Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Most vulnerable need to be helped, not threatened

The secretary of state's yoking of new investment to progress on a 'Shared Future' shows how out of touch she is, says Brendan Browne

Theresa Villiers's suggestion that financial assistance could be withheld if 'real' progress on a 'shared future' does not begin to produce tangible results has ruffled a few political feathers.

It is not surprising to see the DUP and Sinn Fein respond with scornful rhetoric, given that both will do anything to hold on to the power they've worked so hard to gain.

To an extent, who can blame them? It wasn't long ago that the DUP lamented the Good Friday Agreement, a version of which they would go on to endorse several years later.

But this has nothing to do with our local politicians; in spite of their passionate cries of injustice, the threats made by the Secretary of State have more far-reaching consequences.

If we scratch the surface of her comments, we see how a number of those wielding power choose to view our transition out of conflict; as a costly process, one that is failing to deliver demonstrable change in a timely fashion.

Whether you view this as a kick up the backside for our squabbling politicians, or not, it is both ill-informed and less than helpful. Too often, vague terminology is used by bureaucrats who are becoming painfully out-of-touch, 'management-speak' that carries little weight; 'A Shared Future', 'Real progress'.

As if we are able to quantify the steps taken at a community level to break down barriers between communities who have lived at loggerheads with each other for years.

Worse, this right-wing attempt to scaremonger and 'punish' local politicians for their perceived lack of progress again reveals the elitist nature of governments which reduce complex issues into manageable economics.

It is hard not to view the comments made by Ms Villiers as anything other than tantamount to blackmail and painfully out of touch with the situation on the ground.

The reality is that any withdrawal of financial support will not impact fairly on the people who live here.

One thing about poverty and social deprivation is its remarkable ability to impact equally upon people – regardless of their colour, or creed.

Yet again (as history has shown), those living at the sharp edge of this slow and, at times, painful transition from conflict will bear the brunt of high-end political posturing.

Those who have sacrificed much in terms of being affected most by the Troubles are faced with the prospect of becoming further marginalised.

The old maxim that 'Rome wasn't built in a day' rings true. Progress that has been made so far should be heralded as remarkable.

After all, is Northern Ireland not viewed across the globe as a true example of a 'working' peace process? If not, then why are political representatives so quick to jet off to other war-torn regions?

Is it the case that our peace process is running out of time? Or is it more likely that those who parachute in every once in a while are painfully out of touch? It can't be denied that recent flare-ups, particularly over the flag protests, have called into question the progress that Northern Ireland has made.

There does appear, at times, a heightened sense of tension and a greater security presence on the ground, particularly at the more likely flashpoint areas across Belfast.

Yet, even still, was it not the case that the protests masked issues of social exclusion and real economic marginalisation? Perhaps the comments Ms Villiers made were done so with a cautious eye towards the summer months, when things, other than the weather, tend to heat up.

However, our capacity for self-implosion shouldn't be over exaggerated. Maybe if we invested more on locally-based, community-run initiatives and had a more targeted approach to helping the most marginalised and vulnerable young people in our society (many of whom feel far removed from any progress made to date), then we would ultimately have a better return on our investment in the future.

Dr Brendan Browne is a research fellow with experience of conflict and post-conflict settings, including the Occupied Territories

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