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United front just papers over the cracks of division

It is now fully 10 years since a respected civil servant, Jeremy Harbison, went off on a well-earned holiday, having submitted a review to the devolved government of policy geared to tackling the Northern Ireland problem - deep-rooted sectarian division, shading into paramilitary violence at its margin.

Dr Harbison expected to report on his return to the First and deputy First Ministers - then David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party and Mark Durkan of the SDLP.

Politicians commission reviews of policy which they have otherwise put in the 'too difficult' file.

And, to Dr Harbison's surprise, Mr Trimble, who saw no contradiction between his civic role as First Minister and his partisan stance on Orange parades, found successive diary difficulties preventing a meeting.

It was a grim summer in 2002, with rioting almost nightly at the interface around the Short Strand.

Yet the devolved Executive did not get around to discussing the Harbison report before it collapsed in October.

The Northern Ireland Office had looked on appalled and, within three months of direct rule being re-established, had turned Harbison into a consultation document, A Shared Future.

The consultation, which attracted wide participation by those working tirelessly for reconciliation on the ground, led to a policy of that name in March 2005.

A three-year action plan translated the aim of A Shared Future - to replace Northern Ireland's divisions by 'a normal civic society' - into concrete activities by Government departments.

Meanwhile, however, the lustre was fading from the political images of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, co-architects of the Belfast Agreement.

The pair were determined to restore the 'historic' institutions at Stormont, even though violence, which had risen during the prior period of devolution, was on a steady downward track.

So determined, indeed, that they were happy to install in office an unholy alliance between Sinn Fein and the DUP, having marginalised the political centre through successive concessions to these more fundamentalist forces.

During the consultation on A Shared Future, many of the unsung heroes and heroines on the ground warned that it was not in the interests of Northern Ireland's communalist politicians to tackle division.

'The turkeys won't vote for Christmas' was a recurrent phrase. And when devolution was renewed, the chickens came home to roost.

The DUP, with Sinn Fein's connivance, shelved A Shared Future. Sinn Fein, with the DUP's collusion, buried a report commissioned under direct rule, showing the costs of division in Northern Ireland reaching an eye-watering £1.5bn a year.

But with Northern Ireland's new political establishment trumpeting to the world how to cauterise its ethnic conflicts, a fig leaf was needed to cover the intolerance at home.

DUP and Sinn Fein ministers, however, only managed to highlight the problem they were meant to solve by their inability to agree a successor to A Shared Future - in 2009 publishing the versions they each would have preferred on their respective party websites.

By the summer of 2010, they had produced a minimal paper, called Cohesion, Sharing and Integration.

All they could really agree was that Northern Ireland would remain a divided society into the indefinite future, tempered by 'respect for difference".

The same weary practitioners who had welcomed A Shared Future were deflated by this counsel of despair.

Many signed an open letter to the current First and deputy First Ministers, respectively Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, circulated by the pressure group Platform for Change and published in the Belfast Telegraph. Neither leader would make themselves available for interview on BBC Northern Ireland that evening, but they quietly withdrew the document.

In the draft Programme for Government (PfG) issued months after the new Executive was formed following the Assembly election of 2011, another document was promised in 2012-13.

The other three Executive parties were exasperated by the tardiness of the DUP and Sinn Fein in appointing representatives to a cross-party working group on the subject.

BBC NI's Hearts and Minds returned to the issue last week, only to find Robinson and McGuinness were again evading scrutiny.

This shyness was not apparent when Mr Robinson was happy to be filmed attending a GAA game - although his tolerance did not extend to being there for the playing of the Irish national anthem, which the DUP was able to sell as statesmanlike.

Older readers will, however, recall that the then Stormont prime minister, Terence O'Neill, was keen to be seen visiting Catholic schools in the 1960s, rather than doing anything substantive to tackle sectarianism.

And we all know what happened next.