The Catholic Church and Catholic Schools in Northern Ireland, Michael McGrath. (Irish Academic Press, £39.50) ISBN 0716526514

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (Autumn 2000), Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Reviews, Volume 8

Michael McGrath traces the costly financial implications of the voluntary Catholic sector from the early years through to the last decade of the twentieth century. He shows how education had always received financial assistance from the Catholic community, unlike contemporary Protestants, long before the creation of Northern Ireland. His story is a testament to the determination of the Catholic authorities, for a long time clerical, now lay, to maintain independence. In doing so they have ensured that their educational monopoly, won in the nineteenth century, has lasted to the twenty-first. His fair and balanced account raises interesting issues for the Catholic education sector such as the purpose of segregation in a post-conflict secular society when unionist, Orange Order and Protestant-clerical influences are at their lowest.
The topic of education and the Catholic church in Northern Ireland has already been dealt with by various historians, more recently by Sean Farren, The Politics of Irish Education, and Mary Harris, The Catholic Church and the Foundation of the Northern Irish State. This latest work, although retracing ground covered by others, takes the history up to the 1990s. It is distinctive from previous works through its focus on the financial implications of Catholic education policy.
The policy has and continues to be one of educational independence from the state with full funding. The first education minister, Lord Londonderry, ensured that the Catholic clergy could not have both and tried to induce both Protestant and Catholic sectors to hand over managerial control of local national schools to the education ministry. McGrath argues that Londonderry’s idealistic hopes were never realised due to ongoing nationalist mistrust of the Unionist government, inter-community violence, Unionist insensitivity to northern nationalists and a Catholic boycott of the new state. Two amending acts in 1925 and 1930 cemented the refusal of both sides to play by Londonderry’s rules resulting in the Catholic schools maintaining a costly independence and the Protestant clerics exerting a powerful influence in the state sector.
With the two-tier system in place the education ministry had to negotiate with each section whilst keeping an eye on the other and the unionist electorate. Despite natural tensions between the church and ministry McGrath highlights the often friendly relations between them. He challenges assumptions in noting how both Craigavon and Brookeborough accommodated Catholic educational interests more than Terence O’Neill, who took a strong stance in linking increased finance to state involvement. The Catholic authorities had to rely on the good will of education ministers, who were often the most liberal of the cabinet, and after the fall of Stormont, on British ministers who expressed support for integration. In the last thirty years the Catholic clergy has also had to deal wnationalist politicians for clerical control.
The Catholic authorities spent the seventy years following the establishment of the two-tier system achieving the position they had wanted all along. It was a slow and protracted battle but by the 1990s they achieved both full funding and independence. However social factors have altered the management of Catholic schools in that educated lay Catholics have taken the place of the clergy. McGrath also traces how the spiritual motivations for independence had given way in the 1980s to political and cultural factors. Facing an attack from integrationists and the growing popularity of Sinn Féin, the SDLP ended a decade-old silence from constitutional nationalism on the question of integration and argued that Catholic schools facilitate an Irish identity through such activities as the Gaelic language and sport. This reawakened interest in the schools has not meant a defence of clerical control as it reflects the interests of nationalist politics and the Catholic middle-class.
McGrath’s book is a well-written and concise account that will prove useful to students of social history and those requiring a background for further in-depth study. He provides useful charts and graphs though not always entirely covering the period studied. The range of sources used is a little narrow, especially after the 1960s, but he provides a reliable account that will serve as a primer when all records are available. He sticks to the title rigidly, sometimes at the expense of background explanations, but the detail compensates for this.
This fascinating story of how the church dealt with Unionist and British governments leaves the reader in anticipation of what the first republican minister, Martin McGuinness, will do in the future. His actions will become the next chapter of a saga that will play on as long as integration is an issue.

Neil Fleming

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