Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 25 November 2014

They promised Obama they'd build a shared future together. Now our squabbling First Ministers earn rebuke from Washington over a startling lack of progress

US President Barack Obama has grown exasperated with our first ministers
US President Barack Obama has grown exasperated with our first ministers

US President Barack Obama's administration has told Northern Ireland's politicians they need to learn the art of compromise.

A senior official said the Stormont parties must prioritise fostering greater understanding across the sectarian divide.

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister have been accused of failing to deliver on promises they made to world leaders about making greater political progress – including the US President at the G8 summit.

Just over a year after President Obama's visit here, his office is also reminding Stormont parties about America's huge financial stake in peace projects here.

The US administration's criticism comes almost 18 months after Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness launched their 'shared future' blueprint called 'Building a United Community' – although evidence of any progress is thin on the ground. Assistant European Secretary Victoria Nuland said the ability to compromise is "what needs to be fostered most" in Northern Ireland.

The senior official said Northern Ireland's future lay in the ability of party leaders "being able to work well together, being able to compromise with each other, being able to have empathy for the positions that each of their communities bring to the table, so that's what needs to be fostered most".

Ms Nuland said the US had an economic interest in political progress here.

"The United States believes in Northern Ireland; we are deeply invested in Northern Ireland's success – we have been for a long time.

"We're also financially invested. As you know, US economic investment in Northern Ireland has been growing, so we want to see Northern Ireland continue to grow and continue to succeed."

Ms Nuland was also asked about reports into funding difficulties faced by the long-established cross-community Corrymeela Community group, with other projects also believed to be under threat.

"I think these are some of the concerns that we have been hearing about, that we do need to get the process moving again.

"We do need to have politicians across the spectrum present an agenda, agree on an agenda, so the communities can move forward and so that the voters, no matter where they vote, can see that Northern Ireland is moving forward," she said.

Her comments are believed to underpin Washington's desire to see movement on the Building a United Community proposals.

These include 10 new education campuses, new shared neighbourhoods and a 10-year target to dismantle peace walls in Belfast and elsewhere.

Despite disappointment about the failed inter-party negotiations on flags, parades and dealing with the past co-chaired by Americans Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O'Sullivan last year, Ms Nuland also wanted to accentuate the positive.

"I think it is important – no matter how difficult it feels day-to-day here – for the people of Northern Ireland to remember how far they've come, and to really protect and preserve at every level that peace that's been so hard fought," she said.

The official also indicated that Washington remains open to the prospect of providing further help, despite Dr Haass' indication that he does not intend to return.

Ms Nuland said: "We obviously follow the issue very, very intensively from Washington, but we would want to ensure if we were going to go in that direction that it was something that was desired and agreed."

Background

The United States has put at least half a billion dollars into shared future projects through the International Fund for Ireland since 1986. Senior American officials are also thought to have pressured the DUP and Sinn Fein around March of last year when fears were growing over the then 'cohesion, sharing and integration' (CSI) programme which had fallen into abeyance. Now there are growing US concerns that the replacement policy is also falling by the wayside.

MLAs launch probe into the abject failure of keystone policy

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have been accused of not keeping the vow they made to world leaders — including the US President — to build bridges between the two main traditions here.

The attack from the deputy chair of the Assembly committee which monitors the First and Deputy First Minister’s office referred directly to their shared future policy launched almost 18 months ago.

Chris Lyttle’s attack came as the multi-party committee launched an inquiry into the plans, which include dismantling the peace walls in Belfast over the next decade.

The East Belfast Alliance MLA said: “It is over a year since they launched their Together: Building A United Community strategy, but little progress has been made on delivering the 10 shared education campuses and the 10 shared neighbourhoods. The promises they made to world leaders about progressing a shared future have not been met.”

Mr Lyttle said there had not been much progress on the strategy, and welcomed his committee’s review as a chance to getting it back on track.

Mr Lyttle added: “There has been little delivery and a concerning regression on some issues, such as the proposed removal of integrated education as a good relations indicator. I believe that building a shared society is the single biggest challenge we face and that this inquiry can inform and improve Executive delivery for everyone.”

However, OFMDFM has said work is progressing across all main areas. In interface areas, it said a model has now been developed to create an Interface Action Team, pilot proposals and plans have been identified “with anticipated delivery over the next 12-18 months”.

It said 15 expressions of interest have been lodged with the Department of Education about shared campuses.

In terms of improving relations between young people, it said a pilot interventions programme is being run in the Belfast City Council area, with other council areas following “as soon as possible”.

In addition, phase one of a review of good relations funding was completed in April and phase two is now under way. And work is said to be progressing with the establishment of the Equality and Good Relations Commission and related legislative changes.

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