Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Woolwich horror reminds us how far we have come

Outpouring of sympathy: People lay wreaths in tribute to Lee Rigby in Woolwich
Outpouring of sympathy: People lay wreaths in tribute to Lee Rigby in Woolwich
Drummer Lee Rigby
Drummer Lee Rigby

The barbaric murder of a young soldier in London has served to jolt memories of all our yesterdays in Northern Ireland. Memories of mutilated, mangled victims of car bombings, booby-traps, doorstep shootings and back-alley punishments. Of the maimed and the butchered.

Memories of the dead from all walks of life. Of Protestant and Catholic civilians, police officers and soldiers. Of thousands of lives taken in the most gruesome, brutal manner.

And, then, after the killings, just as with Woolwich, came the condemnation, so often futile, from community and church leaders.

And the politicians saying people must stand together. And, inevitably, the threats of retaliation, or attempts to justify the unjustifiable.

Northern Ireland has lived through it all and has much to impart to the outside world, given our unique knowledge and experience of community conflict.

The publication of the new 116-page document on the future of community relations could not have come at a more opportune, or appropriate, moment.

The community tensions which Woolwich and other parts of England are experiencing mirror those which afflicted Northern Ireland and remain close to the surface to this day.

Once people lose trust and respect and fail to understand one another, extremism and violence are seldom far away. It is the basis upon which terrorism, of whatever hue, is nurtured.

If you want to measure how far Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have travelled politically in their respective lifetimes, you should read the document to which they appended their names and gave their approval last week.

I hope every district councillor, every community or church leader, every social worker engaged at grassroots level, every school, sports, or arts group, every Orange or Green cultural organisation, will digest every line and embrace the message therein.

If the aspirations of this document can be achieved, our society will truly justify a global reputation for conflict resolution and set an example to others – not least the people of Woolwich.

The joint blueprint, entitled Together: Building a United Community, deserves the attention of everyone. The First and Deputy First Minister have had their critics – including this writer – accusing them of pigeon-holing too many contentious issues at Stormont.

However, at last, they are starting to step up to the plate. They seem prepared to show more collective responsibility and mutual respect.

They appear to be genuinely trying to lead from the front, rather than from the back of our society, as too many local politicians are inclined to do. Together: Building a United Community is a comprehensive compilation of what needs to be done to reach the promised land.

How we get there is a different matter, but if ever we arrive, we will have a better society unrecognisable from today's and beyond the dreams of anyone from the past.

More than 50 interface structures, 40 walls or fences and 13 gates divide neighbourhoods still. To take another decade to remove them is hardly ambitious.

To enter another marching season with no solution to the display of flags, emblems and the routing contentious parades is another black mark – not just on the politicians at Stormont, but on our society in general.

However, that should not be allowed to take away from the vision set out in this new document. From education to housing, from sport to arts and culture, opportunities are identified to break down barriers and make Northern Ireland a more sharing, if not a truly integrated, community.

Liberal and moderate purists may argue that it is far from enough. For example, that unless the divisiveness of segregated schooling is tackled more directly, another generation will grow up with the same suspicions, fears and hatred as the one to which so many of us belong and which led to so much terrible suffering.

The reality is that change – like peace – comes dropping slow. No matter the hunger in some quarters for a swiftly integrated society, it cannot be force-fed on people with very different cultural, social, religious and political backgrounds.

We have only to look at the events of last week in London to see the merits of supporting progress in Northern Ireland towards cross-community respect and understanding. The alternative – as demonstrated in Woolwich – should have no place in anyone's heart. Escaping from extremism is not easy.

The document from the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister is an important step in the right direction to which all the parties at Stormont would do well to subscribe, rather than squabble over as they have done for so long.

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