10 years of community relations week: No more them and us?
Sectarianism remains deeply rooted in Northern Ireland despite undoubted progress that has been made towards a more shared society, the Chairman of the Community Relations Council (CRC) has said at the start of the 10th Community Relations Week.
Tony McCusker stressed that thousands of events and tens of thousands of people have participated in Community Relations Weeks since 2003, which he says is testament to the commitment and will that exists across Northern Ireland to deal with the legacy of the past.
But he says there is clear evidence that much more work remains to be done.
“There are still many difficult issues to be addressed, including segregated educational provision, interface areas and barriers, residential segregation, misuse of flags and emblems, parades and other expressions of cultural identity,” Mr McCusker told around 200 delegates at the CRC's Policy Conference at Titanic Belfast - the flagship event of Community Relations Week.
“The number of interfaces in Northern Ireland was 22 when the Belfast Agreement was signed; today the number is as high as 88 by some estimates. We still see flags and emblems as prominently displayed during the marching season as before the Agreement. Deep divisions in housing and education also remain. To add to this, racism in our society is now apparent,” he explained.
Community Relations Week 2012, which runs until next Sunday, may 20, is the biggest week in the community relations calendar, and showcases the positive work taking place across Northern Ireland year-round to deal with the legacy of the Troubles as well as issues around racism.
It features events run by a wide range of organisations, from district councils to statutory bodies and community organisations and its theme for 2012 is ‘No More Them and Us?’.
Speakers at the Policy conference included Justice Minister David Ford, Michael O’Flaherty, the Chief Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission; Michael Wardlow, the Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission and representatives from the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).
Mr McCusker said that Community Relations Week is important in helping keep community relations on the public and political agenda. He said that it helped to provide a platform to discuss the challenges and opportunities ahead for Northern Ireland in building a society that is respectful of diversity and can replace walls with bridges.
He added: “The challenges are clear, but we have seen noteworthy progress in community relations since the first Community Relations Week in 2003. The new peace bridge across the Foyle offers considerable hope regarding what can be achieved.
"So too does the progress that has been made in Alexandra Park, North Belfast for example in relation to opening a gate in the interface. These and the many events during Community Relations Week offer a picture of a possible future which is both shared and inclusive. It is one worth striving for together.”
Michael Wardlow, Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, a speaker at the CRC conference, congratulated the CRC on showcasing a variety of important programmes and initiatives through Community Relations Week.
“The Equality Commission has consistently stated that both equality of opportunity and good relations are essential partners in creating a just and equal society. Our vision is for a shared, integrated and inclusive Northern Ireland; a place where difference is respected and valued; a society based on equality of opportunity and fairness for everyone in our community. The theme of this Community Relations Week - “No more Them and Us” – raises an extremely important issue as we move towards a shared and better future,” he said.
Michael O’Flaherty, Chief Commissioner of the NI Human Rights Commission, another guest speaker at CRC’s Policy Conference said: “As a point of principle human rights begin with an assumption that there is, as a matter of fact, no ‘them and us’. For the human rights defender there is only ‘us’; humanity in all of its diversity to be both respected and cherished.”