Northern Ireland has always been a place apart, radically different from the rest of the United Kingdom. Recent developments have only made this divide starker.

For the past two years, the province has had no functioning government, with the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive collapsing after alleged corruption in a government energy scheme. The two main parties on both sides of the divide, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party, have been unable to reach a deal to restore government. In the absence of a provincial government, the national government in London makes decisions. This situation is complicated by the Conservative Party’s reliance on the Democratic Unionist Party to remain in power, removing the British government’s ability to tackle difficult issues with anything even approaching impartiality.

Optimism is scarce. The killing in April of a young journalist by a group calling itself the New IRA provoked shock and anger. The confusion caused by the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union—and what that means for the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern 
Ireland—only deepens the sense of crisis and despair for many. This is amplified by the glaring inequality and suffering created by nearly a decade of austerity cuts from the London government.

However, there is hope out there; it just isn’t coming from the North’s established political leaders. A grassroots movement to desegregate Northern Ireland’s education system is gaining traction, led by parents and teachers.

Segregation in education is one of the biggest and most enduring legacies of Northern Ireland’s troubled past. According to the most recent public data, 
93 percent of the province’s children attend segregated schools—that is, schools that overwhelmingly educate children from only a Catholic or a Protestant background.

The damage this does is incalculable. It is possible for children to reach age 18 without having friendships or any real interaction with someone from the other community. In a deeply divided society emerging from 40 years of violent conflict, reinforcing the divisions of the past forestalls peace and reconciliation. Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement—the keystone of Northern Ireland’s peace process—
51 percent of people in Northern Ireland, according to a recent poll, reported having few or no friends from the other side of the religious divide. Among 18-to-34-year-olds, the figure was even more worryingly high, at 58 percent. Academic research proves the obvious: Integrated education reduces prejudice, increases children’s understanding of diversity, and helps nurture and improve community relations.

The damaging effects of segregated education are not limited to the interpersonal realm. The state spends hundreds of millions of pounds administering what are effectively two parallel education systems, one Catholic, the other Protestant. This means separate teacher training colleges, separate education authorities, separate school board governor associations, and so on.

The movement for integrated education has been fighting for change since the darkest days of the Troubles. In 1981, amid the sectarian violence between Protestant unionists and the Catholic nationalist minority—and in the face of complete government inaction—some brave parents took matters into their own hands. They collectively founded the Lagan College secondary school, the province’s first planned religiously integrated school. Starting on the outskirts of Belfast with just 28 pupils, no money, no permanent building, and an armed police guard on the first day, Lagan College nevertheless managed to flourish. It’s now a thriving school, and many others have followed.

Integrated schools not only maintain a balance of Catholic and Protestant pupils on their rolls but also do the difficult work of fostering mutual understanding in a diverse environment. As a pupil at a planned integrated school in the 1990s, I received an extensive education in conflict resolution. Students frequently attended assemblies with invited victims of the Troubles who espoused the need for forgiveness.

But today, only 7 percent of Northern Ireland’s school-age children attend integrated schools. The state provides financial support for such schools via grants from the Education Authority but has yet to establish a single one itself, leaving the movement to be spearheaded by groups of parents and nonprofit organizations. This is despite integration’s incredible popularity. Integrated schools are oversubscribed, and polling consistently shows significant support for them.

Two years ago, observing the continued lack of progress, the Integrated Education Fund, one of the main organizations fighting for desegregation, launched the Integrate My School campaign. A little-used 1978 law, the Dunleath Act, allows existing schools to transform themselves from segregated to integrated. Few have used the opportunity, so the IEF started a campaign to work with parents and teachers to transform their schools through parental ballots.

The IEF set up a website where parents could register their support for integration at their children’s school. “It’s about confidence building, to show that you’re not alone, that other people feel the same way,” says Paul Caskey, the IEF’s campaign director. “We talk to a lot of parents who are supportive of integrated education—but do they want to put their head above the parapet? Do they want to knock on the principal’s door? Your average parent might not want to do that on their own. On the website, you can register your support anonymously. Once we get up to 20 to 25 percent of parents in favor at a given school, then we can work with them to go public and move to the next stage.” That next step involves starting conversations in the community and gathering the minimum 20 percent of signatures needed to trigger a parental vote on integrating the school.

This parent-led movement is picking up speed. So far this year, six schools across Northern Ireland voted to integrate via parental ballots, with huge majorities in favor.

Troubled legacy: Children taunt a British soldier in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, after an explosion in 1972. (AP / Michel Lipchitz)

One of these is Carrickfergus Central Primary, a Protestant school in a predominantly Protestant town just north of Belfast. Nuala Hall, the principal, arrived at Carrickfergus Central in 2015, after 19 years of working at an integrated school.

Shortly after she took the job at Carrickfergus Central, she was driving near the school with her husband. They saw the telltale red, white, and blue bunting of the UK flag. In Northern Ireland, territory marking is common, and any native instantly recognizes that such bunting marks an area as overwhelmingly Protestant. “My husband joked, ‘Well, there won’t be an integrated school here anytime soon,’” Hall recalls. “At that point, I agreed with him.” Yet in February of this year, parents at Carrickfergus Central voted 86 percent in favor 
of integration.

Hall didn’t arrive with the intention of integrating Carrickfergus Central. That started when the IEF sent the board of governors a flyer asking if the school was interested. A flurry of conversations among parents, teachers, and school board members ensued. The school invited representatives from the IEF and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education to discuss what such a change would mean. A parental ballot was scheduled, and the transformation commenced.

Reflecting on the vote, Hall says, “It was overwhelming. It showed huge support for transforming the school. Times are changing, people are fed up with the past, and the way to get out of the past is to educate children together.” The school must now work with educational authorities to prepare a transformation plan, and signs for the future are good. After the vote, next year’s new pupil intake was projected to increase.

On the other side of the divide, Seaview Primary, a small Catholic school in the northern coastal town of Glenarm, recently voted on integration as well. Parents and teachers worked together to start the process, assisted by the IEF. On June 28, Barry Corr, the school’s principal, announced the ballot results to more than 100 parents, grandparents, and children gathered on the school playground. In front of a live TV camera, he declared that 
95 percent of parents had voted to integrate.

Joanne Matthews, a school board chair with 6-year-old twins at Seaview, says, “It was a whole community that came together, and that was exciting and refreshing. It was great. It makes me very happy to say my children are going to attend an integrated school.”

By themselves, the stories of Carrickfergus Central and Seaview are inspiring but small in scale. The IEF is talking to about 40 other schools in Northern Ireland that are interested in transforming. There has been huge enthusiasm from parents. “In one area, a parent found out about Integrate My School and shared it with her friends on Facebook. Overnight, the amount of parents at the local school registering their support on our website passed the 20 percent threshold,” Caskey says.

But there are headwinds, too. There is still political and religious opposition. Despite support from individual church officials, the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations continue to have a chilly attitude toward integrated education.

A 2014 dispute over Clintyclay Primary School in the western county of Tyrone demonstrates the resilience of old prejudices. Although parents voted to integrate Clintyclay, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the education authority for Northern Ireland’s Catholic schools, decided almost simultaneously to close it. Some IEF members suspect that the council did so out of fear that Clintyclay would create a domino effect, with more and more Catholic schools voting to integrate. The council had previously lobbied for an end to the Department of Education’s legal duty to promote integrated education. Sources in the integrated education movement say there is similar opposition in Protestant churches.

Government apathy remains, as well. The IEF supported an integrated school that successfully sued the Department of Education in 2014, claiming that by refusing to allow the school to expand to meet increased demand, the department was not supporting integrated education. While there are integrated education proponents in all of Northern Ireland’s political parties, approval for the movement is not universal.

Reminders of long-standing division and conflict plague educational integration efforts. This past June, Harding Memorial, an elementary school, voted to become the first integrated school in predominantly Protestant East Belfast, with 87 percent in favor. The next day, in a threatening gesture, someone placed a British flag at the entrance of St. Joseph’s Primary, a Catholic school two miles away. This act of territory marking and intimidation, while minor, carries deeply sinister overtones, given the history of vandalism at the school and the sectarian abuse hurled at its students. (I experienced it when I attended St. Joseph’s as a child.) It is a sign that there is still much work to do.

A restored Northern Ireland government, if it had the political will, could make integration happen much faster. Asked how a restored Northern Ireland Executive would help, Caskey replies, “We need a commitment in the Programme for Government to drive integrated education forward. We can do a lot with our 
campaign—but it’s going to take a much longer period of time unless we can get government support.”

But the optimism and enthusiasm generated by parents and teachers who have voted in favor of transformation is proving infectious and could help build the widespread political support needed for total desegregation. All six schools that voted to integrate in 2019 did so with landslide elections, giving the IEF confidence that it will see similar results in the dozens of other schools it is talking to. Despite government inertia—and sometimes outright 
hostility—this parent-led, bottom-up movement is making inroads into the problem of Northern Ireland’s perpetual division. Building mass political support for integrated education might also help break up the logjam on other difficult issues, such as the similar segregation in public housing.

If there is hope, it comes from parents like Joanne Matthews. “It’s our children that will dictate what kind of future Northern Ireland has,” she says. “If we teach them that diversity is a brilliant thing, it’s going to be a happier and brighter future.”