Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

It's time for the Executive to show some leadership

The Belfast Agreement promised the vision of a 'Shared Future'. But 15 years on, we are no nearer to seeing it realised, says Duncan Morrow

Once upon a time, the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement was all about reconciliation.

Its pages are filled with promises of 'new beginnings' and 'dedicated to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust', all signed 'in a spirit of concord'.

Binding commitments were given not only to purely democratic and political means, but to oppose 'any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose'.

Every signatory pledged to 'work to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements' and signed up to complex, but ultimately clear, constitutional arrangements: UK sovereignty, which it would be 'wrong to change without consent'; an acceptance that it is the 'birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose', which cannot 'be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland'; and 'parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities'.

Everyone supported new institutions for equality and human rights, a new Civic Forum and initiatives for community relations, mixed housing and integrated education.

In spite of opposition from the DUP, more than 70% of a very large turn-out voted Yes. After the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, the theory was that 'small adjustments' – agreed by the governments and the parties without reference to a referendum – had allowed everyone to sign up.

Yet, 15 years later, talk of a shared future seems to be more unwelcome than ever. Amid protests against 'chipping away' at cultural identity and parks named after hunger strikers, political ambivalence about violence abounds. Even the police are back in the firing line.

Meanwhile, the evidence is piling up that the Executive is either unwilling or unable to deal with the obvious priorities: How are we going to agree to fly flags without triggering riots or intimidating half of the population? Can we do something about our historic cultures so that everyone gets a go and nobody feels put down or cut out?

Can we deal with the past without denying either the scale of the violence done to so many, or getting stuck in recrimination for ever?

Maybe the talk of shared futures and reconciliation is part of the problem, in that it deals in cliches about harmony and happiness. But the truth is that there is no way to good relations without facing the bad relations.

If we can't muster the energy to conjure a positive vision, surely the prospect of a 'scared future' played out before our eyes in recent weeks in Belfast will finally knock on the head the ridiculous notion that you can get on with promoting the new golf and Titanic economy without eliminating the risks to peace and stability.

It appears that even those things started before devolution have now been either delayed, or shelved. A Shared Future and a process to deal with the past are the obvious casualties, but the failure to tackle the crisis over social housing, the impasse over education and the running Reform of Public Administration shambles are part of the same pattern.

And most people have given up waiting for a Bill of Rights, a Civic Forum or a Single Equality Bill any time soon.

The agenda behind the shared future vision is not 'soft', but rock hard.

But without visible effort from the Executive – usually called leadership – 15 years will rapidly become a quarter of a century without change.

There will be no more rhyming of hope and history. This is already a test of the whole political edifice constructed in 1998.

Like every crisis, it contains opportunity.

But 30 more years of 'same old same old' is not an option.

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