Belfast Telegraph

So, fewer young people believe that community relations are improving ... it's a wonder anyone at all thinks they're getting better

Blame lies firmly with Sinn Fein and DUP, but they're too caught up in their interminable face-off to notice or care, writes Fionola Meredith

Fewer of our young people think that cross-community relations have improved
Fewer of our young people think that cross-community relations have improved

It's been revealed that fewer than half of people in Northern Ireland think community relations are getting better. Is anybody surprised? This place is a basket case of dysfunctionality, and the majority of people are aware enough to know it.

The most visible manifestation of the state of play between the two main communities is, of course, Stormont. Well, Stormont is dead. Absolutely dodo. It's like a great white mausoleum for the Good Friday Agreement, the place where our naive, painful, desperate hopes for the future of this country and its citizens are buried, never to be resurrected.

We have had stalemate between the DUP and Sinn Fein for so long that even the word is getting stale. Between them, because they share a primitive appetite for power, the two parties sliced and diced this place into the biggest sectarian carve-up in our history. Now they are mutually engaged in what looks like a Guinness World Records attempt at the longest bout of political intransigence ever.

They indulge in infantile eye-balling, insults and silly posturing, each party intent on shoring up its hardcore bases with this pathologically irresponsible pantomime. Meanwhile our schools, hospitals and roads crumble to bits, because such vital infrastructure is apparently less important, and of substantially less value, than losing face to the other side.

The stench of barely-suppressed violence and corruption that emanates from the paramilitaries hasn't gone away either, adding its own back-note of menace to the whole screwed up set-up.

So, seriously, is it any wonder that a majority of people believe that cross-community relations have taken a dive?

The latest Northern Ireland Good Relations Indicators show that 49% of adults surveyed in 2017 think relationships between Protestants and Catholics are better now compared to five years ago.

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That figure is down 10% on the 2016 findings, and there's also been a drop in the proportion of young people who think that relationships have improved, falling from 52% to 46%.

But to my mind the amazing fact is that anyone at all thinks that relations have actually got better.

It would be remarkable, wouldn't it, if a spirit of growing enlightenment, respect and mutual tolerance was occurring between Protestants and Catholics at a time when the two main blocs of unionism and republicanism are engaged in a hostile, protracted playground game of who-blinks-first?

It's exactly this dumb carping, show-boating and petulant whataboutery that divides people and fuels hatred and suspicion.

Apparently, the marked slump in young people's optimism about our ability to get on with one another comes despite an increasing number of children getting involved in cross-community projects. The Executive Office study found that the amount of people engaged in shared education classes (60%) jumped by 5%, and the number of school pupils from differing backgrounds who share sports facilities (48%) went up 10%.

Similarly, a report released by the Department of Education in May of this year showed that around 50% of schools here are engaged in some form of shared educational partnership, with 60,000 pupils - that's about a quarter of the school population - taking part (though it does beg the question of why more schools and more pupils are not yet involved).

Great. Nobody is knocking such projects or partnerships. But to be worthwhile they have to be meaningful and long-lasting encounters. Going on a one-off visit to an open farm, say, and feeding the lambs for an afternoon in the company of themmuns is better than nothing, but it's not going to crack the bonds of generations-old sectarianism, is it?

For shared experiences to really take root and open up minds, youngsters need extended periods with one another. They need time to become proper friends. The Department of Education report says that sustained contact, which allows pupils and teachers to have both lessons together and play or have informal time together, is most effective in enabling relationships to be built.

Anything less than that is mere window-dressing, going through the motions of engagement to tick a box rather than transform lives.

The role of the Community Relations Council (CRC) should come under scrutiny too. It has an arduous and largely thankless task on its hands, it's true, but shouldn't it take some responsibility for the downturn in confidence? How effective has the CRC been in fostering these vital relationships?

Peter Osborne, chairman of the CRC, has described the "sharp drop" in positive attitudes as "very concerning" and called for action to be taken.

"We always knew improving community relations was going to be a very long process and that statistics would inevitably fluctuate. This is very concerning and deserves attention," he said. "A decrease in people's confidence also highlights the importance of the conversation going on in the public sphere and the need for our civic leaders and politicians to be careful about what they say in the public arena."

Well, yes. Absolutely. And of course the CRC does good work, which has been especially noticeable during the current Decade of Centenaries. Yet on any of the occasions that I have attended one of its events I keep seeing the same faces popping up. To what extent is the CRC preaching to the converted, to the people who are already connected with their neighbours in other communities? How do you engage with those who are trenchantly hostile and alienated?

It's not all bad news. A total of 80% of respondents said they believe the culture and traditions of both Catholic and Protestant communities add to the richness and diversity of our society. That's encouraging, no? Sounds good? Don't get too excited. It emerges that a significantly lower proportion (68%) felt the same way about minority ethnic communities. And PSNI statistics show that the number of sectarian attacks reported in 2017/18 was surpassed by racially motivated hate crimes for the first time. It's not progress if sectarianism is simply transposed into racism.

The overwhelming moral responsibility for the decline in hope for our ability to act as one coherent and unified society, rather than a permanently fractured and fractious one, should weigh most heavily on the leaders of Sinn Fein and the DUP.

Yet it seems that they are too caught up in their lengthy face-off to notice - or care.

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