Education, religion and politics: can they ever be disentangled in Northern Ireland?

Posted in History | Posted by: | Tagged: | Leave a reply

The Belfast parliament passed the first Education Act (Northern Ireland) in spring 1923, two years after its establishment. The Act was promoted by the then Minister of Education, Lord Londonderry, whose understanding of the situation in Northern Ireland was that of an outsider: a conservative English MP, he was committed to bringing education under state control and to end the power still retained by the Catholic Church and by the various Protestant churches. In a country where political allegiance was often a function of religious identity, Londonderry’s plan was met with hostility not only from all denominations but also from all sides of the political spectrum. Unlike in most of Europe and, to some extent, in Britain, in 1920s Ireland education and religion were still closely intertwined.


In the last decades of the nineteenth century, several European countries reinforced their control of education by replacing parish schools with state schools where the national language and history were taught. The aim was to impose a common vernacular and inculcate patriotism, thus ensuring the loyalty of citizens to the state. However, on the other side of the English channel, the situation was different. Since linguistic and ethnic divisions were less sharp than in the rest of the continent, the state did not feel the need to enforce an official language and culture through institutionalised education, and the system remained fragmented and denominational. It was not until the early twentieth century that the British government started to impose a certain degree of state control on schools in exchange for public funding. When a similar strategy was attempted in Ireland, it immediately became apparent that not only antagonism between the various churches, but also their different attitudes towards the British government would likely undermine efforts to reform the education system.

Soon after partition in 1921, Lord Londonderry set up a Departmental Committee of Enquiry to advise on education reforms; all denominations were asked to send representatives, but the Catholic Church refused to co-operate. Such choice was, and still is, criticised by many who claim that the Church missed the opportunity to influence the legislative process and to intervene in a field that was of paramount importance to Catholics. Resistance to state interference in education was not peculiar to Ireland because everywhere in the world the Catholic Church fought to protect the independence of its schools from any form of state control. Furthermore, the Church’s strategy was consistent with the non-recognition policy: the majority of Catholics living in Northern Ireland and supporting nationalist or republican parties refused to recognise the Belfast government in the hope to undermine its authority and end partition. Such policy was encouraged by the government of the Irish Free State that, in early 1922, agreed to finance those Catholic schools in Northern Ireland that rejected the authority of the Belfast government; however, the initiative ended in October of the same year due to the impossibility of the Dublin administration to meet its high costs.

While Catholics, the largest single denomination in Northern Ireland were not represented in the Departmental Committee, the Protestant churches responded enthusiastically to Londonderry’s call. Subsequently, almost all recommendations included in the final report by the Committee were incorporated in the 1923 Education Act, which envisaged the creation of three kinds of schools: the higher the degree of control exercised by local authorities over the schools, the higher the amount of public funding they received. However, against the advice of the Committee, the Education Act did not ensure the delivery of religious instruction during school hours as it established that it could be taught after school by unpaid teachers. Thanks to Londonderry’s firmness and to the support of the Prime Minister, the reform was approved but, as already said, it was widely unpopular.

The main complaints from the Protestant churches regarded the lack of compulsory religious instruction and the possibility that Catholics in local boards would have a say over their schools’ administration and, in particular, on the appointment of teachers. Nevertheless, most Protestant schools accepted partial or full state control in order to obtain substantial funding. On the other hand, the Church feared that since Catholics were underrepresented in local boards, they would not be able to exercise much control over their schools. As a result, the vast majority of Catholic schools preferred to remain independent from state control, and the fact that, although Catholics paid their share of taxes, their schools received very limited public funding fostered resentment against the Belfast government.

In the following years, opposition to the Education Act increased within the Protestant community, and since the government feared losing its support base when fresh elections were approaching, they decided to amend the Act. The first amendment removed the prohibition of religious instruction during school hours and allowed the religious beliefs of teachers to be taken into account for appointments. This set a precedent encouraging the churches to insist on their requests while Londonderry’s resignation removed a major obstacle to the implementation of denominational education. In the following years, the Belfast government gradually abandoned its plans to modernise the education system and prioritised the consolidation of its supporters’ loyalty; the Protestant churches, determined to make the most of the opportunity, sent numerous deputations to advance their requests. The government’s promptness to meet Protestants’ requests alarmed the Catholic community that, due to other political developments, decided to abandon the non-recognition policy and come to terms with the reality of their life as a minority in a majoritarian state. But, while Catholic political representatives slowly grew more open to dialogue with their counterpart, the Church stubbornly refused any involvement in the design of education reforms.

By 1930, only seven years after Londonderry’s Education Act, the system remained theoretically undenominational while being sectarian in practice. All schools under state control were obliged to provide facilities and opportunities for religious instruction; old managers, generally clerics, of schools transferred to state control would have at least half of the places on the school committee. In the end, a lot of Catholic institutions finally accepted state control in order to access public funding: after all, the system protected their denominational ethos as much as it did for Protestant schools. The failure to impose state control helped perpetrate educational separation based on religion, and although a system founded on denominational schools exists in many countries, in Northern Ireland this was, and still is, problematic because it reflects a deeply segregated society. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to thirty years of violent unrest, covers a host of issues relating to sovereignty, civil and cultural rights, decommissioning of weapons, demilitarisation, justice and policing. However, it does little to fight segregation in education, despite the fact that the matter is considered fundamental to the success of the peace process. Recent initiatives have promoted collaboration between schools, but they have also been careful to protect the institutes’ denominational ethos at the same time, in the attempt to bypass residual hostility to integrated education coming from various quarters.

Dr Cecilia Biaggi is the Programme Co-ordinator for Parallel Histories. The topic of Dr Biaggi’s DPhil was the history of post-partition politics in Northern Ireland.