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Meet and mix or attack and destroy: the choice is yours

Last week provided a striking contrast in symbolism in our long march from hatred. In the city still divided by its name, young people walked among each other from both banks of the Foyle to open the Peace Bridge in a spectacular triumph of hope over experience.

This sat poignantly against the backdrop of hooded men, gunshots and community marshals in east Belfast. Here talk was of paramilitaries, higher walls and of a comeback for guns and helicopters.

So which is it to be - peace bridges or peace walls? And what is the message to be - meet and mix, or attack and destroy?

Without doubt, the loyalist mobs which descended on the Short Strand last Monday drew on the hopelessness of many in inner east Belfast.

And, of course, on every side there are stories of ongoing incidents on the interface which make it easily plausible that the latest attacks were an answer to relentless provocation.

But the same is true of every peace wall or barrier in Belfast. After more than 40 years, it is time to recognise that higher fences do not make good neighbours - they make long-term enemies. Peace walls are a magnet for every form of sectarian, anti-social behaviour without the slightest twinge of conscience about the broken windows, damaged cars or petrified parents and pensioners on the other side.

At best, peace walls contain violence; they also make enemies visible and attract all those with an interest in exploiting the opportunity.

This seems to be what happened last week: deep unhappiness and alienation within loyalist east Belfast got attention when it turned into an attack on Catholic homes in the Short Strand.

When it is about 'them' and 'us', we can all take sides and sectarian patterns lead to easy assumptions.

But what if it was different this time? What if any attack on anyone's home was a criminal attack on all?

What if rioting teenagers incited by their elders were a scandal of child protection? What if despair in one community was not a 'reason' to attack the homes of others?

What if anyone using violence was seen to be destroying the life-chances of the very people they claim to protect?

Some of what has to happen is short-term: continuing to stand by the many people and projects building bridges in the most difficult places.

But it will need more than political gestures, community pilots and European peace bridges.

If we are to underpin hope we have to do two things: we have to build an economy which can create jobs and relieve poverty in inner east Belfast and across many areas of Northern Ireland and we have to tackle the hatred and enmity which prevent investment, scare off tourists and shift Rory McIlroy off the front page by threatening mayhem.

Unfortunately, this is nothing less than a sea-change in the understanding of how community relations policy relates to economics and social deprivation. Instead of seeing them as opposites, it is imperative that we see them as vital partners.

This week, after years of promises, the OFMDFM committee is finally scheduled to receive feedback from the public on the review of community relations.

The fundamental criticism of the consultation document was that it was inadequate to the scale of the task in hand.

What interfaces need is a serious plan for a better future which will render them unnecessary within a measurable timescale.

When asked by researchers if they want walls removed, most residents near peacelines still say 'not yet'.

But if asked whether they wish the same future for their children, everyone answers with an unambiguous 'no'.

It is up to all of us to start providing plausible answers and not just wring our hands every time some faction decides to exploit the interface for short-term political gain.