Belfast Telegraph

We have to face up to breaking down barriers

The draft Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration is short on detail. As a society, we can no longer afford a de facto apartheid, argues Owen Polley

How best to set the mood for a Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration in Northern Ireland? Not, ideally, by bickering for two years over the content of a discussion document.

Still, we mustn't be churlish. At least the First and deputy First Ministers have finally published a text for consultation and now the public can have its say.

Anyone with a passing interest in a shared future for Northern Ireland should certainly take time to respond to the CSI document. To put it mildly, it needs a bit of filling out. In fact the Cohesion Strategy, in its present form, is a flimsy manifesto for sharing - all fine words and little detail - and a gaping hole when it comes to integration.

Shared schools and mixed housing are a paradigm for any cohesive society, but the programme skates blithely over two issues central to its stated objectives.

It prefers platitudes and survey results from the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, to targets and hard statistics about the costs of division.

Although the report makes a commitment to 'shared space', a push for more integrated education and housing is not included among its 'key aims'.

Existing statutory duties to increase provision in these areas are referenced, but it is a fleeting allusion and the text has nothing new to add.

SDLP Assembly Member Dolores Kelly summed the document up accurately when she observed that it "lacks conviction". In truth, our prospectus for sharing was authored by two parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, who are uncommitted to the concept and undecided what it means.

The genesis of this latest, most serious push for a workable CSI strategy offers little evidence that the larger parties regard it a pressing priority.

It was finally brought to fruition only because Alliance linked development of 'Shared Future' to its acceptance of the justice portfolio. The CSI consultation is the offspring of February's negotiations over the devolution of policing - and it shows.

The 'Agreement', which followed days and nights of 'hot-house' talks at Hillsborough Castle, was a study in ambiguity, and the new document is scarcely any different.

It accepts that we should all rub along together better, and that, objectively, sectarianism is a bad thing, but there is scant acknowledgment that segregation does society substantial and profound damage.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness will argue that the programme is a starting point; an outline whose detail will be fleshed out by public consultation and various Executive departments.

But it has been two years in the making and it is clearly not sufficiently robust, even as a template, to support a successful strategy.

The document, for instance, does not attempt to quantify a financial cost for segregation in our community. As a starting point, the Alliance Party claims that approximately £123m efficiency savings can be quickly achieved by tackling division.

While those figures are questionable, the Programme for Cohesion does not make a contribution to the debate on possible economic benefits of integration.

That's an important omission, because putting a price-tag on segregation emphasises that CSI is not a wishy-washy aspiration, it is about tackling concrete problems which have measurable effects.

Too often 'shared future' is portrayed as a preoccupation of interfering do-gooders; as though its ambition were to ensure everyone here has an inclusive circle of friends from which to craft politically correct dinner party guest-lists. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Huge amounts of money are spent replicating public services in Northern Ireland, each year, just so neighbours from different backgrounds do not have to use the same facilities.

'Shared future' is about society saying enough is enough. It is important to integrate, not because cross-community friendships are warm and cuddly, but because we can no longer afford segregation.

The CSI document needed to reflect an instinctive, hard-edged grasp of sharing, which Sinn Fein and the DUP conspicuously lack.

The two parties are elected to fight a corner for their respective communities, in terms of resources, services and jobs. Their political interests are bound up with peace lines and separate amenities.

If folk who live two streets away do not want to use the same leisure centre or doctor's surgery, it is a DUP or Sinn Fein representative who will take up their cause.

Instead, our political leaders should be telling people that it is too expensive, economically and socially, to operate de facto apartheid, whenever the state is expected to pick up the bills.

An uncomfortable and uncompromising message for sure. The very antithesis of the woolly aspiration which critics allege 'shared future' comprises.

The woolliness actually comes into play where the concept is interpreted by politicians who either don't understand, or don't accept, its precepts. They make a half-hearted commitment to integration, but push its achievement ever further down their to-do list.

The Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration threatens to entrench that approach as official policy.

Its consultation offers a last chance for people in Northern Ireland to ensure that flesh goes on the bones and any resultant legislation is rendered meaningful.

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