The Government recognise the importance of religious education and have reaffirmed this in the provision of the draft Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 which was approved by the House last night. The order also provides for the drafting of a core syllabus for religious education, which will provide a valuable opportunity for represenatives of different denominations to co-operate in devising a syllabus containing the basic tenets of the Christian faith shared by the children of both communities.
Does the Minister agree that many of the world's leading religions—Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and others that my colleagues could mention—all practise highly civilising values if carried out in the true spirit of the religion? Will he condemn the use of Christianity, whether it be Protestantism or Catholicism, as a backstop to the bigotry which leads to so much discontent and death in the Province? Will he ensure that all religions are taught in religious education classes so that the community can learn the best from the culture and religions of other parts of the community?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to draw attention to the positive values which emerge from Christian belief. I am pleased that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland practise their Christian faith, of whatever denomination, in both the letter and the spirit of that faith. The hon. Gentleman is also right that some people use religion as a weapon, and I share his concern that that should not be the case, particularly in our schools. We seek commonality between our young people's views so that they may learn to build on that positive aspect of the Christian faith.
Does my hon. Friend accept that many hon. Members welcome the opportunity of greater integration in education in Northern Ireland? We also welcome what he said yesterday when we debated the order on education in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that many parents would like to see those opportunities extended or at least would like to see greater co-operation between different denominations and different schools?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I agree that an increasing number of parents in Northern Ireland wish to have the option of integrated schooling made available, but we shall not impose it. It will be for parents to choose, but the Government believe that parents have a right to that choice. The Government also recognise the importance of my hon. Friend's other point—that for the foreseeable future most young people will not be educated in integrated schools. For that reason, we are introducing new courses in education for mutual understanding, cultural heritage and a common history curriculum to try to achieve the aims that my hon. Friend and I share.
Does the Minister accept that there are sincere Christians in Northern Ireland who accept state provision of education but are concerned that some of the lessons may impinge on their understanding of biblical truth and therefore ask for the right to let their children opt out of such lessons? Will the Minister grant that freedom of conscience?
I am aware of the cases to which the hon. Gentleman draws attention. I am also aware of the importance of ensuring that young people have a broad, balanced and coherent education. That is what we seek to achieve through the new curriculum.