Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Let's replace 'not an inch' with giant stride forward

With falling rolls and school rationalisation on the horizon, the time for integrating our education system is now, says Andrew Muir

Concepts of a shared future and consensus-based politics have recently gained prominence, with many politicians trying to persuade us of their commitment to these ideals.

In spite of their valiant attempts, it is, however, increasingly apparent that the terms are being used and abused for selfish and strategic party-political interest.

A shared future isn't just about a few warm words and appearing at the odd symbolic event. Instead, it's about a new beginning, where everyone is respected, included and accepted.

Unionist leaders claim they are behind the idea of creating a shared future. Yet, in recent months, they have adopted a 'them-and-us' approach and created the tribal Unionist Forum to consider the concerns of one community in isolation from wider society.

The renaming of a play-park in Newry after IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh shows that nationalists do not fully understand how good community relations are fostered, either.

These prove that actions speak louder than words, with the Alliance Party's credibility on the issue of a shared society proven, whether via actions taken by Justice Minister David Ford, or Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry, or via the publication of our document For Everyone, detailing our vision of what a shared future should look like.

In it, we highlight the wide range of work that needs to take place to achieve a shared future, starting with our education system.

Too many young people grow up without coming into contact with those from a different background. This division continues and is cemented as a result of our segregated education system.

The integrated education sector has shown that, when children from all backgrounds learn together, these experiences stay with them later in life. In spite of the overwhelming demand for more integrated schools, the education minister continues to fail in his duty to provide sufficient supply.

In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement promised 'initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education', yet 15 years on, there has been very little movement to help this sector.

With falling enrolment numbers and school rationalisation on the horizon, the time for action is now.

It is not just our education system that we should be looking at to radically transform our society. Issues such as identity, culture, public spaces, parades, housing and how we deal with the past need to be tackled.

This is not to say that shared spaces have to be neutral spaces. Public spaces should be areas where all ideas and identities are celebrated.

Alliance firmly believe that a shared future isn't built upon the premise that Belfast is a British or an Irish city, but instead on the basis that it should be a shared city welcoming to all.

The compromise proposed by Alliance concerning flying of the Union flag on designated days at Belfast City Hall reflects this position. It balances Northern Ireland's position within the UK against the reality that we live in a divided society, accommodating people of different nationalities – whether British, Irish, Northern Irish, European, other or none.

Since our foundation, we have worked hard to move Northern Irish society forward on this basis, by consensus and compromise, when necessary and possible, in spite of the strong opposition experienced from unionists, nationalists, republicans and loyalists on many occasions.

Stubborn 'not an inch' approaches, designed to stop decision-making, cannot be allowed to leave Northern Ireland divided for ever.

Consensus is about working with reasonable people to get a reasonable solution that everybody can support. It should never be about vetoes, diktats, threats and dirty tricks.

Alliance will not yield in its opposition to such tactics and is determined to move forward together.

The battle is hard, the decisions are difficult, but I firmly believe that we will see the goal of a shared future delivered. We owe it to future generations to resolve those issues that continue to divide us, to settle the tectonic plates and build a stable shared future together.

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