Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

From now on, it's back to the (shared) future

Stormont is revisiting a 2005 community relations strategy for its Programme for Government. What a waste of six years, says Robin Wilson

A year ago, this newspaper ran a round-robin letter highly critical of the devolved Government's consultation document on 'community relations' called Cohesion, Sharing and Integration.

The round-robin, organised by the citizens' initiative Platform for Change, was signed by a wide range of reconciliation practitioners, independent experts, victims' campaigners, ethnic-minority representatives and sporting figures.

They were unhappy that the document offered a counsel of despair, fatalistically accepting that Northern Ireland would be indefinitely scarred by communal division.

That evening, the First and deputy First Minister declined to appear on Radio Ulster to defend the document from their joint office and it quickly became apparent that it had been quietly withdrawn.

It represented the first occasion since Northern Ireland's peculiarly top-down devolution was introduced in 1999 that public opinion had sent its political elite back to the drawing-board on a major policy initiative.

The embarrassment could easily have been avoided. Shortly after devolution was renewed in 2007, Alliance proposed an Assembly motion which would have endorsed the policy on 'community relations' produced under direct rule in 2005, A Shared Future. This had been the product of widespread consultation and was generally well-received.

But a DUP amendment merely 'noting' the policy - parliamentary language for binning it - was passed instead. This reflected the DUP's primal unease about a society in which Protestants would enjoy relationships with their Catholic fellow citizens, marked by conviviality and co-mingling rather than suspicion and segregation.

In spite of its official civic-republican ideology, Sinn Fein was no more enthusiastic about a policy with a focus on integration - challenging, as this did, its traditional politics of Catholic-communalist assertion with its implied maintenance of sectarian division.

Those two by now dominant parties could not, however, do nothing about an issue which in the eyes of the world remains the Northern Ireland problem.

But from their conflicting positions, it took three years of awkward negotiations between them, including a public stand-off, to produce an alternative - Cohesion, Sharing and Integration - only then to find it dismissed as an ethnic carve-up.

There remained, of course, a way out, and now the main Executive parties seem to have taken it.

I've seen an August 2011 draft of the Programme for Government (PfG) - the first to be produced since 2008 - though nothing has yet been issued for public consultation.

In the draft foreword, the First and Deputy First Ministers promise (albeit as the last of 10 commitments) a "comprehensive programme" for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration.

The draft document itself describes the goal of strategies for 'good relations' as "a shared society that is defined by a culture of tolerance: a normal, civic society, in which all individuals are considered as equals, where violence is an illegitimate means to resolve differences, but where differences are resolved through dialogue in the public sphere and where all people are treated impartially."

No more detail about the new version of Cohesion, Sharing and Integration is provided.

But the language is a long way from that of the 2010 document, which spoke of "respecting cultures" as if each of us with our unique individuality and diverse cultural dispositions could be hoovered up into fixed and politicised communal entities called 'cultures', regardless of our choice.

That could have seen the emphasis, and the associated official funding, move from the genuine practitioners of reconciliation on the ground to political and even paramilitary gatekeepers of 'community' solidity.

And the new language has a familiar ring. For the aim of A Shared Future was "a shared society defined by a culture of tolerance: a normal, civic society, in which all individuals are considered as equals, where differences are resolved through dialogue in the public sphere, and where all people are treated impartially".

Any credible policy on 'community relations' for Northern Ireland has to have anti-sectarianism as its moral compass. And that can only make sense if individuals are free to choose something better than the mistrustful and intolerant society we have inherited. So the drafters of the new Programme for Government have, inevitably, been forced to go back to the (shared) future.

Wisdom in politics lies not in making no mistakes, but in quickly correcting them. The tragedy is that, six years on, we are back where we started.

Worse still, during the period of direct rule from 2002 to 2007, the graph of violence was declining; since 2007, it has been rising (left). And we know from the annual Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey that public optimism about 'community relations', which was improving during direct rule, has, since devolution was restored, taken a downward turn.

The next step has to be to translate the aim of the policy into a series of coherent objectives, with practical programmes and projects to implement the policy.

It also means that public funding should follow the policy.

And all of this should be subject to full public engagement. The whole point of devolution is, after all, to bring Government closer to the citizen, so that political misjudgments like the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration episode do not take place.

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