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Learning for others: diversity in Northern Ireland

Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean from Queens University in Belfast, Ireland, Tony Gallagher wanted to educate students at Millersville University on diversity tolerance in Northern Ireland and its role in education.

“One important lesson for everywhere is never assume that everything is okay,” Gallagher said.

Lancaster County, an area rich in its own diversity, became a port of arrival for Irish frontier people who were looking for a change in lifestyle.

Arriving in Philadelphia, many Irish immigrants made their way to the farm land where they could find a diversity of work in a field with which they were familiar.

Since that time, Irish influence has remained strong in the area, sparking interest from students, educators and Gallagher.

As head of education at Queens University, Gallagher’s interest in the role of education among divided societies stems from his personal experience of growing up in Northern Ireland.

Historically, Ireland has struggled with diversity and violence since the early 1860s, where Protestants from the United Kingdom settled in the northern regions of Ireland, primarily in Belfast, and identified with the UK.

The Catholic majority, which remained in Dublin, wanted to express their Irish heritage and remove themselves from the UK.

The violence escalated in the 1970s with nearly 500 conflict-related deaths in 1972 alone. A 1974 peace agreement failed, followed by a 1980 hunger strike and secret talks in the 1990s. It wasn’t until 1994 that cease fire talks began and were agreed on.

“People killed in routine and awful ways,” Gallagher said. “It seemed like it would go on forever and becomes something we just had to get used to.”

With a population of only 1.6 million people and daily fights, bombings and killings, nearly one in four people know someone who was killed because of discriminatory violence.

Today the island remains divided both politically and religiously.

“We have the structure of a democratic party without the practice of a democratic party,” Gallagher said.

Dr. Tony Gallagher spoke to students concerning his experiences abroad as an educator. Photo by Carla Anderson.
Dr. Tony Gallagher spoke to students concerning his experiences abroad as an educator. Photo by Carla Anderson.

The Unionist party, which fights to stay with the UK, wins a majority of the protestant votes with the Nationalist party, fighting to remove themselves from the UK, wins Catholic votes.

With 70 percent of the population in Belfast remaining protestant, the other 30 percent are Catholic, causing the nation to question how they would educate their children and deal with the legacy of a violent nation of the past 25 to 30 years.

Many of the schools are structured to separate the Protestants and Catholics, with a few becoming integrated and another type for those who want to learn the Irish language.

No one is forced to separate their children, according to Gallagher, but it is by choice.

Dealing with the anger and hurt that the past few decades have caused leaves Gallagher with a huge challenge – one that he is willing to face.

He has looked at four different areas in which he believes he can begin a healing process in the lives of the children of Northern Ireland.

These areas are in creating a common curriculum, using contact programs to get the children together, transforming the use of integrated schools, and collaborating with a network of schools to get around the system without changing it.

“We seem to be on a default condition to move apart,” Gallagher said, as the separate societies seem to separate from one another.

Gallagher has been working on expanding community relations to promote equal opportunity and tolerance of cultural pluralism.

“We need to challenge segregation, challenge fear and promote a sense of common good for all of Ireland,” Gallagher said. “It takes good people to make good things happen.”