Full reconciliation in Northern Ireland may take half a century, warns cross-community champion
The chair of the Community Relations Council has predicted that it could take up to half-a-century for Northern Ireland to become a "fully reconciled society".
The stark warning came from Peter Osborne (below) as he attempted to drum up support for Community Relations Week, which starts on June 16.
It is sandwiched between two periods when heightened tension is expected – the May 22 council and European elections, and the summer marching season.
Mr Osborne urged political parties to do nothing during the ongoing election campaign that could make it more difficult to build relations later.
He referred specifically to attempts to build agreement on flags, parading and the past – the three contentious issues the parties could not resolve in talks chaired by Dr Richard Haass late last year. "It is important for leaders to understand that even if they are not able to reach agreement, they need to leave things in a way that allows them to be picked up after an election. Following the polls there is a window to revisit those issues that people haven't been able to agree beforehand," said Mr Osborne.
"The language that is used by every civic leader is very important. I think elected representatives do need to be mindful of their language. There is a requirement on them to promote good community relations in everything they do and what they say.
"I think they need to think about the impact it will have, not just on the politics of the situation but on society and at the interfaces," he warned.
Mr Osborne believed that the failure to reach agreement at the Haass talks by the January 1 deadline might not seem so important in the longer run.
"Once you realise that this could take 30, 40 or 50 years, then things like Haass are blips along the way. I don't criticise the parties for trying to resolve the outstanding issues of the past and taking longer than hoped," he said. "A few years ago these issues were too difficult even to start the effort to find agreement – tackling that all represents progress."
Mr Osborne said that whether you agreed or disagreed with Dr Haass, "what is clear is that now more than ever we need a refocus on the delivery of healing, reconciliation and relationship-building work".
"It is hard work and challenging; many outstanding issues will stretch us. But to neglect the huge need now would be letting down this generation and future generations."
Last year well over 200 Community Relations Week events were held to promote sharing, peace and integration.
Mr Osborne described it as "a concentrated effort for people in all communities and all over to be able to organise or participate in events that explore the outstanding issues or that help build relationships.
"Civic society has a huge role to play in leading that work and demonstrating to other leaders here and across the world that we want to finish the job and continue to build a reconciled society," Mr Osborne argued.
"In 2013, we had more events than ever, across a greater number of venues, from Strabane to Belfast and Ballycastle to Newry; all communities and all backgrounds using it as an important platform to showcase the hard work they are doing on the ground, breaking down divisions and building relationships. It also serves as an opportunity for public bodies to show their commitment to building a more shared society."
At the end of last year talks between the five parties on the Stormont Executive aimed at finding agreement on flags, parading and the past broke down without agreement. Richard Haass, the former US diplomat who chaired the talks, produced a document showing areas of potential agreement and in the next few weeks he may produce another. In the US last week President Obama expressed disappointment that more progress had not been made and urged the parties to redouble their efforts.