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Let's help couples say 'I do' to a shared future

Much has been made recently of how the foundations of Northern Ireland society will be transformed in the next 10 years. The talk is about equality and sharing the future.

I've listened and fundamentally like what I hear. But such fine words about sharing and diversity and learning to live together are not just the lofty ideals of policy makers. They are already being put into practice by thousands of mixed marriage couples across the country.

Mixed marriage has been with us since the Reformation. In Northern Ireland, it accounts for an estimated one-in-10 marriages and is increasing. I say 'estimated' because government doesn't recognise the importance of capturing this statistic. No wonder there remains much to be done to ensure the acceptance of mixed marriage.

Northern Ireland Mixed Marriages Association (NIMMA) has enjoyed many successes in its 39-year existence.

Lobbying of Churches brought dramatic changes to many of the restrictions that hampered these marriages in the past, as requirements were dropped and divisive promises removed. Our work to change rules and minds continues on the religious front in areas such as shared Eucharist and Baptism. We remain committed to ensuring toleration and acceptance of mixed marriage are building blocks for the future.

The shared present that is the reality of mixed marriage today can be the model of the shared future of tomorrow. A little of that combination of compromise, toleration, understanding and humility that make for successful mixed marriages, in which couples put love before traditional tribalism, can go a long way to shaping our society for the better.

Psychologists tell us that a sound attitude to mixed marriage is the barometer of a healthy society, but it is not simply about changing the minds of clergy and families regarding mixed relationships, it is about changing society as a whole to enable those who wish to marry to meet with less and less resistance.

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Unfortunately, Northern Ireland remains rife with sectarianism and NIMMA knows only too well that there is still a long way to go before real normality can be achieved.

Social housing is proving a crucial area in which the association has helped to tackle sectarianism head-on. There have always been areas where, because of economic conditions, both communities have been able to live in harmony, but these have been few and far between.

NIMMA has worked with the Housing Executive to ensure that its visionary plan for shared neighbourhoods, inspired by the residents themselves and supported by housing authorities, has been made a reality across the province.

NIMMA is considered unique within inter-church organisations around the world. It seeks to address community and segregation issues that simply do not exist in other countries and, while there appears to be a general perception within Northern Ireland society that the mixed marriage issue has been resolved, day-to-day experience tells us that it is not.

The nightmare stories that came to NIMMA at the height of the Troubles have subsided; it is easier to get married that it once was, but there is still the reality that 'marrying out' brings with it fear, suspicion and a degree of secrecy that make a mockery of 'normality'.

The Together: Building A United Community Strategy has identified housing and education as areas of particular importance.

I make no apology for including mixed marriage in a trinity that holds the key to stability and I envisage NIMMA playing a pivotal role in building trust and real reconciliation. Perhaps, from a base at the Maze.

Talk today is about a united community, based on equality of opportunity, the desirability of good relations and reconciliation.

That community exists in the homes and hearts of those who have built bridges between the traditions by finding love in diversity, accommodation in compromise and the courage to follow their convictions.

If you need support, information or advice about mixed marriage, please contact Belfast 9023 5444 or e-mail info@nimma.org.uk

Ken Dunn is chairman of NIMMA

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