A call to civic engagement

Tue, Jun 18, 2013, 01:00

When congratulatory words and diplomatic language are stripped away, the message President Barack Obama delivered to the young people of Northern Ireland is that they and their leaders should be more ambitious in working towards a shared future. Invoking personal experience of racism and exclusion in the US, Mr Obama identified segregated education and housing as key determinants of mistrust and social tensions and advised that while change came through courageous lawmakers, it was most often driven by committed citizens. Young people, he said, should push their politicians.

Mr Obama’s comments reflect a sense of urgency that the potential of the peace process needs to be developed and promoted. The North could offer warring factions elsewhere a blueprint, he said, and people were watching. And although commending the Northern Executive and Assembly for their commitment to a document “Building a United Community” – circulated last month by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness – it was faint praise.

Top of their “to-do” list was an all-party approach to parades, protests and flags, followed by a jobs programme for young people and the establishment of shared summer schools. A handful of shared education campuses would follow, along with shared neighbourhood developments. Interface barriers would be reduced, or removed, within 10 years.

The incremental nature of the programme, which has since been offered special funding by the British government, clearly reflects the tensions and mistrust that persist within both communities. But, as Mr Obama said, peace isn’t about politics, but personal attitudes; about individuals’ willingness to reach across divides; about allowing kids to play with kids who attend a different church; about making choices, standing against violence and hatred.

Most of all, peace is about tolerance for the views of others, involving personal courage and a fresh beginning. As teenager Hannah Nelson said in her words of welcome: the past should not dominate the future. She wants to live in a country where her value as a person is more important than her religion. There are indications the long-frozen landscape of the Republic may also be thawing when Enda Kenny can say he is a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic, not a Catholic Taoiseach.

Complacency and political exhaustion can destabilise settlements. The North has been transformed: its politicians share power, take responsibility for policing and justice and welcome world leaders. But there is a distance to go in creating healthy community relations. Addressing segregated education and housing are the most urgent. As Mr Obama said, these issues are “not tangential to peace”.