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Introduction by Jennifer Crowdy, Peter Gosden Fellow

Many have welcomed the recent restoration of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government. In the short time since, nationalist and unionist ministers have used high-profile symbolic visits to heal inter-community tensions. Inevitably, some dismiss these as ‘gesture politics’. After all, Northern Ireland’s political, religious and cultural divisions remain stubbornly ingrained. A growing number of people hold that these will never be overcome if most Catholic and Protestant children are schooled separately. The Line of Duty star, Adrian Dunbar, a vocal supporter of ‘integrated education’, has put it bluntly: ‘I always wondered how come we spend millions and millions of pounds separating children at the age of five to then spend millions trying to tell them that they were the same at the age of 16.’

The answer lies in the failed attempt to create integrated schools in the 1920s. Ireland’s partition in 1921 meant that education policy in Northern Ireland was devolved to its newly established government. It inherited the National School system established across Ireland in the 1830s. These schools had evolved to become denominational in practice. Northern Ireland’s first Minister of Education, the seventh Marquess of Londonderry, set about fashioning a new system. Addressing the Northern Ireland Senate on 14 March 1923, he called on the churches to avoid becoming ‘the stumbling block in the way of an ideal system by a determination to segregate their flocks and create from birth a division when union is so essential to the well-being of the province.’

Lord Londonderry began his task with optimism. He referred to ‘the new spirit of the new era dawning before our eyes’, and how ‘tolerance and a mutual respect will replace prejudice and jealous mistrust.’ He had the law on his side. Section 5 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which established Northern Ireland, forbade its parliament from financially endowing any religious body. Londonderry and his supporters in Northern Ireland’s Education Ministry believed that this included schools.

But he faced a serious and seemingly impassable obstacle from the outset. The religious and political leaders of Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority in effect boycotted the new state. Stuck on the wrong side of the border, they hoped that the boundary line might be adjusted in their favour or even dissolved altogether. Inter-communal tensions were also strained by the bloody cycle of violence that accompanied partition, resulting in over four hundred deaths and many more injured. The leader of Northern Ireland’s Catholics, Cardinal Logue, duly declined Londonderry’s invitation to join or nominate representatives to a committee set up to examine education reform.

That committee eventually produced a report which would be the basis for what became the Education Act (Northern Ireland) 1923, otherwise known as the ‘Londonderry Act’. It recommended three categories of elementary school. Schools fully transferred to local education authorities would receive full funding. Schools that remained independent would receive minimal funding, though this included their largest outlay, teachers’ salaries. A third class of school—which granted the state a measure of control—was intended as a bridge for those hesitant about full transfer.

The determination of Catholic school managers to remain independent meant that their schools received minimal funding. In contrast, Protestant churches were initially more relaxed about the 1923 Act and looked forward to the increased funding that accompanied transfer to local education authorities. However, as it became clear that the only transferred schools were Protestant, concern grew in that quarter about its implications for the children’s religious instruction.

If there was genuine concern, the obvious answer was that Protestant schools should remain independent like Catholic schools. But some Protestant schools were in dire need of funding, and there was an expectation among the majority Protestant community that the Ulster Unionist government would prioritise Protestant interests. A campaign emerged, initiated by Presbyterians but spreading beyond that denomination, to amend the 1923 Act to allow ‘Bible instruction’ and for the ability to appoint teachers according to church affiliation.

Londonderry at first refused to bow to pressure. He received delegations of Protestant clerics and Orangemen but refused to budge. His fellow cabinet ministers, however, grew increasingly anxious about the Ulster Unionists’ electoral prospects. In advance of the 1925 general election to the Northern Ireland parliament, an amendment act was passed that appeared to concede the agitators’ demands.

But Londonderry claimed otherwise, much to the anger of his Protestant critics. Presbyterian clerics then called on local councillors to stop paying levies to the Education Ministry until the amendments were properly enacted. As a result, Londonderry was forced by his cabinet colleagues to concede non-compulsory Bible instruction after school hours. Months later he resigned as Minister of Education.

More recently, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed the Integrated Education Act 2022, which obliges the Department of Education to ‘grow’ the integrated sector. 99 years after Londonderry’s reforms, the 2022 Act was also criticised by the churches, and it had to overcome considerable opposition in Stormont, from both nationalists and unionists. For all that has changed in Northern Ireland, the relationship between religion, identity, and education remains highly sensitive.

Neil Fleming is Professor of Modern History, University of Worcester. A revised and expanded paperback edition of his biography of Lord Londonderry has recently been published by Bloomsbury Academic. He is also the editor of Aristocracy, Democracy, and Dictatorship: The Political Papers of the Seventh Marquess of Londonderry, published in 2022 by Cambridge University Press.