Robinson and McGuinness set out blueprint to tackle division

PSNI organising “secret” discussions on parading in Wales

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have  announced how they intend to progress building a shared future in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Arthur Allison

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have announced how they intend to progress building a shared future in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Arthur Allison

Fri, May 10, 2013, 01:00

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness set out an ambitious and quite imaginative range of proposals yesterday to begin tackling the last major unresolved issue of the Northern conflict: sectarianism and division and the frustratingly obdurate attendant problems of parading, flags and the past.

At the same time the PSNI was in the middle of organising what (it appears) they hoped would be secret talks involving loyalists and nationalists, Orangemen and community representatives who are central to the parading disputes that plague Northern Ireland each summer.

But not much stays secret in the North for long. These discussions will take place in Cardiff in Wales next weekend under the auspices of the PSNI and the University of Ulster. As Robinson and McGuinness effectively acknowledged at Stormont Castle yesterday, that meeting will hardly ensure a peaceful parading season this summer but it could lower the temperature at some of the flashpoints.

The DUP and Sinn Féin leaders mixed vision and pragmatism in their “united community” proposals. They accepted what everyone in Northern Ireland understands, that matters such as flags and emblems, parades and protests, and finding some comfort for people still overwhelmed by the legacy of the Troubles, aren’t amenable to quick or easy resolution.

So there was a bit of kicking to touch with the formation of an all-party group which will have an independent chairperson to come up with proposals to tackle these particular matters.

In the meantime, Robinson and McGuinness with, they hope, the support of the other main parties, will press ahead in areas where progress can be made. The headline-grabbing target was bringing down the North’s 60 structures that divide Protestant and Catholic communities by 2023.

A tad ambitious, we wondered, but McGuinness was having none of it: 2023 was the target, although he acknowledged that dismantling the walls must have the support of the divided communities. Robinson, as ever, was slightly more cautious.

But at least there is a target and politicians and communities must work to it. Moreover, the idea to get 10,000 disaffected Protestant and Catholics working and possibly socialising together is novel and worth pursuing. And the same can be said of the plans for more integrated housing and the proposal to create 10 shared educational campuses.

Northerners, often based on experience, tend to be jaundiced about blueprints and there will be plenty of people to focus on the negative in the days and weeks ahead. Robinson and McGuinness did agree that they need community “buy-in” to make this initiative work. They can’t do it on their own. They also agreed that this is the start of a process rather than a comprehensive strategy.