Lord Londonderry & Education Reform in 1920s Northern Ireland

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Volume 9

Current Northern Ireland Minister for Education, Martin McGuinness-has yet to make any firm pronouncements on integrated education. (AP/RN)

Current Northern Ireland Minister for Education, Martin McGuinness-has yet to make any firm pronouncements on integrated education. (AP/RN)

The issue of integrated education in Northern Ireland has been given new impetus by recent political developments; the appointment of Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as education minister and the devolution of powers to the local Assembly. He has yet to make any firm pronouncements but it is clear that increasing demand for integrated schools will have to be addressed at some future stage. The present situation is the outcome of a long battle between the local government—first Ulster Unionist, then appointed by London—and the main churches. It began with efforts by the first Northern Ireland education minister, the seventh Marquess of Londonderry (1878-1949), to integrate elementary schools. His efforts were pulled asunder by various denominational interests. Like McGuinness his tenure coincided with the first faltering years of a local government and assembly. Unlike McGuinness he decided from the outset to make radical and controversial changes to schooling in the newly created Northern Ireland.

Lord Londonderry in the Chancellor's robes of Queen's University, Belfast, by William Conor. (Ulster Museum)

Lord Londonderry in the Chancellor’s robes of Queen’s University, Belfast, by William Conor. (Ulster Museum)

Education in pre-partition Ireland was fraught with many difficulties, not least the lack of uniformity and concerns about the influence of clerical school-managers. Many local national schools, set up in the nineteenth century, had become sectarian in control and character. Management boards had been taken over by local clergy allied to a particular church. Attempts to remove this influence, such as the MacPherson Bill (1919), mainly failed because of opposition from the Catholic Church and their allies in the Nationalist Party. As a result Ireland, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, did not benefit from significant education reforms.

Liberal Unionist

Local accountability arrived incrementally in Northern Ireland from its official creation in the summer of 1921. Despite continuing violence, frequent civil disturbances and delays in the transfer of powers and personnel from London and Dublin, the new government embarked on the difficult task of creating the new state. Now free from a nationalist and Catholic majority, the Unionists could press on with previously scuttled education reforms. Sir James Craig, the new prime minister, wanted to place sectarian schools under the control of the state by appointing managers in place of clerics. Understanding the politically sensitive nature of the reforms he appointed Lord Londonderry, a comparatively liberal Ulster Unionist. Londonderry had been a Conservative MP before the Great War, in which he served. He kept up an interest in Irish affairs when he entered the House of Lords and a junior post in the Westminster government. His decision to leave London for Belfast politics partly arose from a sense of duty; it almost certainly affected his chances of a significant career in Westminster. During his tenure at the education ministry, he became passionate about integrated education, at first in compliance with the constitution and later as a reaction against the sectarian forces he encountered. He would oversee legislation that would transfer so called church schools to ministry control.
The Government of Ireland Act 1920, section five, forbade the devolved Northern Ireland parliament from endowing any religious body with state funds: if schools wanted funding they could no longer be denominationally controlled. Quoting the constitution would not be enough to push reform through; political will and a significant cultural shift would also be required. Crucially, the churches would have to be persuaded—by inducement or punitive measures—to place their schools under the authority of the ministry and accept state appointments to management boards. Given their unparalleled access to the minds of the young, they would be reluctant to exact only a small price for relinquishing their hold.

‘Co-operation and…sympathy’?

From the outset of his appointment, in a speech to the Northern Ireland Senate in June 1921, Londonderry made it very clear what his hopes were:

I feel that everybody realises the importance of this great question, and that everybody is determined to do his utmost to collect in one great body and in one band all the great educational forces of the country, so as to elaborate a system which will be satisfactory in every respect. There are naturally difficulties which surround this question. They have been acute at different times and they subsided at other times but I do feel that with co-operation and with sympathy we will be able to evolve a system which will be the admiration of all other countries.

Londonderry faced seemingly insurmountable problems from the start. A new ministry had to be created, a task made difficult by uncooperative officials in Dublin not transferring relevant materials and staff. More seriously and with greater consequences, the nationalist (overwhelmingly Catholic) community within Northern Ireland boycotted the new state. Encouraged by the Sinn Féin leadership in Dublin, particularly Michael Collins, they hoped that the North would not last long as a political entity. The northern Catholic bishops—community and moral leaders of northern Nationalists—advocated abstention from the Belfast parliament and refused to recognise its authority.
The Catholic hierarchy had reasons to be wary of education reform, as secularisation was often concomitant. Such protectiveness was not unique to the Irish Catholic Church, but Northern Catholics also feared the motives of the Unionist government. The Catholic archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Michael Logue, noted for his staunch views, refused to have anything to do with Northern Ireland and warned his people to do likewise where practicable. This threat played upon the very real fear of many Catholics that they would be sidelined in an overwhelmingly Protestant and Unionist state.

The Lynn committee and ‘Londonderry Act’

In September 1921 Londonderry established the Lynn committee on education reform. It was hoped that all interested parties would sit on this body to explore ways of transferring schools to the state. Clerics from all of the major churches were invited to join, including Logue. The cardinal refused to join or allow others under him to do so.

Cardinal Michael Logue-refused to have anything to do with Northern Ireland.

Cardinal Michael Logue-refused to have anything to do with Northern Ireland.

Sir James Craig-his worsening relationship with Londonderry contributed to the latter's resignation in January 1926. Both painting by Sir John Lavery. (by courtesy of Felix Rosensteil's Widow & Son Ltd., London, on behalf of the Estate of Sir John Lavery)

Sir James Craig-his worsening relationship with Londonderry contributed to the latter’s resignation in January 1926. Both painting by Sir John Lavery. (by courtesy of Felix Rosensteil’s Widow & Son Ltd., London, on behalf of the Estate of Sir John Lavery)

Around a third of all Catholic schools refused to recognise the authority of the ministry of education; their teachers continued to draw salaries from Dublin. Londonderry himself urged the cardinal to reconsider his position. Logue replied, describing the committee as ‘an attack…organised against our schools’. He maintained this stance despite the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921) which effectively ensured Northern Ireland’s existence for the foreseeable future. This deprived the committee of any official Catholic input and retarded development of the ‘one great body’ Londonderry had hoped for. From this refusal all subsequent problems can be traced; justification remains a matter of debate amongst historians.
The committee, under the chairmanship of Orangeman and Belfast News Letter editor R.J. Lynn, pressed on with its hearings throughout 1922 and presented interim findings to Londonderry in the summer. It should be noted that one Catholic, Napoleon Bonaparte-Wyse, was involved with the committee, doing ‘the lion’s share of the work’. Despite his confessional views he was not representative and became a figure for attack in the Catholic press. Nevertheless he was a very useful administrator having had considerable knowledge of education policy from his years as a civil servant in Dublin.
The report recommended the structural changes and local accountability for state schools that were embodied in the subsequent act. Schools wishing to retain full independence were provided for—with the proviso of reduced funding. An intermediate category was created between full state control and independence in which school managers would be appointed by both the local authority and the affiliated church. These schools would receive more pay than the independents but less than the full funding of those completely transferred to the state sector. It was hoped that this financial lure would enable a transition of unwilling church schools from full independence to the state via intermediate status. In place of clerics the local education authorities would appoint lay managers whilst still allowing clergy a ‘right of entry’ to the schools. The committee also recommended that ‘simple Bible instruction’ should be provided, a reflection of its Protestant make-up.

Inevitable Protestant Unionist bias

The public had time to digest the interim report before legislative action was taken. Protestant churches, having played a significant role in its drafting, largely welcomed it, as did the Orange Institution. Catholic schools had lost financial backing from Dublin in October 1922 and so reluctantly recognised the education ministry’s authority in order to receive pay. Now fully involved in the system they resisted what they viewed as an attack on their religion and culture through the lack of full funding. Unlike the emerging Southern system, Northern Ireland’s proposed secular, and therefore to many nationalists, ‘British’, state schools would not promote Catholicism or Gaelicisation. Whilst not openly promoting strong British or Protestant values the new system was viewed by those outside that cultural group as doing so obliquely. It has been said by one recent historian that the Unionist-driven reforms were a ‘convenient cloak’ to cover anti-Catholic intentions. This argument fails to recognise the simple fact that the Catholic Church wounded itself by boycotting the reform process; it inevitability had a Protestant Unionist bias.
The end of 1922 witnessed a remarkable battle of wills between Catholic teachers and the ministry over the oath of allegiance to the king required of public servants. This demand for an expression of loyalty backfired as it served to heighten nationalist fears of a unionist-dominated state. Due to the financial dependency of Catholic teachers upon the ministry it was inevitable that the government would win, though it only served to generate increased bitterness. Important to nationalists, though largely overlooked at the time due to the oath row, was the Method of Voting and Redistribution of Seats Act (1922) passed in September; it abolished proportional representation in local elections. This meant that in mainly Protestant areas the proposed local education authorities would have less Catholic representatives than under PR and vice versa.
Londonderry agreed to the structural changes recommended by Lynn but rejected Bible instruction as unconstitutional. Unpaid religious instruction would only be permitted after school hours with parental consent. This proved to be too much movement in the wrong direction for various parties. There was division in the Northern Ireland cabinet but Londonderry won collective support with the help of Craig and the future prime minister J.M. Andrews. In the spring of 1923 the Education Act (Northern Ireland), more commonly known as ‘the Londonderry Act’ was passed.

Protestant opposition

Most Protestant churches had agreed to transfer their schools to state control despite the lack of religion in the formal timetable. They quickly changed their minds when it became clear that Catholic schools would remain independent and only Protestant schools would have to abide by state rules; specifically no church control over teacher appointments and no religious instruction on the curriculum. To compound this Catholics would have a say in the appointment of state teachers through nationalist members of local education authorities, something keenly felt by Protestants in border areas. Hostility to the act was inevitable, especially with continuing inter-community tension and violence.
The appointment of teachers became a battle ground between the Protestant churches and the ministry. Under the terms of the constitution state schools, unlike independent Catholic schools, were forbidden to hire or fire on the basis of religion. Some Protestants viewed this as an inequality and a threat to their culture. Such fears were founded in the very real fact that Catholics were applying to enrol at the state’s newly established Stanmillis teacher training college despite a ban on doing so from their church hierarchy. Londonderry tried to quell opposition by explaining to the various delegations of Unionist backbenchers, Protestant clerics and Orangemen who came to see him that a religious input could be accommodated outside school hours. Practical and constitutional explanations fell on deaf ears as they could only compare their loss of control with Catholic retention.
Protestant opposition grew throughout 1924 gaining popular support. Protestant church groups and the Orange Institution appealed to Craig, believing him more favourable towards their views. Fearing a change in Craig’s acutely election-aware attitude Londonderry dug-in, determined not to alter his act. The United Education Committee (UEC), comprised of Protestant school managers with Orange support retaliated with claims that the act was anti-Protestant and harnessed growing mass support.
The overwhelming pressure proved too much for Craig, ever fearful of disastrous election results. An Amendment Act was passed in March 1925. Cabinet papers suggest it was Craig’s proposal; it was certainly against the wishes of Londonderry.

Graduates of Stranmillis College, c.1920s-Catholic students were forbidden by their church from attending. (Stranmillis College Library)

Graduates of Stranmillis College, c.1920s-Catholic students were forbidden by their church from attending. (Stranmillis College Library)

After an argument over interpretation with the UEC it was agreed the new act make it obligatory for paid state teachers to give simple Bible instruction. This would be non-compulsory and after school hours. Protestant clerics were also assured that school management committees, on which many continued to sit, would have some say in the appointment of teachers.

Catholic opposition

Aside from other social and religious questions, not least the refusal to transfer any schools, the Catholic Church found itself vigorously opposing the 1923 act on the issue of teacher training. They would not allow male Catholic trainee teachers to enrol at Stranmillis teacher training college, as they did not want them educated alongside Protestants or women. They also refused to send them to St Mary’s college in Belfast, which was already training Catholic women. They preferred to send their male students to a college in the Irish Free State and banned them from attending Stranmillis. The ministry insisted that Northern Ireland teachers would have to be trained in the North as the southern system and curriculum were at a significant variance. Londonderry also had to deal with the constitutional problems of funding a denominational college. The Catholic Church demanded a separate Northern Ireland college for Catholic men but despite the determination of leading northern bishop, Joseph MacRory, Stanmillis recorded fifty applications from Catholics in 1923. Most of these were retracted when the Catholic Church made it clear they would not be employed in their schools. Londonderry had to resolve the matter; he needed teachers for Catholic schools and wanted to prevent too many coming into the state sector lest they fuel a Protestant backlash.
Some progress was made in 1924 when Bonaparte-Wyse met MacRory’s representatives for talks. The Catholic Church would countenance separate lectures and subjects for Catholics in Stranmillis but also demanded a separate hostel and grounds. The ministry then suggested sending the teachers to Strawberry Hill, a Catholic training college near London.
Londonderry realised MacRory would not move and towards the end of 1924 wrote to another important northern bishop; continuing Logue’s boycott Bishop Patrick O’Donnell refused several invitations to join a committee to resolve the issue. Londonderry refused to leave it there and continued to request his assistance. Persistence paid off in January 1925 when O’Donnell succeeded Logue as Archbishop of Armagh. More liberal than his predecessor and keen to have Catholics work with the government, he agreed to meet Londonderry later in the month. Strawberry Hill was agreed as a temporary measure. For Londonderry this was a successful solution as no new college would have to be built and Ulster Catholics would train in Britain.
Despite the relatively successful though transient outcome to the training crisis it could not hide the fact that the 1923 act was fatally damaged. The great majority of northern Catholics and Protestants would not be educated together at any level outside university and most schools remained denominational in character and practice. With his act in tatters Londonderry’s relationship with Craig worsened and probably contributed to his resignation in January 1926. He later entered the British cabinet as Secretary of State for Air (1931-1935).
It is ironic that today in Northern Ireland the churches speak with one voice for peace and unity between the communities. The same churches refused to withdraw their grip on education in the embryonic 1920s and consequently maintained the deep-rooted divisions that have bedevilled Northern Ireland society ever since.

Neil C. Fleming is a research student at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University, Belfast.

Further reading:

D. Akenson, Education and Enmity (Belfast 1973).

S. Farren, The Politics of Irish Education 1920-65 (Belfast 1995).

M. Harris, The Catholic Church and the Foundation of the Northern Irish State (Cork 1993).

H.M. Hyde, The Londonderrys: a family portrait (London 1979).


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