Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Strategy to move us away from old divisions a priority

Some argue now is not the time to produce the Executive's Cohesion, Sharing and Integration document. Naomi Long disagrees

There are several different styles of politics, but perhaps the two most starkly contrasting are the politics of aspiration and the politics of fear.

We have sadly seen more of the latter over the past number of weeks, with the unionist parties' campaign helping to raise tensions on the already sensitive issue of flags through the distribution of 40,000 dubious leaflets full of misinformation, demonising Alliance and using the politics of fear for perceived partisan gain.

The issue of whether one group's identity is under threat has continuously been raised since the vote was taken at Belfast City Council on December 3.

However, I have yet to see any unionist recognise that, for the first time, Sinn Fein has voted for the Union flag to fly in Belfast. In doing so, Sinn Fein has acknowledged the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK.

This was a missed opportunity for unionism that was lost in the weeks of protest and violence. That violence is a direct attack on democracy, yet there were some people - including senior politicians on both sides - who, even at the height of the trouble, attempted to justify what is entirely unlawful.

My own constituency office has been the focus of daily protest. That is intimidating for members of staff and for those who are coming to the office to seek advice.

A police car, guarding my office against threats, was petrol-bombed while an officer was still in the vehicle - a clear case of attempted murder.

I recognise there are genuine social, economic and educational issues that affect not just loyalist communities, but all communities across Northern Ireland. One of the reasons I got involved in politics was to address those issues.

There are also fears, both real and perceived, around identity that need to be addressed if stability and peace are to be secured. But they do not justify violence.

In dealing with those issues, it is the job of political leadership to be honest, to allay those fears where they are not justified and to address them constructively where they are.

Many of the social problems facing communities are either a product of, or are compounded by, sectarian divisions. Effective and sustainable solutions can only come as part of a shared approach, which acknowledges that disengagement, disaffection and disadvantage are not only loyalist issues, but affect many nationalists, as well.

While others have said this is not the time to produce the Executive's revised Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy, I disagree.

The deep divisions in our community, the fundamental instability of a segregated society and the increasing fragility of the peace process, have been laid bare for all to see. It is a sobering sight.

If now is not the time to address this, then when will be a better time? If this is not a priority now, when will it be?

This is not about a document filled with platitudes. It has to be about the vision of what we want Northern Ireland to be and a map of how we move from the divided, wounded present towards a more integrated, reconciled future.

It will need to face up to, not duck, the tough issues, such as dealing with the past, parades and flags and set challenging targets on shared education and housing.

It will require all political leaders to work together to deliver shared solutions to what are shared problems, rather than retreating backwards to old tribal positions.

It will be about the politics of aspiration - about transforming to what we want to be as a community - not the politics of fear.

Failure to get a grip of this unresolved part of the process leaves a fault-line running through society, which will retain the potential to shake all that we build to its core.

Not even those who still trade in the politics of fear can want that.

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