Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Blueprint for action needs lot more work to achieve integrated society

It would be naïve in the extreme to believe that creating a more integrated society in Northern Ireland is an easy task.

The legacy of the Troubles, the generations of suspicion, fear and hatred and the segregation of communities and schools have all contributed to the creation of mental as well as physical divisions. Even 15 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of a stable power-sharing administration, community tensions are still a tinderbox which require only a spark to ignite.

Therefore it is encouraging to finally see proposals from Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to tackle sectarianism. There is no reason to doubt their sincerity in wishing to grasp the nettle and end the political paralysis over moving towards a truly shared society. Their words at yesterday's launch were full of positive intent, even if there was a suspicion that their document was hastened towards publication by recent threats from Westminster of fiscal penalties if a strategy did not emerge soon.

Yet there is disappointment at the lack of detail, costings or hard policy in the proposals. Some of the ideas are innovative and could make a difference, for example the placement of 10,000 young people who are not in employment, education or training into a cross-community scheme which would give them work experience and the opportunity to meet peers from across the divide. The proposed summer camps could also help expand horizons.

But once again the really hard decisions have been dodged. Controversial issues such as flags and emblems, parades and dealing with the past have been passed on to a committee. These are matters which need to be addressed by strong political leadership, not put on the long finger. There is a stated desire to see peace walls gone in 10 years, but no accompanying strategy for accomplishing this.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the total avoidance of any meaningful move towards integrated education. Proposals to build 10 large shared campuses with pupils to share classes, sports and other extra-curricular activities seems enticing at first, but is as likely to reinforce segregation as break down barriers. Schools will still be keen to protect their own ethos and will still be separate institutions, simply operating in closer proximity.

This proposal is a far cry from the desire of the majority of people in this province to have their children educated together. Other proposals such as urban villages and shared housing schemes need to be fleshed out before they can be realistically assessed. Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness say that they will produce a more detailed document in a fortnight and that may give everyone the chance to see if the leaders' ambitions can be achieved.

However, we will await the next publication before making a final judgment on what is the most serious task facing politicians of all hues in this province. They need to show that they will set aside traditional party political dogma in the pursuit of a new Northern Ireland and do what is right for everyone, not just for their own sectional interests.

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