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We are still paying a high price for a divided society

Northern Ireland needs to save money. Most areas of public spending are being cut, some dramatically. Yet one long-term area of saving seems particularly resistant to savings. The costs of a divided society remain staggeringly high

In a 2007 report, that was quietly filed and forgotten, Deloitte estimated that the total cost of managing the divisions in Northern Ireland ran to £1.5bn annually.

And while some people dispute the exact accuracy of this figure, it is without doubt that we spend significant money in order to manage the worst aspects of our differences.

I wonder, every time Celtic play Rangers, how much does it cost in extra policing in Belfast? Even if there is no trouble, additional police are paid to be available.

And how often do we have to double up on public services on both sides of an interface because people do not feel safe travelling into the others’ space?

These are just routine annual costs. In Northern Ireland, exceptional costs born out of public disorder are more predictable than the weather in the summer.

I took part in a demonstration in Wisconsin in the US in early April. It seemed to require just half a dozen police officers — even though it was a highly contentious protest.

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Then take into account the cost to local communities. We know that the existence of territories demarcated by flags and murals discourages people from using businesses in the area.

The 2008 Life and Times Survey suggested 38% of people were less willing to shop in areas with loyalist flags and murals and 46% for republican areas. In all, 84% of people said they do not support flag-flying in their area.

In 2005, the then Secretary of State, Paul Murphy, introduced A Shared Future policy document calling for “a peaceful, inclusive, prosperous, stable and fair society firmly founded on the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust and the protection and vindication of human rights for all”.

A Shared Future identified how we might move towards a more shared society, setting targets for different parts of government to achieve. The document can be criticised, but it had vision, policies, targets and an evaluation procedure.

Six years on, with power devolved to Belfast, the policy has been dropped and there has been no replacement. The Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration document proposed last year lacked any joined-up and measurable policies and — amazingly — seemed to ignore all the evaluations that had taken place since 2005.

Research at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s shows that a third of flags put up in July are still flying at the end of September and there has been little improvement since 2006.

And since the Parades Commission was given the task of managing parades and protests in 1998, by my count, we have had eight Government reviews and parliamentary select committee inquiries, all paid for with public money, without agreement on a system for managing public events.

There have, of course, been significant improvements. We undoubtedly have a greater equality of citizenship than at any point in the history of Northern Ireland.

Enormous energy, imagination and enthusiasm has been exerted by unsung heroes from all political backgrounds to build relationships on this island.

But a sustainable peace must deal with the cost of division. We cannot carry the social or economic burden for ever.

We need clear policies and political leadership at the highest level.

Dominic Bryan is director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University. This article is one of a series supported by the One Small Step campaign

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