I often think that the biggest challenge we face, as educators – and as people – is, not learning from our experiences, but unlearning them. I’ve been reminded of this yet again, during a two-day trip to Northern Ireland this week. I love visiting the province – the drive from Derry to Belfast was spectacular in the bright spring sunshine – and especially meeting the people who are working hard in the arts and education sectors to reinforce and extend the peace process there. It was great to see how the Musical Futures initiative could help support Derry-Londonderry’s City of Culture plans and one of their planned legacies: the Children’s Music Promise. Really great visions, and a determination to positively celebrate all that is good about all of Derry’s communities.
There are so many great people working hard to move the province on from the dark days of the recent past.Professor Tony Gallagher Pro-Vice Chancellor at Queens University Belfast is one of them, and I was glad to spend some time with him. Tony is heading the Schools Working Together project, an ambitious and essential programme, at a time when structural, religious, political and gender divisions define much of the province’s education. Tony also has fascinating insights on events, and progress made, since the Good Friday Agreement. A recent study highlights some stark differences in achievement: why, for example, should white working class protestant boys gain 20% fewer qualifications than their catholic counterparts?
Ulster hasn’t adopted the truth-and-reconcilliation route taken by South Africa, and there is much debate about how a new, shared future, can be created, without whitewashing the past. The complexity of this challenge is seen, graphically, through the murals on the Shankill and Falls roads. Tony told me that some of the more inflammatory murals had been painted over, but suggested we take one of the tour buses around the city to form our own impression.
I have to say that I found it an unsettling experience. The iconography of the troubles is so strong, and so polarised, that I can’t imagine how a child growing up in these communities couldn’t help but form negative opinions of people on the other side of the ‘peace’ wall. Admittedly, the undercurrent of intimidation wasn’t helped when a group of kids pelted the bus with unidentified flying objects but, frankly, I don’t blame them. The murals may be an important tourist destination now but the residents must occasionally feel like exhibits in a living cultural museum.
The Assembly election campaigns for Northern Ireland are currently taking place, to a fairly apathetic public response. Which is probably a good thing, as it signifies a kind of normality. But I saw a telling TV interview with an elderly couple who, when asked, felt that people have always voted according to their religion, and would continue to do so ‘for generations’.
The Belfast murals are framed with many pleas to ‘Never forget’, and ‘Always remember’. But with iconography this powerful, this defining and this polarised, I came away feeling that the job of teaching these kids to get beyond their recent hisories, and to look forward to a non-sectarian future, would be assisted by a bit of collective amnesia – and some external redecoration. Whilst forgiveness might not always be possible, when it comes to unlearning the lessons of the past, sometimes it’s good to forget.