Despite historic acts of healing between Ireland’s two main traditions, there remains “a big gulf” in Northern Ireland between areas stuck in a sectarian timewarp and those that have left the Troubles behind, according to the head of the Community Relations Council.
Chief executive Duncan Morrow is now calling for politicians to “seize the moment and use this opportunity” to help make peace a reality in the community.
Thousands of people are taking part in around 150 events to mark Community Relations Week (May 23-28), showing a strong determination exists to challenge sectarianism and racism across Northern Ireland.
In 2007, accountants Deloitte estimated that sectarianism and community divisions in Northern Ireland cost the economy around £1.5bn each year.
But recent weeks have seen a number of unprecedented acts on a grand scale that suggest divisions are healing.
The Queen made her first state visit to the Irish Republic last week — the first British monarch in a century to make the trip.
And last month DUP First Minister Peter Robinson attended a Catholic Mass for the first time following the murder of police constable, Ronan Kerr.
“The symbols we have seen need to translate on the ground,” Mr Morrow said.
“The Northern Ireland Executive needs to take this new world and make it a practical reality for people – that means people need to feel safe where they live and not rely on a 70-foot wall, or fear being put out of their homes because they are Polish or Catholic.”
Many symbols of conflict remain. For example, there are still 88 peace walls in Belfast alone.
“We have made progress,” Mr Morrow said. “People are talking across interfaces but we haven’t yet managed to convince people that it is safe to take them [peace walls] down.”
In response to the recent Shared Future consultation document, the Community Relations Council argued for the Executive to make a ‘plan for peace’ and include it in its government priorities.
The flagship event of Community Relations Week is a policy conference dealing with the economic benefits of peace, which takes place at the Stormont hotel in Belfast this Thursday.
“Good community relations make a big difference to our economy,” Mr Morrow said.
“The areas with the worst visible sectarianism are the very areas which are poorest, with the highest unemployment. I think there is a big gulf in experiences in Northern Ireland.
“There are those parts which are still in the world of sectarianism and other parts that regard all of that in the past. We need to engage people across the whole of society to change those areas stuck in the past.”
After an extended secondment — of nine years no less — Mr Morrow is overseeing his last Community Relations Week as he returns to his post as a politics lecturer at the University of Ulster next year.
The week showcases the vast range of activities, from sport to the arts, that community groups and charities use to engage people and bridge divides.
Sport can be very divisive as different activities are associated with different religions. However, the Peace Players, a charity set up to improve relations between young people across the divide using the politically neutral sport of basketball, is launching a new initiative this week to involve kids in rugby, soccer and gaelic games.
The week’s events even cross the border into Donegal which is holding a prayer and reconciliation event.
For more information visit the Community Relations Council website on www.community-relations.org.uk
Stimulating, challenging... the pick of the events during Community Relations Week
The Guildhall, Londonderry, Mon 23-Thurs May 26, 9am-5pm.
Representatives from 12 international cities, which are dealing with, or are emerging from, conflict are meeting at this conference to discuss best practice in relation to community relations, policing and regeneration among other issues.
Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall, Derry, Mon, May 23, 8pm.
Learn to dance or simply come to watch this celebration of both Irish and Ulster-Scots traditional dancing and music, in what is sure to be a bit of a hooley!
The Braid Arts Centre, Ballymena, Wed, May 25, 7pm.
The exhibition features the art of five community groups who explored their various cultures through art workshops. The pieces will be on display alongside a commissioned piece by celebrated local artist, Michael Hogg.
The Marine Centre, Ballyronan, Magherafelt, Thurs, May 26, 9.30-1pm.
Rural Community Network and Integrated Education Fund launches research by Oxford Economics on the cost of segregated education in rural areas. The conference will focus on the challenges facing rural schools in the context of budget cuts.
Laurencetown Community Centre, Banbridge, Thurs, May 26, 7.30pm-9pm.
Named after the popular television series, this event invites you to discover our shared heritage through genealogy, while tracing your own family’s roots.
Peace Players, a cross-community charity, uses the neutral sport of basketball to unite young people from across the sectarian divide. It brings schoolchildren together to play basketball in cross-community leagues.
The premise of the charity is that children who play together can learn to live together. The Peace Players were established in Northern Ireland in 2002 and also operate in other areas of conflict around the world, such as South Africa and the Middle East.
To mark Community Relations Week, the Peace Players are launching plans to delve into the more controversial sports of rugby, gaelic games and soccer, by promoting the Game of 3 Halves. This involves young people taking part in 30-minute sessions of each of these sports, normally affiliated to a particular community in Northern Ireland.
The presidents of each of the governing bodies of the sports are expected to attend the launch on Wednesday at Ballysillan Leisure Centre in north Belfast between 12pm and 2pm.
A cross-community boxing tournament is taking place on June 4, in which young fighters from five of Belfast’s top clubs take on their counterparts from the Republic.
The inaugural Punching for Peace Youth Boxing Tournament takes place at the Spectrum Centre on the Shankill Road and involves Belfast clubs Holy Family, Dockers, Midland, Cairnlodge and Saints.
The bouts will be three rounds each involving 12-16 age groups.
The clubs from south of the border taking part are ClannNaofa from Co Louth, Navan, Ashbourne, and Dunschaugalain from Co Meath and King’s Court from Co Cavan.
The tournament has been organised by Belfast Community Sports Development Network (BCSDN) in association with Belfast City Council and funded by the EU PEACE III Programme.
Event organiser Billy Boyd, BCSDN’s sports development officer, said the purpose was to show young people from working class areas that they have much in common.
“Boxing has always been a sport that cuts across the religious divide and this event will help bring young people from different backgrounds together to train and socialise together,” he said.
Jim O’Neill from the ClannNaofa club said he was delighted to accept the invitation to bring boys up to Belfast to compete in the tournament.
“Boxing in this small island is a unifying experience that brings out the best in people,” he said.
“We have produced many great boxing ambassadors from north and south over the years and will continue to do so.”
A loyalist has named as the top housing tenant in the UK.
Ex-Red Hand Commando internee Jim Wilson was presented with his Housing Heroes award at a glittering ceremony attended by 650 guests and hosted by the BBC’S George Alagiah in London’s Hilton Park Lane Hotel at the weekend.
Mr Wilson (59) was honoured by the Chartered Institute of Housing for his cross community work in east Belfast,where he has forged links with former republican adversaries in the Short Strand area in an effort to defuse tensions on the interfaces.
Friends and relatives gathered at his home on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast yesterday to welcome him and his wife Maureen back from London.
PUP leader Brian Ervine said: “It is a fitting recognition of the great work that Jim and his colleagues have done to create better relations across the interfaces in east Belfast.”
Mr Wilson said he was “very humbled and honoured” by the award.
“I knew I had won the Housing Executive’s award for Northern Ireland. But to be named as the most inspirational tenant across the UK was awe-inspiring. The award is for everyone involved in making things right on the interfaces,” he said.
“And I think it sends out a strong message about loyalism which has been under attack in many circles in recent years. I hope this will show that within loyalism there are dozens of people doing good work and trying hard to better their communities.“
Mr Wilson has been a prominent spokesman for the PUP and was recently involved in a public row over the appearance of a new UVF mural in East Belfast, saying critics were guilty of double standards.
He said opponents of the mural had been silent about a new republican mural going up in the Whiterock area of West Belfast.
Mr Wilson who was part of the PUP’s backroom team during peace talks at Stormont has in the past offered to talk face to face with dissident republicans.