By Jane Hardy
A veteran activist for the integration movement in Northern Ireland said she initially dismissed the campaign as she believed it was aimed at middle class people – “those who could afford to choose” when it came to education.
But in 1999 May Blood, who was born and raised in Belfast and who once worked in a linen mill, presented the prizes at Hazelwood Integrated College and found she had to re-evaluate her initial opinion.
“I discovered there were kids from Sandy Row, kids from the Shankill, kids from the Falls. I couldn’t believe it.”
Ms Blood, who in 1999 was offered a life peerage and a seat in the House of Lords, was invited to join the Northern Ireland Integrated Education Fund and went on to become a champion for the sector.
“I said I’d do it for a year – that was 17 years ago.”
But she pointed out that it was not a panacea: “It’s not the answer to the problem of Northern Ireland, it’s part of the answer. We have to grow a whole new community so we don’t keep looking back. I think our young people who come through integrated education, and the whole education system, are beginning to open their eyes to the world. Our education system is superior but the problem is it’s sectarian. State schools are predominantly Protestant, church schools are almost all Catholic with a few Protestants going. In the Troubles housing was split up, education was split up – it was the norm. None of the communities ever met each other.”
This has made it tough to bring Northern Ireland’s post-conflict society together, she added. Recalling her own upbringing in the 1940s as a Protestant in west Belfast, May described a gentler world. “I was brought up in a mixed housing area. The family next door was Catholic, the family across the road was Catholic. We all went to different schools but we played together on the street. Social integration clearly worked and there was a sense of shared values. We all helped each other out, that was how I was reared.”
On the question of why integrated education has not flourished numerically, she said. “I’d love to get to 15 percent, not be at seven percent, but it’s all about fundraising.
“In 25 years the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) has raised about £25 million, that’s a lot of fundraising.”
Baroness Blood also refers to battles, even a couple of court cases, with the Department of Education over integrated status for schools.
On the question of shared education, Baroness Blood remains adamant that it is not enough. “The problem with shared education is that students share a project or music lesson, then go back to their own schools. To me it smacks of class. Schools, who I don’t blame, have received a lot of money for this, up to £100,000 for three years. With integration, pupils stay in the same school and work out who has horns and who doesn’t. I can’t understand why people accept shared education but think integrated education is a step too far.”
May finished off the interview by recalling words said by former Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson. “I remember seeing Peter Robinson about this when he was First Minister. He said: ‘It’s about evolution, May, not revolution’.
And I thought: ‘What about revolution?’ We need a revolution in Northern Ireland.”
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