Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Closed-door debate isn't working for communities

Alliance wants to see movement towards a shared future - not the current Stormont charade, says David Ford

Last year, Alliance agreed to participate in a five-party working group with the aim of producing a Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy that would be a real improvement on the one produced by the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Alliance was clear then - and remains clear today - that a shared future is central to economic and social progress.

Yet, when I reluctantly concluded last week that Alliance could no longer support that five-party process, the DUP and Sinn Fein made the ridiculous suggestion that we did not really want to see a shared future strategy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We didn't leave the process because we didn't want to see a strategy - we left it because we wanted to see a strategy that would make a real difference.

Sadly, having attended every meeting of the working group, it had become clear to us that the other parties only wanted to settle for a lowest common denominator of agreement that would not address the big challenges.

We could not continue to participate in a charade where others seem determined to minimise progress and reject the most modest goals and ambitions.

In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement emphasised the value of work being done by many organisations to develop reconciliation and mutual understanding.

It said that: "An essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing."

Yet, 14 years later, what do we see in practice? While Alliance was proposing a high-level landmark review of equality and sharing in housing and neighbourhoods, the DUP and Sinn Fein, with the apparent support of the UUP and SDLP, were carving up the land around the Girdwood Barracks site, leaving one area obviously for Catholics and another obviously for Protestants. And when Alliance proposed to the CSI working group that we should set a target that, by 2020, 20% of our children should be educated in integrated schools, not one of the other parties was prepared to accept any target at all.

There are powerful economic and social reasons to promote greater sharing and integration. This is not about social engineering, but rather reflecting the real demand from parents themselves.

Actions speak louder than words and we must conclude that the DUP and Sinn Fein do not want to produce an effective shared future strategy. Profiting from it as they do, they are only too happy to maintain the status quo of division.

Two separate sets of housing at Girdwood - one for Protestants, the other for Catholics, with a buffer zone in between - is not shared at all. Indeed, it is the opposite.

Housing should be allocated on need, but the supporting actions of government can help to promote and maintain real sharing in housing by addressing threats such as intimidation, claims to control territory and the abuse of flags.

People are fed up by the annual marking out of territory in the name of culture and frustrated with the inaction of the authorities. People living in the shadow of the flags and murals feel intimidated and powerless to stop it. Alliance believes that shared space does not need to be neutral space and there must be scope for the celebration of cultural tradition. But it must be done in a manner that doesn't compromise the rights of others. That's why Alliance wants to see the regulation of flags. Other parties didn't agree.

We have not given up on a shared future. Far from it. But it is clear that an effective strategy will not emerge from a closed-doors exercise with limited ambitions.

Let all parties bring their ideas to the table. We will continue to debate what might work with everyone, but this time in public.

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