Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Unionist Forum could be first step to shared vision

Politicians must get away from their 'separate, but equal' carve-up and spell out the Northern Ireland they want to see, says Seamus McAleavey

Many people in Northern Ireland and beyond have been asking why our political leaders have not tackled the most obvious issue our society faces: sectarianism.

Why, when Northern Ireland is brought to the brink, time and time again, whether it is over flags, marches or play-parks, have the underlying causes never been addressed?

In 1998, the overwhelming majority of people voted for peace and power-sharing, but it is becoming increasingly clear we have a peace process that is not yet complete.

We in the community and voluntary sector have been asking: what is the political vision and what will Northern Ireland be like in 2030? Have our political leaders articulated, or even agreed, a basic vision for our future?

One of the reasons for the lack of collective vision is that we have division hard-wired into our political system.

The nature of the peace process has been one where politicians agree what they can, when they can, and push the harder issues and decisions into the future.

The depth of feeling expressed over the removal of the flag at the City Hall has illustrated to me that, unless the question of our collective future is answered, we will very likely repeat the scenes of legitimate protest, but also of law-breaking.

These scenes have marred our reputation across the world and, as we approach another busy tourism year in 2013, they have made Our Time, Our Place an increasingly difficult concept to sell.

Any shared vision must address issues of identity, cultural expression and shared space, but must also address how we deal with the past, educational disadvantage, poverty, inequality and unemployment.

These issues are stark in working-class unionist areas, but they are also issues we all need to address. They have stayed on the political 'to do' list for far too long.

With a view to creating a joint vision, a Unionist Forum should not be dismissed out of hand. Bringing together clearly motivated people and channelling their energy more constructively has the potential to be worthwhile.

However, this is only if the forum's remit allows for a positive outlook that provides hope to all sections of society. A negative, reductive defence of any position will only add to wider divisions.

Equally, a Unionist Forum will only add value if it is prepared to use its collective thinking to engage in developing a joint vision with nationalism and other parts of society. This wider vision will require significant political leadership, but it will also need to engage civic leadership - including the voluntary and community sector.

It is community and voluntary groups which are addressing issues of identity, cultural expression and shared space and which have historically tackled the hard issues where our politicians have feared to tread: power-sharing, dealing with the past, shared education and bridging gaps in class and cultural divides.

The voluntary and community sector has been the avenue for difficult discussion; an incubator for our fragile peace process.

We have broken the ground before and are willing to do so again.

In response to the economic crisis, the First and Deputy First Minister set up a cross-sectoral advisory group on the economy. This issue is at least as important.

The Assembly should take the lead on finding a long-term solution and the voluntary and community sector remains committed to playing a full and active part.

Only when our political leaders get away from their 'separate, but equal' political carve-up and together articulate the type of Northern Ireland they want to see will that joint vision begin to be reflected on our streets.

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