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A new, fair society equals more peaceful communities

The past week has not been a good one for Northern Ireland. Many people are still mystified by the flag protests, both by their scale and by the strength of anger.

How could a flag be so important? Key to understanding this is the context. The problem of social inequalities has become one of the defining issues in the 21st century.

Inequality is at the root of many intractable social problems.

More equal societies nearly always do better. This has been the moral position behind both the coalition and the Opposition that they'll create a "fairer society".

Frustratingly, throwing money (if we still had it) at communities of deprivation fails to correct the inequalities. Furthermore, communities do not appreciate having things done for them in a condescending (if benevolent) manner.

The interventions of the wealthy do not have a lasting benefit. Reducing inequalities requires a partnership approach, with those who are most clearly disadvantaged acting as key players, shaping the changes with enabling help from others.

In Northern Ireland, we have our share of inequalities. The life-opportunities for a young person from Holywood contrast starkly with those of a young person from the lower Newtownards Road.

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Educational success, employment, opportunities to see the world and levels of disposable income are all strikingly different.

Therein lies much of the problem facing Northern Ireland. In spite of the ceasefires, the inward investment, the influx of tourists and the pulsating nightlife of Belfast, we still have communities where educational attainment is woeful, unemployment endemic, addiction and mental health problems widespread, with thousands living in housing stress with the spectre of welfare cuts over the horizon.

In circumstances such as these, people have few pleasures in life. The opportunity of a week in Florida is beyond reach. Going to a Bruce Springsteen concert to brighten up a boring weekend isn't an option.

When life-opportunities are so limited, culture assumes greater importance and, furthermore, it becomes integral to "who I am".

For loyalists, important elements of culture include parades, flute bands, the armed forces, the Somme, wearing the poppy and the Union flag. On almost all of these issues, loyalists have had to concede ground and accept restrictions. One of the central tenets of conflict transformation is to avoid zero-sum games; creating instead win-win situations. Yet in the past 18 months, loyalists have won nothing in disputed areas.

In the flag dispute, the flag was removed for 90% of days. Unionists received nothing; they simply experienced a loss. Hence the anger.

What cultural expressions have the middle classes in north Down had to forgo? Or what restrictions on their traditions have the residents of south Belfast experienced? This, too, is a social inequality. Correcting inequalities is a complex task. It is wrong for politicians to suggest that the 'flag issue' can be solved simply.

The Stormont Executive needs to re-align its priorities to address social inequalities. Education, early years provision, child poverty, training for employment must all be looked at again. The Good Friday Agreement's commitment to equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities needs to be re-examined in light of loyalism's alienation. The current structures - including the Parades Commission - are not working.

And, rather than heap opprobrium on 'loyalists', we need to work with those community leaders who have come through our troubled past and are respected in their neighbourhoods for their constructive leadership.

Reducing inequality will not only create a fairer society, but a more peaceful one.

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