Belfast Agreement envisages shared future yet also entrenches religious divisions

Opinion: there is something more serious going on than just yobbos spoiling for a fight

Orangemen during a recent stand-off with police on Woodvale Road, Belfast. If the Belfast Agreement is the best we can do we can look forward to almost permanent sectarian division.

Orangemen during a recent stand-off with police on Woodvale Road, Belfast. If the Belfast Agreement is the best we can do we can look forward to almost permanent sectarian division.

 

We’re on the two roads,
Maybe the wrong roads,
On the road to God knows where . . .
In north Belfast on Tuesday, Sinn Féin Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was thumped and kicked by local loyalists as he tried to preside at the reopening of Woodvale Park following a £2 million (€2.3 million) makeover. The event was balanced by a “fun day” at Dunville Park on the Falls, on which £2 million had likewise been lavished.

At Dunville Park, the lord mayor was flanked by DUP MLA Nelson McCausland and Cllr Gareth Robinson, neither of whom encountered hostility.

Footage from Woodvale of the lord mayor being scrambled by the police through a crowd which seemed almost hysterical with rage will have dismayed all who had believed that this sort of thing would by now have been put in the past.

But it is difficult to put such things in the past when there is no common understanding of what the “shared future” envisaged in the 1998 Belfast Agreement is intended to feel or look like.


DUP response
If the Woodvale hurly-burly offered a dramatic picture of the absence of consensus, the DUP response was a more ominous reflection of the same circumstance. Party spokespersons suggested the lord mayor had brought the bother upon himself by refusing their advice to stay away.

Pressed on Radio Ulster to condemn the attack – on one count, the question was put 17 times – DUP MLA William Humphrey refused to answer; on the face of it a remarkable attitude to an assault on a representative of a party with which Mr Humphrey’s is in coalition. Not to be outdone by a competitor for the unionist vote, Ulster Unionist former mayor Jim Rodgers said: “It seems that advice was given that the lord mayor should not go to Woodvale Park, but he decided otherwise.” It was his own fault, then.

One of the reasons for the attack cited by Mr Humphrey was “the removal of the union flag from city hall” – the council decision last December to fly the flag only on 17 designated days a year, rather than all year on every day. Somewhat to the befuddlement of most mainstream commentators, street protests on the flags issue continued through Christmas and into February. The sheer persistence ought to have been taken as an alert that there was something going on here more serious than paramilitary-associated yobbos spoiling for a fight.

What was missed was the tacit, and sometimes more than tacit, support for the protests from unionists who would consider themselves moderates, including some who will have voted for the agreement. And there’s the rub. As far as flags and adjacent issues are concerned, the agreement both supports the protesters and deems their actions anathema.

The agreement lays down that the North will remain part of the UK until a majority within the North decides otherwise. The union flag is the flag of the UK. Why shouldn’t it fly 365 days a year, 366 in leap years?

The agreement also guarantees equality between unionism and nationalism. So the union flag should either flutter alongside the Tricolour or be furled and folded away. Accepting designated days was a compromise by nationalists.

So it is on every Orange-Green issue: the Belfast pact backs both sides.

The agreement, somewhat unreasonably against this cracked background, goes on to lay it as a duty on supporting parties to come up with a strategy for bringing “the two communities” together.

In July 2010, the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister published its Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration. This replaced March 2005’s
A Shared Future: Improving Relations in Northern Ireland. The key difference was that the aim in 2005 was to break down sectarian divisions, whereas the 2010 version sought to contain the divisions.

In October 2010, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust published the results of a comparative analysis of the two “policy frameworks” by the Institute for British-Irish Studies (IBIS) at UCD. The IBIS team noted that in 2005, “The vision was of constant cultural change and dynamism . . . in a context of social division, economic difficulty and permeable cultural boundaries.” In contrast, the 2010 document “sees ‘cultures’ and ‘identities’ as given and stable entities”.


‘Dangers of the present’
Boundaries seen as temporary and porous in 2005 were accepted as solid and permanent five years later.

The IBIS team observed: “This pushes change into the future and loses sight both of the positive potential and of the dangers of the present.” Never a truer word etc.

Observers who see the recent outbursts of liveliness as threatening to the agreement should ponder the possibility that the agreement doesn’t challenge but rather consolidates the attitudes underlying the same fractiousness. If the agreement is the best that can be done, we must look forward to more or less permanent sectarian division, with an ever-present possibility of abrasion at the interfaces. This, not escalated paramilitary activity, is now the main threat to stability in NI.

The pact should be seen not as the last word but as a model to be discussed as one element in debate on a better way forward.

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