Belfast Telegraph

Let's forget our divisions and build a shared future

The May Assembly elections should be a test of the parties' commitment to integration, says Trevor Ringland

The last year ended on a dreary note for the people of Northern Ireland. We are in the middle of a consultation about enormous reductions in public expenditure and, to cap it all, our water system made international news, making the region look like a third-world state.

In the midst of all this, no mention was made about the continuing cost of division here. In 2007, a report estimated that the additional costs attributable to the divisions could be in the region of £1.5bn.

This included additional security costs in the region of £504m for the year 2004/05. Which, as it happens, is around the size of the capital deficit for the underresourced, arcane water system which failed so spectacularly over Christmas.

Interestingly, the Executive made no mention of the cost of division, either in its policy on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI), or in the draft Budget.

To some extent, the Executive reflects a society that still does not face up to deep-seated sectarianism, a school system where children are still segregated on the basis of their religion and the problem of racism (in the anti-Irish/British sense).

There is also the failure to acknowledge, or commit to, concepts of an inclusive society which can accept a sense of Irishness that also reflects its Britishness, or a Britishness comfortable with its Irishness.

Our history is a dead weight around the feet of the people here who try to take steps to deal with the consequences of tragedy and a deeply-divided society.

Yet Wolfe Tone, when he talked about 'Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter', reflecting his Irish republicanism, went some way to recognise republicanism had to be inclusive.

If 'British' was added to that definition, it would help us to begin to properly reflect the make-up of the increasingly diverse population of this island.

Similarly, Edward Carson warned unionism that they would profess their loyalty to the United Kingdom best by "displaying, in their acts of government, a tolerance, a fairness and a justice towards all classes and towards all religions of the community".

By basing our concepts of society around inclusion, we recognise the importance of ensuring that Northern Ireland is a place for all - no matter what your view is on the constitutional position.

There is no doubt this community has moved forward to a considerable extent in many areas. However, there is much work to be done.

Our politicians have arrived at a position where politics no longer has the toxic impact on our society it once did. However, they can achieve so much more if they have the courage to grasp this opportunity and show the necessary leadership to ensure that politics plays its part in building a shared future.

In May's Assembly elections, we should be more demanding of our politicians - particularly those who wave a flag the highest. We should encourage them to rise above pure populism by promoting real policies that will make a real difference.

Politicians must also realise that they cannot do it all alone. Their partners are those of us in civil society who act as critical friends; who want to build on the peace and stability we currently have.

This generation needs to acknowledge that we made a mess of the past. As we look to the future, we should recognise that friendship and building relationships works.

With the May elections ahead of us, we need to challenge those who aspire to public office to illustrate clearly in their manifestos how they will build a new and shared society for our children and not condemn them to repeat our mistakes.


From Belfast Telegraph