OPINION:We cannot afford to be complacent about the situation in Northern Ireland
In this part of Ireland – the South – many people, including some politicians, look at images beamed from Northern Ireland and conclude that the “ghosts of the past have been finally laid to rest”.
It is not difficult to understand their optimism when they see television footage of DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson sharing a joke with Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at a GAA match.
This “feel-good” factor is further strengthened when Peter Robinson says at his party’s annual conference that the party will now seek Catholic support and when Martin McGuinness strongly condemns the murder of policemen and prison officers by dissident republicans.
Unfortunately the events of the weekend and last week prove otherwise. As she witnessed the developments which occurred during her visit to Ireland, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton correctly warned that Northern Ireland’s peace process was still very much “a work in progress”.
The attacks on police and on the homes and constituency offices of Alliance Party elected representatives following the debate in Belfast City Council over the flying of the Union flag were followed by a death threat issued against its east Belfast MP, Naomi Long.
It is no coincidence that this was preceded by the circulation of 40,000 leaflets by DUP and Ulster Unionist activists in east Belfast in advance of the vote, which inflamed tensions. It is also no coincidence that east Belfast just happens to be the former constituency of Peter Robinson before he was toppled by Naomi Long.
Meanwhile, nationalist members of Newry and Mourne District Council voted to name a children’s playground in Newry after dead hunger striker and IRA terrorist Raymond McCreesh.
And to further remind the parties in Stormont of the threats that existed outside their cosy Stormont forum, dissident republicans were busy preparing a bomb attack in Derry. Thankfully, they were prevented from causing bloodshed by excellent police work.
All politicians throughout these islands should pause and reflect on the true state of the peace process, and ask themselves where it is in danger of heading. Peace in Northern Ireland is a very fragile plant. It needs careful nurturing and ever-vigilant protection.
Considerable threats remain and, as events of last week so patently illustrate, a chain of events still has the potential to derail the entire process.
The images of a smiling Robinson and McGuinness perceived to be working harmoniously together induces a dangerous complacency.
It is true that remarkable progress has been made in Northern Ireland – as illustrated by what is happening in the corridors of power. Unfortunately the situation is totally different on the ground.
Attitudinal surveys carried out since the establishment of the Good Friday agreement have consistently revealed that the gulf between Northern Ireland’s divided communities is as wide as it ever was. Some have found that the polarisation is worse now than it was even at the height of the Troubles, and is increasing.
Furthermore, we should not forget that five times as many so called “peace walls” – physically segregating Northern Ireland’s historically divided communities – have actually been built (rather than come down) since the signing of the agreement.
The carving up of power between the former political extremes will not, of itself, bring about the changes in attitude that are necessary to guarantee a permanent peace.
The sharing of political power at the top level must be paralleled by sustained political initiatives at community level designed to reduce fear, create trust, build respect for difference and bring about true reconciliation.
The war may be over but the battle for reconciliation has not even begun. Until it happens, incidents such as those that happened outside Belfast City Hall or that occur at sectarian flashpoints have the potential to spill over into something more serious, as has occurred in the past.
Those who share power at the top level have a duty of leadership. They cannot indulge in cynical politics which heightens sectarian tensions, either by raising false fears about flags or insensitively naming children’s playgrounds after dead terrorists.
Their responsibilities, because they hold the top offices in government, extend beyond their own immediate political base.
They have a duty to work actively to unite the community and stop pandering to their tribal power base. Otherwise the peace that has been won at such a terrible cost of life and limb will be in danger of dissolving once again into violent sectarian conflict.
* John Cushnahan is a former leader of the Alliance Party (1984-7), and a former Fine Gael MEP