A Shared Future: IoG Conference

I attended a conference to discuss the Northern Ireland Executive consultation document on community relations, A Shared Future, issued by the OFMDFM. The conference was held at Queen's University Belfast, hosted by its Institute of Governance.

Professor Colin Knox said that there is:

  • a lack of leadership from politicians
  • the need for champions for a shared future
  • the need to target groups who want a shared future

The top area to be addressed in improving relations are:

  • security/law and order
  • education
  • housing

Ways of measuring success in improving community relations:

  • a decrease in sectarian incidents
  • an increase in number of pupils in/demand for integrated education
  • an increase in quantity and quality of cross-community contact

Professor Knox and Darby said that there was no support for status quo. The debate was between gradualist or proactive approaches. The gradualist wants to “encourage” better community relations; the proactivist wants more direct involvement.

Representing young people, Sharon Armstrong gave an emotional speech, saying that she may leave Northern Ireland and never come back because of the level of fear and poor community relations in Northern Ireland. To contrast, Emma O'Kane gave a very confident and encouraging speech, reflecting her experience of the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust. Both belonged to JEDI.

Nigel Hamilton presented a well-crafted speech, with many quotations. One by FDR was, “There are many ways to go forward, but only one way to stand still,” to which Hamilton replied, “In Northern Ireland, standing still is not an option.” In reference to a quote by Scott Peck, Hamilton said that no one is arguing for a homogeneous society in Northern Ireland. Also, he said that the people of Northern Ireland are more alike than unalike. Separate but equal is not an option. Parallel living is not an option.

Denis Rooney (Chairman, IoD) said that the business community realised long ago that Northern Ireland needs to be a pluralist society, not one of mere coexistence. Rooney also made reference to the One Small Step campaign.

Peter Bunting (Asst Gen Sec, ICTU) said that sectarianism is not an issue only of the working class. He wanted the consultation and discussion on community relations to be broader, to incorporate economic and social integration. Bunting later suggested using tax incentives (and other business incentives) to develop integration in housing and education.

Seamus McAleavey (Chief Executive, NICVA) began his speech by saying that NICVA was anti-sectarian, not merely non-sectarian, that racism is the flip side of the coin of sectarianism. NICVA purposely chose a “peace line” to locate their working premises. He referred to the costs of segregation, as well as the business perspective of the image of Northern Ireland for inward investment.

Paddy McIntyre (Chief Executive, NIHE) presented some interesting material in regards to housing.

David Stevens (former Gen Sec, Irish Council of Churches) asked what sort of society do we want to move towards. He differentiated between good relations between neighbours with good fences, versus having friendships across divides (of which he said were too few). The spirit of the church is peace building.

In the Q&A, Robin Wilson said that there was a false dichotomy between the equality agenda and community relations.

After lunch was the political panel, chaired by Noel Thompson (BBC).

Dermot Nesbitt (UUP) wants Northern Ireland Executive Ministers in charge of community relations. To him, the issue is one of accountability. Nesbitt would replace the CRC with a board, which would only advise. Local councils would be the main deliverers of community relations policy.

Edwin Poots (DUP) argued that Sinn Fein stoke up communal disturbance in order to shore up its core support. Meanwhile, the unionist community does not feel any gain.

Martin McGuiness (Sinn Fein) said that division in society is in several forms, and that A Shared Future does not address the structural causes of the division. He has strong objections to the consultation document, based on communal grounds. McGuiness also rejected that striving for equality and human rights has damaged community relations.

Carmel Hanna (SDLP) said that a reduction in (extreme) violence has been answered by people feeling free to express their bigotry more openly. Paramilitary weapons have eroded trust. Hanna wants to see an increase in the integrated school sector. To her, “separate but equal” does not work. As far as she was concerned, if she never saw a Union Jack or tricolour flag flying, it wouldn't be too soon.

Naomi Long (Alliance) gave her speech, highlighting aspects of the party's full consultation response. Noel Thompson queried Naomi whether integration education was just a niche, to which she replied has been well oversubscribed: the demand is there, it is not being met. In response to Alliance being in the heart of government, Naomi reminded Thompson that Alliance was not in the Executive, and three times demanded the publication of the Harbinson report for A Shared Future.

Duncan Morrow (CEO, CRC) gave what has been the most impressive speech on Northern Ireland I have ever heard. He made a reference to Hitler securing power through elections, showing that elections alone do not secure democracy, you also need the values of civic equality and internal cooperation. To Morrow, the question was not if, but what kind of future will we share.

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