Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

Why Stormont should join Scots on the high road against bigotry

When it comes to tackling sectarianism, Stormont has much to learn from Scotland, says Peter Geoghegan

Looking at the news headlines, you could be forgiven for thinking that Scotland is in the grip of an outbreak of sectarianism of truly epidemic proportions. Last year, the number of religious hate-crimes in Scotland rose by 10% - with offences against Catholics and Protestants accounting for a staggering 95% of all incidents.

Meanwhile, both Celtic and Rangers have been hauled over the coals by Uefa for sectarian chanting by their supporters while the pipe-bombs posted to Celtic manager Neil Lennon are still fresh in the memory.

But the relationship between column centimetres and reality is seldom a one-to-one correspondence.

Scotland's religious strife looks so great largely because the country's authorities have radically shifted their approach to sectarianism in recent years.

In 2005, former First Minister Jack McConnell ruffled some feathers when he talked about "Scotland's secret shame". Religious hatred and bigotry was a facet of Scottish life that many people simply did not want to acknowledge.

While structural discrimination that dogged much of Scotland's labour market had disappeared, just like the anti-Catholic riots that plagued Edinburgh in the 1930s, sectarianism was more convenient to ignore than address.

Scotland has come a long way since 2005. Earlier this year, First Minister Alex Salmond promised a "zero tolerance" approach to sectarian behaviour, while the issue was put front-of-stage during his Scottish National Party's annual conference in Inverness.

There have been legislative changes, too. The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 included a penalty for offences "aggravated by religious prejudice".

Right now, a controversial Bill to outlaw sectarian singing at football matches is making its way through the SNP-controlled Holyrood parliament.

Stormont politicians could learn a lot from the leadership in Edinburgh. While Scotland has, since 2006, had an effective anti-sectarian strategy, Northern Ireland has no such plan.

In spite of the requirement under the 1998 Northern Ireland Act that the Executive must encourage "good relations", there is still no formal policy on addressing sectarianism.

That's not to say that such a policy was never developed. A Shared Future was published by the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister in 2005, following a lengthy - and expensive - consultation process.

A Shared Future is, essentially, a blueprint for a post-sectarian society based on laudable notions of reciprocity and reconciliation, but with a refreshingly honest appraisal of the extent of the challenges facing Northern Ireland.

That A Shared Future saw the light of day at all was down not to Stormont, but to a direct rule minister, Des Browne, who championed the initial report and launched the public consultation.

But when devolution was reinstated in 2007 it was clear that that election's big winners - Peter Robinson's DUP and Martin McGuinness's Sinn Fein - had little time for the strategy. A Shared Future was quietly shelved and a new policy, Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI), offered in its place.

To call Stormont's enthusiasm for CSI muted would be generous. Progress on the policy was slow, circuitous and half-hearted.

Indeed, CSI was only put out for public consultation last year after Alliance made it a precondition for agreeing to the devolution of policing and justice.

CSI lacks substance, detail and credibility. Last year, a study carried out by the Institute for British-Irish Studies at University College Dublin and the Joseph Rowntree Trust found three main areas of concern with the policy: CSI abandons the previous strategic goal of reconciliation; it relies on a simplistic view of identity as fixed and static; and its options for reorganising the community relations infrastructure in Northern Ireland are all worse than the current system.

The critical responses to this year's CSI consultation suggest the wider public share many of these concerns.

It took the Executive until the summer to establish an all-party working group to advise on revising the CSI strategy. To date the group has met just three times.

But why does Northern Ireland need a public policy on anti-sectarianism at all? Surely images such as that of Matt Baggott flanked by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson after the murder of PSNI officer Ronan Kerr show the political will is already there? Why do we need another policy document to go with it?

An effective anti-sectarianism vision for a post-conflict Northern Ireland will not be enough to end engrained division, but it would demonstrate the issue is being taken seriously at the very top.

It would have practical implications, too. Public shows of unity are commendable, but need backed up with clear strategic action to address a divided society.

Scotland has taken advantage of a changing social dispensation to tackle sectarianism in its society. Surely the time has come for the Executive to emulate it.

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