Bridging the North’s divisions


No-one was ever under any illusion that the bitter sectarian divisions that underpinned the violence in the North would simply vanish with agreement on a political way forward. But the dogged persistence, 15 years after the Belfast Agreement, of inter-communal tensions and suspicion, still manifested periodically over flags and marches or in the 60 towering “peace walls”, is disappointing. It is sad testimony to a failure to turn the agreement from an instrument of peace, important in itself, to one of healing, reconciliation, and above all integration.

The latter appears beyond us. The two communities may live side by side, in peace, tolerating each other, the need for the physical barriers between them gradually receding, but apart they remain, in housing, socially, educationally, psychologically. And Thursday’s long overdue but welcome anti-sectarian “Cohesion, Sharing and Integration” initiative from the First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, will not fundamentally address that reality.

Both men spoke of the initiative as a “vision for a united community” – a more apt description might have been “a vision for two communities in coexistence”. The reality, typically, is also that the initiative, which has been in the pipeline for years, eventually only emerged on Thursday because of continued prodding, with promises of cash, from London by Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers.

Attempts to promote trust are an important first step and the idea of providing 10,000 young people from disadvantaged areas with cross-community work projects, and volunteering and leisure opportunities , is an imaginative contribution. As are the 100 planned summer camps, the regeneration of several urban villages, a genuine act of integration, and the pooling of facilities by Catholic and Protestant schools on 10 campuses – not, it appears, teaching. A step too far!

The target being set of 2023 for completing the gradual removal of peace walls in Belfast, Derry, Portadown and Lurgan is both ambitious and realistic, but only, as McGuinness argued, through active dialogue with and participation by local people. The ministers also announced that they will shortly publish a new community relations policy, “Together: Building a United Community ”, although quite why they did not do it on Thursday at the same time is not clear.

Intractable, flashpoint issues do still remain – notably, parades and flags – and both issues are being addressed not by Thursday’s package but in separate talks processes. An all-party group with an independent chair will tackle both, while the Police Service of Northern Ireland is having supposedly secret, “building relationships” talks between loyalists and nationalists in Cardiff this weekend.