Learn from the past or be doomed to repeat it
Everyone in Northern Ireland must invest in a shared future or we will end up paying in conflict, says Christopher Moran
Published 16/05/2013 | 08:20
For anyone who regularly travels back and forth across the Irish Sea, the transformation which has taken place in the past 20 years has been immense. That progress should not be under-estimated, or discounted.
Over the past two decades, Cooperation Ireland has been working at the coalface of the peace process, helping to restore relationships across the political and religious divide.
We've also been to the fore in restoring relationships at a more strategic level – playing a pivotal role in the Queen's historic visit to the Republic of Ireland and providing the context for that famous handshake with the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.
We could not play this pivotal role without the key support of the British and Irish governments, along with the goodwill from the United States.
With board members and key supporters spanning both the Irish Sea and Atlantic Ocean, our reach means we can act as an international bridge and make sense of the historic and complex bonds between these nations. However, there is much work left to do. The economic downturn has taken its toll on Belfast's retailers, but the city council has done a sterling job of tidying up vacant shop fronts with artwork and window displays.
One of the displays includes a quote from the former Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr William Philbin: "Belfast is a city walled in by mountains, moated by seas and undermined by deposits of history."
It's a history which manifests itself across Northern Ireland and is most pernicious in the sectarianism that it fosters and the continuing separation it ensnares communities in.
This year, thousands of young people across Northern Ireland will celebrate their 18th birthday. Nothing unusual in that.
But, for them, it will be 18 years since 1994 and the republican and loyalist ceasefires. This is the first real post-Troubles generation.
One might have hoped that those who didn't endure daily digests of sectarian murder and strife would have been able to shake off the mindsets of the past. Sadly, however, many of Northern Ireland's young people are still entangled in attitudes of 'Them' and 'Us'.
At its worst, this feeds into murderous dissident republican attacks and violent street disorder over issues such as the flying of the Union flag, or contentious parades.
It is a tragedy that the foot-soldiers of this new disorder are teenagers, children and young people, who are often manipulated by older, more sinister elements.
The message is clear: we must invest in communities and peace, or we will pay in conflict. That means delivering on a shared future, not just with political agreement, but with political will and action.
Over the past months and weeks, the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Executive have signalled this reality.
We need to build a shared society where everyone can view Northern Ireland as home; where everyone feels their traditions and aspirations are respected; where each community will see it as their duty – and as their benefit – to champion and protect their neighbours' culture.
We need to make sure that young people, who played no part in Northern Ireland's troubled past, are not left to play it out in the present.
Cooperation Ireland continues to do its bit, running a myriad of cross-community projects, including Northern Ireland's National Citizen Service, providing social and employability skills for young people, but also bringing people from a mix of backgrounds to work on local projects that deliver tangible benefits for the entire community.
Northern Ireland's devolved political institutions are secure; its parties are committed to progress through dialogue.
But too many people – particularly in marginal communities – have been left behind.
If we don't extract those deposits of history which continue to undermine, we will condemn a new generation to the mistakes of the past.