Belfast Telegraph

Price of division is one our society can no longer afford

A Programme for Government which doesn't tackle sectarianism is a missed opportunity, says Duncan Morrow

The PSNI announced earlier this month that it cost them - and us - a mere £6m to police the last six months of contentious parades and protests.

In a year when many people think that we 'got away' with a quiet summer, the £6m doesn't count the cost beyond the immediate challenge of parades, like the price of burnt-out buses or cars, or the damage to houses, shops and roads.

On top of that, we know that fire and ambulance services are always required to be on standby for the same events. The cost of processing rioters through the criminal justice system, much of it supported by legal aid, has never been calculated.

It's a lot of money to spend on not sorting out our problems at any time, but in a recession it is little short of criminal.

It would almost certainly cover the £10m deficit in the schools budget and dwarfs the £4.5m spent by OFMDFM on trying to build better community relations in the same six months.

Tragically, though, it is only the visible tip of an enormous iceberg. Because the hidden costs of not sorting out problems may well run into billions.

Following disturbances in east Belfast, the system went into overdrive to ensure that what could be done would be done. What that looks like, though, is more security and greater demands for community resources.

For nights in advance of the riots on Broadway, the police deployed patrols to ensure that nobody tried to plant a flag on top of the brand new public art work.

Every riot leads to more demands for more policing, or higher walls. The PSNI has still has twice the number of officers of a similar English constabulary.

As the walls rise, so we will be told that we need separate housing, separate schools, separate libraries and separate bus routes. Instead of tackling the problem of too many school desks in a new and open spirit, we will close our schools along 'traditional' lines and make the case for bussing children to a place with 'their own'.

But the biggest problem is how this affects investment and tourism here. No amount of political or paramilitary murals will make up for the number of people who leave for holidays in Donegal and France to avoid the trouble back home.

A city such as Derry, which could be the Galway of the north, struggles to build a night-time economy in its historic city centre. The cost of one bomb outside the offices of the City of Culture project in Shipquay Street may be incalculable.

And at a time when a Polish family finds a bomb on their windowsill and a mixed couple are forced from their home in east Belfast, the chances of any outsider putting their money, or their family, on the line for Ulster have just got less.

Ed Curran, in his Belfast Telegraph column, makes a case for maintaining public support for Northern Ireland, based on the risk violence might return. But before we ask others to pay for our woes, we need to use the tools we have.

Political and community leaders must make clear that every act of violence is an attack on the lives of the poorest in this community and a disaster for anyone who wants their children to have a job in the future.

The age of heroic violence, if there ever was one, has gone.

Failure to agree action on building a shared future remains a serious flaw.

But a Programme for Government which does not prioritise peace building and tackling sectarianism will be a catastrophic and expensive missed opportunity.

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