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McGuinness - The Role of Education in a Civilised Society

23 July, 2003


My focus at today's discussion is the role of education in a civilised society. Of course, this title presupposes the existence of a civilised society and that, unfortunately, is not a given. The Ireland of today has still some distance to go if we are to presume to define ourselves as a civilised society.

This year the Orange marching season in the north has been much more peaceful than we normally experience. This is the result of intense work on the part of political and community activists on the ground in both sections of the community. But the existence of ingrained sectarianism continues to afflict society in the north of Ireland and the images of the young children of the Holy Cross School in Ardoyne running a gauntlet of sectarian abuse and attack underlines starkly how much further we have to travel.

And our lack of civilisation is not confined to religious hatred and bigotry. The intimidation and driving out of a Muslim family in the north two weeks ago was a disgrace and demands the attention and action of any society which aspires to be regarded as civilised.

Racism against others is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland and all the more despicable given that we, as people, were and still are at the receiving end of racist bigotry and ignorance.

Racism and sectarianism have no place in a modern society. They have no place in a civilised society and they must have no place in Ireland.

Of course, some recent developments have been more encouraging. The hosting of the Special Olympics in Ireland this year is something we can all be proud of. The organizers deserve full credit for the enormous effort that they made. But the true heroes are of course the participants from every corner of the globe who came here to participate and to demonstrate in the most visible way possible that every human being has his or her own strengths and abilities. The focus on the abilities of the participants, rather than the disabilities, was a positive, enlightening and educational experience for all the people of this island.

Crisis in the Peace Process

On the political front we have also much to celebrate and be proud of. I can say without fear of contradiction that, as a result of the peace process, where we are now is a far better place than where we were 10 years ago. And I am confident that where we will be in 10 years from now will be a far better place again.

Unfortunately, however, our peace process is facing yet another, perhaps its deepest crisis yet. The democratic institutions agreed and established under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement have been unilaterally suspended by the British government. But more damagingly, the British government has unilaterally cancelled elections in Ireland which derive directly from the Good Friday Agreement which was itself endorsed by the majority of the people of Ireland voting in referendums in 1998. The British government has no mandate in Ireland. The British government has no right to over-ride the democratic process in Ireland.

The canceling of elections undermines democracy and politics and damages the peace process which is premised on the possibility of making politics work. Perhaps the British government does not fully understand the significance of their actions but they are entirely responsible for the dangerous vacuum which currently exists and which opponents of the peace process on both sides will try to exploit.

I will talk later about the review of the school curriculum and our attempts to show children that contentious issues can be addressed and resolved politically. But to do that politics must work and must be seen to be working. That task becomes very difficult if the British government unilaterally and arbitrarily suspends the democratic process upon which politics is based.

A definite date must now be set for the cancelled elections.

The institutions agreed on Good Friday and endorsed by the people need to be put back in place urgently.

Sinn Fein is now engaged in a renewed negotiation with the two governments in an attempt to achieve this. But there can be no renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement must be implemented in full. We must see an end to political and paramilitary policing. Our society must be demilitarized, on all sides. There must be an end to discrimination, inequality and sectarianism. Human rights must become a reality for all our people. The British government has accepted, in the recently published Joint Declaration, that it has failed to deliver on these obligations so there is a particular onus on that government to do so without further delay.

But despite the present and on-going difficulties that we face, we have made enormous progress.

The peace process has already transformed the situation in Ireland. A few short years ago it would have been unimaginable that I would have been here addressing you as a former Minister for Education. Only a very short time ago a vicious circle of injustice, inequality and conflict afflicted us in the north of Ireland. All of this was the legacy of the undemocratic partition of Ireland. We seemed trapped in a conflict that many believed to be intractable. In a relatively short period of time the political landscape has been transformed and we have provided the hope, if not yet the certainty, that the injustices and failures of the past will never be repeated. The progress we have made is based on the key principles of equality, justice and inclusivity. There is much work still to be done in these areas if we are to build a civilised society based on these principles, but we have at least made a start.

The Role of Education in a Civilised Society

In addressing the topic of today's discussion perhaps I could approach from a slightly different angle. It is my belief that education has a key role to play in the achievement of a civilised society. I am convinced that education can be the heart of a new, more enlightened more tolerant and progressive society. But to be so, education, and the system which delivers it must be modern, forward looking and, itself, progressive. It must be child centered and based on equality, diversity and mutual respect. It should challenge division rather than entrench it and it should act as a unifying influence in our society.

It was because of the transforming potential of education that I chose to be Minister for Education.

In his first public speech Abraham Lincoln said that Education was then the most important issue facing the American people. I believe that Education is the most important issue now facing the Irish people. Education is critical to who we are. It defines uhat equality must be at the heart of anything we do. The reality is that academic selection for some means academic rejection for the majority of our children. It is a system which is fundamentally unfair.

And the group which does worst under academic selection is the disadvantaged and most strikingly the disadvantaged Protestant Community. The poorest results are seen in state schools serving disadvantaged working class Protestant areas. In some working class Protestant areas a grammar school place is beyond the reach of almost all pupils - in the Shankill for example, less than 2% of pupils pass the academic test at age 11.

The system is not serving the working classes and it is certainly not serving children from working class Protestant families.

I want fairness and better educational opportunities for all children; whether they are Catholic or Protestant; well off or disadvantaged; whatever their abilities. A system which designates any 11important that we recognize that and deal with it. We have to leave the wounds open to the air to heal. We have to hold up our past and ask ourselves what we need to do to ensure we can all move forward together.

I believe that one of our most important tasks will be to try to ensure that there is a political alternative to conflict and that our young people are equipped to handle political disagreements peacefully and democratically; to be proud of their own culture while accepting other's; to welcome and value diversity; to understand the real, practical meaning of equality, human and civil rights, civic responsibilities, democracy and justice.

To do that we are fundamentally reviewing the common core curriculum in our schools. If get this right, we will have a curriculum that I believe will do more than anything else to help build a tolerant society at ease with itself - a civilised society. A curriculum which acknowledges our unresolved political ir Education, I recognized and acted on the progressive and civilizing potential of education. I doubt if we can yet define ourselves as a civilised society but I hope that we are moving in the right direction. When asked his view of modern civilization, Mahatma Gandhi famously replied, 'That would be a good idea‰. We all have some distance to go.

Videos

Peace and Reconciliation discussed at Féile


Photos

Mary Lou McDonald and Cathal King