President Obama continued his charm offensive in Belfast yesterday. Emphasis on “offensive.”
President Barack Obama, repeated the oft disproved claim that Catholic education increases division in front of an audience of 2,000 young people, including many Catholics, at Belfast’s Waterfront hall when he arrived in the country this morning.
Here’s what Obama said, from the White House website:
“[I]ssues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity — symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others — these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it. If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.
This seems pretty innocuous, unless you know the context. The notion that religious education is the real problem in Northern Ireland is very politically controversial — a unionist argument that’s been used to attack Catholic schools’ right to exist. (Nearly all Protestant schools there handed over control to the state years ago.)
Obama is not staking out a novel position, but it is a controversial one for a U.S. president. He’s just stepped into a foreign country and seized one of its political third rails. Just imagine the reaction if Obama had visited the West Bank and said something like this about Islamic education.
The so-called “Maintained” Catholic schools in Northern Ireland educate a majority of its children and in recent years have generally outperformed the state-operated “Controlled” schools, despite having a poorer student population. Also according to a 2012 audit, fewer of the Catholic schools are failing. (Both types of schools are technically open to all applicants.)
As the Catholic schools pull off this feat and help Catholics attain equality in the workforce after decades of modern discrimination (not to mention what happened in previous centuries), they are in a constant fight against the very argument Obama voiced — that religious education is the cause of division, as opposed to, say, the state’s prior role in religious cleansing or thuggish behavior by grown-ups on both sides of the religious and political divide who should know better.
In 2010, Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, a unionist, made comments nearly identical to Obama’s in calling for a de-funding of the Catholic schools. Bishop Donal McKeown denounced Robinson’s statement as ”an attack on the right of Catholic parents to have their children educated in the ethos of their faith, a right which they have literally paid for down through the years in Northern Ireland.” (In practice, such a cut-off would simply mean that Protestant-attended schools would be funded by the government and Catholic ones would not — there are very few “officially” Protestant schools.)
As has happened many times before in his presidency, Obama tends to think that his sudden arrival on the scene will clear the air and make all of these dumb little people with ancient grudges see the light. But hey, no one before Obama was clever enough to make Arab Muslims in North Africa see that we’re really their friends, or to make the Russians aware that the Cold War is over. So why shouldn’t Obama stick his foot in it again?