Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Reading about sectarian violence and parade disputes it's easy to think Northern Ireland is as divided as ever - but this isn't the case

Loyalists protesters at Royal Avenue in Belfast City centre in 2013
Loyalists protesters at Royal Avenue in Belfast City centre in 2013

When we read news articles about sectarian violence, disputes over parades and the failure of politicians to cooperate with each other, it is easy to think that Northern Ireland is as divided as ever. But this is not the case.

The focus and attention given to division in our society, particularly when it manifests itself in violence, can often lead to a collective despair.  The violent and sectarian actions of a tiny minority of individuals affect us all.

However, there is a significant constituency in Northern Ireland who are quietly living in a ‘shared  now’.  They do not make the headlines, they do not call into radio shows, they may not yet be in power; but for them a shared future is no longer an ambition but a reality. 

Their work place is diverse; not through any form of cross community initiative but through a natural evolution.  Their social circle is mixed perhaps because they were part of the generation that saw a huge increase in access to third level education, and inevitably they built relationships with people from different community backgrounds.  Their children may or may not attend an integrated school (though they would like them to) but it is less likely that they will grow up without mixing with children from different backgrounds.

The last census showed that 29% of respondents saw being ‘Northern Irish’ as their national identity, either  in conjunction with another identity or on its own.  It would be a worthwhile piece of research to delve into the 29% Northern Irish population and to see whether this is a shared identity across traditional communities.  If so it could be a key indicator of the scale of the ‘shared now’.

National identities are important to people and they should be celebrated and respected.  However it is when we define ourselves in terms of difference; “we are not you”, rather than a celebration of “who we are”, that identities can become a tool of aggression. Our identities are our own and should not be used as a comparison or as a weapon against ‘others’.

The political parties, divided along unionist and nationalist lines may believe us to be as divided as ever, they may portray us that way, but it is in their interests to do so. Heed not what you hear on the radio or what you see on the news, but look around you – do you live in a divided society? 

If not then quietly celebrate, for then we have made progress in Northern Ireland.  That is not to say that we forget the still too many examples of segregation and division in our society, or those whose lives are being destroyed by it.  But if we forget how far we have come then we allow the narrative that no progress has been made to take hold.  Getting us to believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, is the first step in dragging us back.

I am both proud of how far we have come in Northern Ireland and frustrated by the fact that we can’t move further faster.  I will access that pride in the times of despair and use my frustrations to help will the changes I want to see.  The peace process is too important to allow it to be hijacked by those in whose interest it is to keep us divided.  We need to build on the progress we have made to extend the ‘shared now’ to all in our society.

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