an end, and I want the infrastructure there for future bishops who may take their duties seriously. For a start we need to ditch Alive-O and go back to the Maynooth Catechism and Sheehan's apologetics.

  • Lew


    Shane (Pius) is right. Catholic schools are a disgrace to the very name. They should be teaching, as Pope Benedict rightly says, that we should “reverse the Enlightenment axiom”. Moreover, it would be “expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship”. Of course you'll agree!

    Further, it is ludicrous to suggest that the Church, under our infallible Pontif, “can, and ought to, reconcile [it]self, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization”.

    That just wouldn't do.

    I mean, whatever next? Before long we'll be severing ought from is!

  • W Oddie

    Well, I take your point, if Irish catholic schools have really gone the same way as English ones. Maybe I've lost touch since I was an undergraduate in Dublin a million years ago (my experience of a Catholic culture as a non-Catholic were one reason among many why I became a Catholic myself many years later). Ireland, semper fidelis, Pope John Paul said. Are you saying that Daphne McLeod would say the same thing about Irish Catholic schools as she (rightly) says about English ones? How depressing. What do other people think? What's Alive-O? Is it like the English Weaving the Web?

  • Shane

    William thanks for the reply. Alive-O is the religious education syllabus approved by the Irish hierarchy for primary schools. It is saturated in constructivism and consists of little more than elementary biblical narratives. I have no doubt that Irish Catholic schools are as bad as English ones. Ireland's changed an awful lot in the last few decades and the decline in Church attendance is largely self-inflicted. 'Catholic' schools have spawned two generations of theological illiterates. I invite you to check out the Maynooth Catechism at my blog from 1951: (just click on image to access in full) which pupils here were taught until 1969. We need to go back to traditional catechesis.

  • tiggy

    Spot on Shane.

  • Gordon

    Yes, there is something to be said about having just the one public school system. Separate school systems certainly are a form of segregation, and that isn't good.

    'That they be one Father as you and I……..'

    The Catholic Church can go to a Sunday school system for catechesis the same as our protestant brothers and sisters. It is a new era. This is the 21st Century, and it is a time for change and progress, even in the stuffy old Catholic school system.

    Peter Robinson is correct, there is no room in Christianity for segregation. It is time that we strive for unity and a oneness of faith…. blessings… Gord