Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Eamonn McCann: Tribalism is on the wane. So why make it a public policy?

Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph

Wider still and wider’ might be one side’s celebration of the policy of the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister towards dealing with the sectarian division.

The other side might sing it differently: ‘We’re on the two roads . . .’ One policy, two slogans. Separate, but equal.

The OFMDFM’s proposed policy is set out in the Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, issued in July this year and currently doing the rounds of the consultation circuit. It’s a replacement for March 2005’s A Shared Future: Improving Relations in Northern Ireland. Each is a response to the requirement of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act that the Executive formulate a policy for encouraging ‘good relations’.

The difference between the two versions says something ominous about how the dominant parties understand the phrase ‘good relations’ and how they see these relations developing. Or not.

In 2005, the aim was to break down sectarian divisions. The 2010 draft seeks to consolidate the division in a manageable way.

It might be that the proposals set out in 2005 were tentativeand imprecise. But the general aim was clear enough and that’s what has changed.

Last week, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust published the results of a comparative analysis of the two policy frameworks carried out by the Institute for British-Irish Studies (IBIS) at University College Dublin.

In 2005, the report noted, “the vision was of constant cultural change and dynamism: with individuals making their cultural and identity choices in a context of social division, economic difficulty and permeable cultural boundaries’’. This year’s document “sees ‘cultures’ and ‘identities’ as given and stable entities”. Boundaries seen as permeable in 2005 are accepted as permanent five years on.

The IBIS team observes: “This pushes change into the future and loses sight both of the positive potential and of the dangers of the present. It does not acknowledge that political changes have led many to question aspects of their traditional cultural identities and that this questioning and re-evaluation can lead to very positive repositionings as well as to a sense of loss and sectarian reaction.’’ If the children of the future of the North are to be born as either Catholic/nationalists or Protestant/unionists and ever more shall be so, the solution to the problem of, say, interface rioting must lie in the short term in strengthening the line of separation and, in the longer term, encouraging Catholics to appreciate unionism and Protestants to respect nationalism: each to their own.

In this perspective, aiming at an end to the sectarian division, allowing for the reshaping of identities, or change in the priority given to identity, or the possible emergence of different senses of identity altogether, and formulating policy with these possibilities, too, in mind, all this would appear as foolish naivety.

Any notion of moving, even inching, towards integrated housing might be seen not just as naivety, but as contradicting the approved understanding of Northern society. The shift in the OFMDFM’s aspiration for the future is best seen against the background of the latest (2009) Life and Times Survey of attitudes to communities mixing.

A large and, if anything, increasing majority in the North would choose, if they could, to live and work in a mixed environment and send their children to mixed schools. There is no need to preach this aspiration to people. They have embraced it already.

If there is an ill-omen in the Life and Times data, it’s that younger age-groups seem to look slightly more favourably on existing levels of separation. The difference is barely significant, but it’s there.

Policy could be aimed at bringing reality into alignment with existing aspirations, imagining what might be and asking: why not? The CSI document seems designed to bring aspirations down to the mundane here-and-now, asking: why bother?

Conventional politics are constructed around a communal identity, and that the DUP and Sinn Fein have gotten where they are today by presenting themselves as robust advocates of their ‘own’ community’s interests over the other side.

The CSI strategy might have been designed to confirm the present pattern of political allegiance. The message of the CSI document is that there’s no need to see politics any other way than the way they always have been seen.

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