Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

Ditched: Stormont's long-delayed plan to create a shared future

David Cameron, With Northern Ireland First Minister Peter  Robinson (left) and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, at Stormont Castle Belfast
David Cameron, With Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson (left) and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, at Stormont Castle Belfast

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are preparing to ditch their long-delayed strategy for tackling sectarianism in the near future, according to senior Stormont sources.

It would mark the second failure to come up with a viable plan to improve community relations here and follows ominous warnings from Westminster that economic aid will be withheld unless the Executive deals with sectarianism in society.

After months of deadlock, the First and Deputy First Ministers are believed to have concluded that the current proposals would be left open to trenchant criticism for failing to resolve several key issues.

They have both admitted the document does not deal with three of the most contentious areas – flags, parading, and the legacy of the Troubles.

The Belfast Telegraph also understands there is also insufficient agreement on integrated education and plans for more integrated housing.

Despite this, Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness have signalled their intention to leapfrog the paralysis affecting the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy and implement a plan B.

Stormont's top two intend to push ahead with announcing their alternative to the complete CSI document in the next few weeks, in the run-up to the G8 summit.

There has been speculation their ideas could include proposals for anti-sectarian classes in schools, a cross-community 'buddy' scheme for nursery and primary school children and an annual cultural awareness day for Northern Ireland. Progress on community relations has been linked to a Westminster economic aid package to help boost our flagging economy after David Cameron delayed his decision on corporation tax devolution.

After a meeting with the First and Deputy First Ministers on Monday, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said they were "thinking in very ambitious ways about how to bridge long-standing sectarian divisions".

Mr Robinson said be thought too much importance was being attached to the agreement of a strategy.

"You would think that we were operating without a strategy at present," he said.

"We will continue to work on the existing strategy, but that will not... stop the Deputy First Minister and me leapfrogging the difficulties that we are having with the CSI strategy to come forward with continued action plans.

"That is really what is important, rather than the strategy: points for action that can be taken to improve good relations." And Mr McGuinness this week confirmed the outstanding issues were flags, parades and dealing with the past.

But he added: "We should not allow those issues to hold us back, we should move forward decisively with the projects that will add to the good work."

The anticipated announcements are expected to be accompanied by criticism of both the Ulster Unionists and Alliance, which walked away from the all-party working group on CSI last year.

Alliance's member of the group, Chris Lyttle, said however: "We left because it was clear that the working group would not produce a challenging enough document.

"It appears that no progress has been made by the parties that remain in this working group which is why the First and Deputy First Minister must agree to a new process with politicians and members of civic society working together in an open and transparent manner to produce a new strategy."

The UUP's representative, John McCallister, has since quit the party and there was no response from it.

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