Belfast Telegraph

Why we cannot allow our past to hijack the future

The Executive needs to set the tone of big commemorations over the next decade. If not the mischief-makers will, says Alasdair McDonnell

The dozen or so major anniversaries over the next decade are not going to take care of themselves. And recent events have shown that even one of our major political institutions - Belfast City Council - does not have the capacity to handle events such as these.

The UVF and its hangers-on could turn the commemoration of the 1912 Ulster Covenant into a political nightmare. There is a long queue of dissidents and Provo remnants ready and waiting to exploit 1916 for their own, cynical ends.

There is a great danger that the broad middleground - that great mass of ordinary people who are the backbone of our democracy - will be pushed aside by those intent on shoving their singular and highly selective versions of history down everyone's throats.

We should all face up to the reality that our people, on all sides, will be commemorating some events which involved actual violence, or the preparation for violence.

If we are to prevent exploitation by today's men of violence, we need to take political action to create a framework of mutual respect - and we need to do it now.

The good news is that the mechanism for creating such a framework exists in the work that has been done over the last decade to build a shared future.

The bad news is that the DUP and Sinn Fein effectively scuppered that work when they produced their deeply flawed Strategy for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI).

The Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister has finally admitted that no one involved in community relations had a good word to say about their CSI strategy, which actually went backwards compared to what the previous direct rule administration had done.

Their strategy is based on the one-for-me, one-for-you approach that goes back to the deal they did at St Andrews in 2006. It is a deal for stalemate and stand-off, not for partnership and sharing.

By excluding any requirement for reconciliation, they went for the lowest common denominator of short-term stability that would get them into power.

We don't have a proper strategy for a shared future, because these two parties don't want one - even if they pretend they do.

They sacrificed the long-stability that comes from reconciliation for their short-term gain. They have left us exposed to the destabilisation that could result from commemorations being hijacked by mischief-makers.

The commemoration issue merely highlights the fact that we need a real strategy for a shared future - and we need it urgently.

The best way forward would be to convene all those who objected in writing to the failed CSI strategy and charge them with producing a better one. It should cover all potentially contentious issues, from interfaces through parades to flags, bonfires and language rights.

It would not be the function of the new strategy to find solutions for all our problems, rather to indicate how they might be found in the context of an explicit duty to pursue reconciliation. That duty must be formally adopted by the Executive.

We have operated in a leadership vacuum on contentious issues for far too long. The Parades Commission has to determine marching rights on its own and police attitudes towards the flying of illegal flags have become unfathomable.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have proved able to speak with one voice on big issues such as dissident murders, but on all the small issues - on flags and language rights and commemorative mugs - they are happy to gut each other in town and city halls across Northern Ireland.

It appears there is an agreed, two-level strategy of Peter and Martin smiling for the cameras while their backwoodsmen maximise the sectarian voter turnout by beating each other up regularly at local level. All the signs are there that one of these parties and possibly both are preparing for a decade of ding-dong sessions in town halls and on the airwaves. Our fragile society can't afford this.

We urgently need a new shared future strategy to cover commemorations in the context of a duty to work for reconciliation. This would mean that the attitudes of public authorities and signed- up community bodies to a given commemoration would be determined by its likely impact on reconciliation.

Everyone was shocked recently by a relatively minor spat in Belfast City Council and the divisions it caused both within and outside the council chamber.

It shows just how easily our short-term stability could be derailed if it is not underpinned by a proper reconciliation strategy.

There are groups within our society determined to completely derail the peace process.

We should not be making it easier for them.

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