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We must dismantle lingering divides and create a reconciled vibrant North

Resource type: News

The Irish Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

OPINION: Unless the North agrees how to share its future, devolution will have failed and potential will rot, writes DUNCAN MORROW 

EVEN AS the memory dims, the Irish peace process has the capacity to stir pride. A centuries-long Greek tragedy had an unexpected end. British-Irish relations were no longer hostile.

The speed with which the partnership of unionist and Nationalist has become the normal model of political life in Northern Ireland still seems remarkable. Across an increasingly fractious Europe, the Irish peace process was evidence of the possibility an intercultural future might trump a hostile and bitter multicultural segregation.

If the peace process was unexpected, it was also unusual. It was not a single act but a complex interaction of the political, the civic and the international. The political core of this achievement was agreed devolved government in Northern Ireland. Devolution was a vital new beginning, holding out the possibility government might lead by symbol and action to a just, peaceful, secure and inclusive future. What it was not was the totality of peace building.

This was recognised in the massive international investment in reconstruction and peace-building. The European Union’s Peace programmes enabled huge additional investment in economic regeneration, social inclusion and shared social, economic and capital infrastructure.

The fact conflict had been “development in reverse” was tackled in new roads and regeneration. The fact it hit the poorest hardest was acknowledged in targeted interventions to encourage and enable participation in economic and social life. The legacy of division and violence was recognised in the priority given to intercommunity and cross-Border partnerships and initiatives. The same emphasis was reflected in the International Fund for Ireland and key donors like Atlantic Philanthropies.

One of the opportunities and consequences of devolution is that this agenda must now be embraced at the core of government. When the last direct rule administration finally agreed A Shared Future (published in March 2005), it acknowledged for the first time that peace building was not merely a question of political gesture or community activity but of dedicated government policy. Either the state and public services change, or the core resources of society will remain in management mode – managing the terminal and disastrously expensive consequences of hatred rather than transforming them.

Devolved government did not like A Shared Future. The fact it was enacted under a British direct rule government was enough to make it an object of suspicion. But agreeing an alternative has proved a hard ask.

As part of the deal at Hillsborough in February, the Alliance Party demanded a policy be agreed and, in July, the Executive agreed to consult on cohesion, sharing and integration, known by the unfortunate initials of CSI. Public consultations end on October 29th.

The fact that a programme emerged is its own achievement. But what the CSI document shows is that political leadership in Northern Ireland still has a hard time in prioritising reconciliation and an intercommunity future.

The words and actions in the document are not of themselves dishonourable, but the programme does not amount to a systematic attempt to tackle sectarianism, racism and the consequences of violence and discrimination. The default reality of today – separation and even hostility – will remain embedded in housing, culture, regeneration, community and education.

The current push for international investment will prove impossible if we do not tackle our signature international weakness. Small businesses which might benefit from a reliable increase in visitors and tourists will remain moribund if every summer is overshadowed by riots.

Creative people will not choose Northern Ireland, if the quality of life is undermined by fear. Our brightest children will continue to leave if we do not make Northern Ireland a place which prizes openness and tolerance.

In straightened times, there are even more pressing reasons to act. Conflict has led to endless duplication and the occupation of space by one side or the other. The opening of all services to all could be critical contributors to ensuring equality in a time of cuts.

The consequence is poverty and sectarianism are tied up in a terrible nexus, where poverty drives alienation and sectarianism keeps all hope of change at distance. There is no anti-poverty strategy which does not include a drive to get the walls down – metaphorically and eventually physically. If we do not tackle sectarianism and racism, they will destroy us.

Duncan Morrow is chief executive of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council

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