Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

True reconciliation is not about sectarian carve-ups

The narrow definition of a 'shared future' silences the voices of the poorest in Northern Ireland society, says Inez McCormack

Some time ago, I was delighted to be asked to speak at the Irish Peace Studies Centre at Corrymeela on 'Integrating rights and reconciliation'.

Corrymeela's 30-year commitment to peace-building and healing division meant it was the perfect setting to talk about how the principles of right and reconciliation are increasingly estranged.

Translating these principles into integrated practice is key to setting standards for inclusive peace-building, economic development and healthy democratic practice.

Fourteen years since these principles were enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, the promise of modest social and economic change to address historic patterns of inequality and need is increasingly being sidelined by a one-dimensional view of reconciliation.

The effect is to write out the needs and voices of those at the margins and maintain wasteful and inhuman patterns of exclusion.

In areas across Belfast, work on reconciliation often concentrates on 'peace walls' - the physical reflections of the conflict. What is not focused on by our public institutions is the wall of exclusion that is growing faster and wider than any other wall in Northern Ireland.

I look at north Belfast, where the statistics demonstrate the perpetuation of past injuries. North Belfast has a history of systematic economic and social neglect and, during the conflict, experienced some of the worst brutalities.

Over the last decade, suicide rates in north Belfast have gone from 319th in the UK to 11th. Along with west Belfast, seven of the top 10 most deprived wards (out of 582) here are in north Belfast - figures virtually unchanged in the last 20-plus years - 61% child poverty in New Lodge and 57% in the Shankill, compared with 2% in Malone.

About 95% of the need for new social housing in north Belfast is in the Catholic community. A total of 61% of the long-term unemployed here are Catholic males, largely concentrated in north and west Belfast.

And yet evidence demonstrates that the bulk of public and private investment over the last decade has gone into the areas of least need, rather than those of most need.

Incredible as it sounds, there are no targeted government programmes to address these patterns of inequality. Take housing - instead of using available land to meet the very real need in north Belfast, there has now been a decision to create a city-centre housing waiting-list based on 50/50 religious make-up in order to create 'shared space'.

This narrow definition of a 'shared future' silences the rights and needs of the poor and condemns women and children to continue living homeless, or, like the Seven Towers, with damp running down the walls.

The legacy of our sectarian past is an unequal playing field. The peace agreements unequivocally stated and then made law that inequalities must be named and addressed if there was to be any hope of building new relationships between and within communities.

Relationships would be steadily transformed by building a shared future through public resources being allocated on the basis of objective need - not a sectarian 'divvy-up'.

The promise was an end to arbitrary decision-making and its replacement with accountability and equality. That promise remains unfulfilled.

The potential of good relations is deformed by the removal of the practice of right. It brings the past into the future by recolonising it with sectarian need.

It is also a de facto acceptance that those on the wrong side of the wall of exclusion must pay the price of such a definition of reconciliation.

Reconciliation and inclusive change starts from asking the question 'Who is not at the table?' Government must accept responsibility for ensuring decisions are made through a practice of reconciliation based on dignity and right.

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