Barack Obama

En route to the G8 summit in Enniskillen on Monday, US President Barack Obama visited Belfast, where he made a speech before an audience of 2,000 young people. Given that such speeches are a standard part of the President's overseas visits, the content largely passed under the media radar, but one section has proven controversial, at least for Northern Ireland's Catholic authorities.

Addressing the issue of community relations and integration in the wake of the Troubles and the peace process, Obama said:

“If towns remain divided – if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden – that too encourages division and discourages cooperation.”

Of course, Obama was addressing the historically-specific context of Northern Ireland, but looking at his remarks from a wider UK perspective, it's interesting to note that we have a US President making an observation you are unlikely to hear from any of the leading British politicians.

As more and more of our schools are administered by religious organisations, whether in the form of academies or more traditional C of E or RC schools, few objections are raised by leading political voices, with the campaign against the religious influence in education left to organisations such as the British Humanist Association, alongside their partners in the Accord Coalition and the Fair Admissions Campaign, and the National Secular Society.

Opposition to faith schools is something you rarely hear at the top of UK politics, yet Obama's comment is a reminder of how baffling the education system must look to an outsider, particularly the President of a nation where secularism is a constitutionally-guaranteed aspect of the public school system (if one that often requires defence against attacks from the religious right).

While Obama's observation seems reasonable from a secularist perspective (see the Fair Admissions Campaign for more on the negative impact of faith schools on social cohesion), the Scottish Catholic Observer newspaper is unimpressed, suggesting that the President "repeated the oft disproved claim that Catholic education increases division".