Progress against sectarianism held back by inaction

Wed, Nov 21, 2012, 00:00

The new Northern Ireland  Part IV:Northern Ireland in many ways is a positively evolving society but the big blight is that it still exists under the shadow of the so-called peace walls – structures that are symbolic of how sectarianism remains a serious social problem, which may take generations to eradicate or at least neutralise.

As President Michael D Higgins noted in Belfast recently, sectarianism is just hatred by another name.

There are some 50 walls separating nationalists and republicans from loyalists and unionists, most of them in Belfast but a number also in Derry, Portadown and Lurgan. Most people living either side of the walls want them to remain, according to a University of Ulster study published in September.

Almost 70 per cent living in the Shankill or Falls areas of west Belfast, or those resident in the patchwork of Green and Orange areas in north Belfast, or in other flashpoint areas segregated by these walls, feel they are still necessary because of the continuing potential for violence.

There are, of course, other forms of division: over parades, flags, in education, in housing and, as is still evident in parts of the North, in the general social fabric. For instance, situations prevail in some towns, villages and urban neighbourhoods where, superficially, there are good cross-community relations but nonetheless Protestants shop at the Protestant stores, Catholics at the Catholic stores, unionists have their social outlets, nationalists theirs.

CSI strategy

First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are responsible for devising a CSI strategy, ie a cohesion, sharing and integration policy. They certainly talk the talk but so far there is no sign of such a plan emerging from their offices at Stormont Castle.

Robinson, at his party’s annual conference in November last year and on occasions since then, made hard commitments to tackle sectarianism. “There can be no greater legacy than a more shared and united community. It isn’t just good for Northern Ireland; it’s good for unionism too. If we want a better society it can’t be ‘them and us’. It can only be ‘all of us’.”

McGuinness has made similar commitments while senior Sinn Féin member Declan Kearney is involved in a long-running attempt to achieve some form of reconciliation with unionism over the horrors of the past.

Robinson and McGuinness – notwithstanding the occasional DUP-Sinn Féin rows mostly involving more junior party representatives – have been involved in several important gestures: McGuinness meeting Queen Elizabeth, accusing the dissidents of treachery, attending a soccer game at Windsor Park; Robinson travelling to a GAA game, attending Mass for Michaela Harte’s funeral and a GAA game in her memory in Casement Park in west Belfast. That helps and underscores the notion of a Northern Ireland progressively moving away from its bleak past.

Whatever about the normal DUP-Sinn Féin party political tensions, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister work hard to present a united public front, just as did the so-called Chuckle Brothers of Ian Paisley and McGuinness. That leadership by example should not be under-regarded: it percolates down to civic society, sending out a message about how people with different political ambitions can and should operate together on the big issues.

Slow business

The peace process has been a slow, incremental business starting with the long lead-up to the IRA and loyalist ceasefires in 1994, heading on to the protracted talks that created the 1998 Belfast Agreement, followed by the powersharing Northern Executive, paramilitary decommissioning and Sinn Féin supporting policing, and the devolution of justice matters to Stormont.

Sectarianism, by its deep-rooted nature, was always going to be the last big issue to be addressed. It is work in progress but fearfully slow work that has been going on for too long, according to Dr Duncan Morrow, former head of the North’s Community Relations Council, now back as a lecturer in the department of politics in the University of Ulster.

For years Morrow has been fighting for a political plan to tackle sectarianism. He is one of the acknowledged experts on addressing division and has been called in to chair a special ministerial advisory group on addressing sectarianism in Scotland. He is aware of the pledges from Robinson and McGuinness, but he wants fine words to translate into action.

Morrow believes that Paisley and McGuinness agreeing to do business together in 2007 created the conditions to tackle sectarianism in a meaningful way but points out that despite all the positive talk, there is still no CSI strategy.

He says more should have been done since then to help create a society where the divisions are less pronounced.

“The big issues are, can we live together?” he says. “Can you walk and play together? Can you be educated together? Can you say what you like? My view is that we have not used the momentum of 2007 to really deliver on that promise.”

Morrow allows that first Paisley and McGuinness and now Robinson and the Deputy First Minister are trying to lead and that at certain levels of society there is a marked improvement, but what is lacking is an actual policy driven forward by Robinson and McGuinness.

Concern that when it does come it will be a diluted document was compounded earlier this year when Alliance walked away from the cross-party Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, complaining of lack of progress on issues such as schools, housing and flags.

The CSI document is due one of these days. “If we get a comprehensive approach to tackling the residue of sectarianism then that would make a big difference,” Morrow adds. “There is still some hope there but as time goes by, you begin to wonder can it happen or is there some obstacle there.”

That is the big test for Robinson and McGuinness, to translate promises into action.

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