Controversial plan to narrow sectarian divide may be in need of 'significant surgery'
A Stormont blueprint to develop a ‘shared future’ strategy in Northern Ireland has been branded out of touch and in need of significant surgery.
MLAs scrutinising the work of the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s office heard yesterday that a consultation process on the programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) has resulted in accusations that it lacked coherence and left people involved in community relations work feeling excluded.
An independent analysis of the responses from almost 300 organisations and individuals indicated that the document will require “significant surgery”, MLAs heard.
It was the first time the replies had been discussed in public — almost 10 months after the official analysis of them was sent to Peter Robinson and the then deputy Martin McGuinness.
An all-party working group set up to examine the blueprint in detail has now met three times and intends to continue its work on a weekly basis — resulting finally in a revised programme and an ‘action plan’.
Joanne Wallace, of Wallace Consulting, which conducted the analysis, said there had been a feeling in the consultation that it did not matter what people were going to say, the strategy was already written.
Chairman of the committee, Tom Elliott, suggested the responses overall were “very damning”, and “a lot more negative than positive” and asked whether the CSI document almost needs re-written.
“I think it would need significant surgery,” Ms Wallace |answered.
But a clarion call for strong leadership from Stormont in dealing with community relations and sectarianism was also contained in the responses from business organisations, voluntary groups, churches, educationalists and |others.
Ms Wallace said there was a clear demand for ‘good relations’ to permeate all decisions made across Government and down to district council level.
Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle said members should be questioning the value for money of the first ministers’ office — where the responses, and analysis, have sat for 10 months — and asked why it had taken so long for them to reach the committee.
Senior first ministers’ office official Linsey Farrell said a political hiatus had kicked in ahead of the Assembly election but now the new all-party group was getting the work “up and running”.
Ulster Unionist Mike Nesbitt questioned whether, given that just 441 people attended public meetings to debate the strategy, “there is a robust evidence base on which to go forward”.
Sinn Fein’s Francie Molloy said: “The elephant in the room that we are all skipping round is the whole issue of sectarianism and I don’t think anyone has the answer as to how to deal with it.”
There was criticism that the remit of the initial document was unclear, the CSI title too all-encompassing, and the proposals were the result of political horse-trading between the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Other concerns voiced by MLAs included:
- ’’‘Shared spaces’ should involve schools, housing, and leisure facilities as well as town centres;
- ’’Choices to live in areas identified as almost wholly Protestant or Catholic should be respected;
- ’’Integrated education is being hampered by a lack of will from politicians and church leaders.
Blueprint slammed for ‘poverty of vision’
More than 150 people, including reconciliation workers, victims of violence and civic leaders, used the pages of the Belfast Telegraph last year to sound alarm bells over Stormont’s ‘shared future’ proposals.
The front-line experts and practitioners warned the plan actually contained the potential to entrench communal division in Northern Ireland.
Their open letter was signed by IRA decommissioning witness Rev Harold Good, ex-rugby star Trevor Ringland of the One Small Step group and high-profile victims such as Alan McBride, who lost his wife Sharon and father-in-law Desmond Frizzell in the 1993 Shankill ‘fish shop’ bomb.
Their letter severely rebuked the proposals for a “poverty of vision” which “holds out only a future of sustained segregation” and argued the initial document “assumes that Northern Ireland’s conventional politically-driven identities will survive indefinitely.”
Their criticism followed a two-month consultation period on the so-called Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) initiative. But the CSI paper only emerged after a prolonged stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Fein, which at one stage saw both parties go public with separate documents.
Within a few weeks it became clear the proposals did not enjoy the support of the three, more minor, Executive parties — Alliance, Ulster Unionists and the SDLP and an independent analysis of the responses was |commissioned.
There was little progress after the May election but, finally, an all-party working group was established to try to map out a new way forward. It has so far met three times, out of the public view.