Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Don't pander to divisions, break them forever instead

Stormont's Cohesion, Sharing and Integration proposals have been criticised for enshrining division. Robin Wilson offers a radical new approach

What would a viable policy to tackle Northern Ireland's deeply-embedded culture of intolerance look like?

The critique of the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration document issued in the summer of 2010, following years of awkward negotiation between the DUP and Sinn Fein, lay fundamentally in its fatalistic acceptance of sectarian divisions into the indefinite future - division which had been the basis of those parties' rise to power - and its call for these cast-in-aspic 'cultures' to be accorded 'respect'.

Conversely, a policy genuinely framed to make Northern Ireland 'normal', rather than perpetuate its pathological features and their associated vested political interests, must have as its core aim an integrated society, which ensures every individual has the freedom to choose their own identity, in their interactions with others, rather than being politically pigeon-holed as part of a supposed 'unionist community' or 'nationalist community'.

As it happens, public-attitudes surveys show this goes with the grain of life on the ground.

More respondents classify themselves as 'neither' of the above than those who support a 'unionist' or a 'nationalist' identification. And this is a growing trend: fully two-thirds of under-24s, who know nothing of the Troubles, rebel against the politics that spawned violence by choosing the 'neither' self-definition.

Nothing else makes sense, of course, for Northern Ireland's growing population proportion comprising members of various ethnic and national minorities.

It is often suggested - particularly by those on whose political or paramilitary authority it depends - that security, nevertheless, can only be provided by 'peace' walls to segregate already socially-marginalised neighbourhoods on sectarian lines.

And we know, again from survey evidence, that most people who live in these 'interface' neighourhoods do, indeed, want the walls to come down - as long as their security can be guaranteed.

But in the 21st century security must be rethought in human terms. It is fundamentally about ensuring that diverse individuals can live together in dignity, rather than about preserving the power of the state or, worse, paramilitary organisations.

This is as true of Baghdad and Beirut as of Belfast - and the long experience of Ballynafeigh, as a socially as well as religiously mixed neighbourhood in the city, with no need for segregation barriers, shows it can be done.

A secular neighbourhood association and an inter-church network there have made integration the norm. Clear policy objectives would flow from this aim of an integrated, rather than fragmented, society:

• Make integrated schools the default option, rather than the exception, including by ensuring that the boards of state schools become genuinely public, rather than having privileged access for Protestant clergy.

• Integrate the teacher-training system, so that all teachers can teach any pupils in any school equally.

• Ensure that capital projects that are open and accessible to all, particularly in education, are privileged in these straitened circumstances over those that are, in effect, restricted to one faith.

• Make mixed social-housing schemes the default, also, and remove all defacing of public property that symbolises denial of free access to all.

• Progressively dismantle segregation barriers, ensuring the police meet their responsibility to uphold the rule of law equally for working-class as for middle-class neighbourhoods, including in tackling hate crime against members of religious or ethnic minorities (below).

• Channel controversy over parades and flags through the courts, with impartial arbitration based on the provisions in the European Convention of Human Rights on freedom of expression and assembly and the associated qualifications to those rights.

• Return the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to its original conception as a symbol of reconciliation, inspired by the joint condolence expressed by former heads David Trimble and Seamus Mallon to the families of the two victims of 'loyalist' murder in Poyntzpass, Co Armagh shortly before the Belfast Agreement.

• Sustain generous support of non-governmental organisations committed to intercultural dialogue and victims' groups genuinely open to all after the European Union PEACE programme, as an investment in a more comfortable and more cosmopolitan society.

• Maintain the Community Relations Council as an independent source of advice on policy and good practice on the development of a culture of tolerance and impartial distributor of funding; and

• Establish a commission of historical clarification to address objectively the various responsibilities of state and non-state actors during the Troubles, drawing on the human raw material of victims' testimonies.

This, it is immediately evident, is a huge agenda. It can only be realised if it is the priority political commitment of the devolved administration for decades, rather than years, and it asks all of us to face ourselves honestly in the mirror. Yet a Northern Ireland without dividing-lines would be a great prize. There is also a huge volume of good practice - for instance, in how sport has been used as a vehicle for bridging divides in recent years - on which to draw.

And the alternative is all too clear - a society where we are heading for 100 segregation barriers and one experienced journalist has written of a new 'long war'.

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