Belfast Telegraph

The costs of division are too high for this society to bear

Creating an integrated community here is not just about getting rid of some hoodlums, but also changing mindsets, argues Duncan Morrow

It has been a while in the making. But now that the Executive has published its draft programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration we need to debate how to make the most of our historic chance of lasting change.

Any policy paper is only as good as the commitment to make it work, but this one is much more important than it might look.

It is hardly news that this is a divided society. Whether Northern Ireland or the north of Ireland, what goes by the name of sectarianism is much more than a few hooded men attacking vulnerable people in their homes. It is a legacy of |history which persuades too many people that the pattern will never change.

It is an expectation which shapes what we think of as ‘normal’ in education, in housing, in culture and in politics. Sectarianism is in our everyday behaviour in choices like where we live, what we will say and what we can do and it is a set of attitudes which, subtly or otherwise, divides the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and excuses all sorts of discrimination and exclusion. And the worst of it is that we often hardly notice it, except in others.

Violence and hate crime are not limited to sectarianism but are visited on too many people deemed ‘legitimate targets’. Racism and homophobia are paid for in real lives. The notion of ‘our area’ has become taken for granted and a terrible tolerance for casual exclusion has deep roots. Our cultural displays are too often moments to stick it up to the others rather than celebrate an inheritance.

Living in a shared society is an enormous challenge. But if we have stopped trying to force each other out, then the biggest question is how to make this permanently shared, diverse, multicultural society work for all and respect the equality and rights of each.

Words are easy. What we need is action that changes what we think of as normal. Division impacts |on the life chances of our children, the quality of life we lead and the economy we can grow. Some change is economic, because a reputation for violence has huge costs. Tourism will always be an uphill battle |if your signature weakness is |summer riots.

Jobs, customers and an end to public sector dependency will remain elusive if there are safer places for investment to go. Now economic necessity is pressing hard choices. But change in the economy will require action to change society as well. There will be no sustainable prosperity without taking action to ensure that public resources are equally available to all, insisting on safety for everyone, including those intimidated by night from their homes and people too scared to walk through certain parts of town, and building partnership into all of our ventures.

Apartheid has costs beyond pounds and pence, and it has never yet been benign. We have to revisit how we provide housing, what is normal in education and how we ensure the safety of every person. If it is serious, the debate on cohesion, sharing and integration has to do justice to the scale of these issues.

This stuff matters to real lives and is a subject which must be |led by politicians, supported by |action and have the engagement |of the whole community.

It requires serious and robust engagement across society which brings the greatest change for those who have paid the biggest price. And it still needs a shared community public champion independent enough to act and speak consistently in the midst of political pressures to press the advantage of one community or another.

At heart, this debate is about the next steps to peace. We are at the crossroads again.

Duncan Morrow is CEO of the Community Relations Council

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