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Laying the foundations for a more peaceful way of life

The year 2010 has been a good one for those who are interested in progressing the agenda for a shared future in Northern Ireland.

Sometimes, when we are in the midst of change, we don't realise the pace at which we are moving, but there are several key signs of progress in the normalisation of our society.

These indicators show clearly that there is not just a desire by the community to embrace change and to move on, but that there is also a willingness to take risks in order to do so. The International Fund for Ireland set out a few years ago to invest in community-based initiatives which use creative approaches to improve sharing in education, in social housing and between community groups from the different traditions.

Our Shared Neighbourhood programme, devised in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, is a good yardstick with which to measure change.

It has now supported 30 estates throughout Northern Ireland whose residents have the desire to move forward to a new future of co-operation.

Many of these estates had a legacy of community tension - and worse. The programme gives backing and support to those community activists who are already working to achieve change.

It requires hard work and dedication, but has been a resounding success to date and the benefits to the participants go far beyond improved community relations.

Meanwhile, the Sharing in Education programme has brought together some 30,000 children from the controlled and maintained sectors sharing classrooms for their first time.

It's not just the pupils who have grasped this opportunity enthusiastically, but also the teachers, school boards and parents.

Other programmes reach out to pre-school children and, for example, have helped fund the famous Sesame Street brand to create Northern Ireland's very own version, Sesame Tree, with its clear messages of sharing for its younger audience.

Elsewhere, the fund's Integrating Community Organisations programme has brought together many constructive collaborations between community groups from across the traditional divide - groups who would not previously have contemplated getting in touch, never mind getting together.

We have also provided funds for the Reimaging Communities programme, led by the Arts Council, which has helped many communities achieve their desire to remove provocative images depicting the troubled past and replace them with more welcoming images which can be happily shared by all.

It is important, however, that society as a whole capitalises on this momentum. Not everyone has felt the benefits of change. Significant challenges remain in encouraging some communities to take the first courageous steps. The Northern Ireland Executive has a key role to play in terms of clarity of policy and providing the funding support needed to deliver that policy.

The International Fund for Ireland, with our partners, has shown that creative programmes can be very effective and can often be relatively inexpensive when measured against the impact.

While the Executive has a lead role in driving the shared agenda, everyone in society needs to come in strongly behind it and reinforce it as a priority. This is particularly true of key stakeholders, such as those involved in education - and it will involve compromise by them in the interests of the greater good.

All in all, there is clear evidence of the willingness of the community to respond to the challenge of a shared future, given the right leadership and support.

There is genuine momentum at present and it creates the opportunity for 2011 to be a year of even greater progress towards becoming a community which is actively peaceful.