Warts and Opportunity

Trevor Ringland, chairman of the One Small Step Campaign, discusses
how a Shared Future could be born from an imperfect political deal:

The articles in last month’s SCOPE on a Shared Future were somewhat
depressing. They represent on the one hand the regurgitation of a
particular political position and, on the other, an expectation that
seems to me to go well beyond what politicians can deliver if they are
to maintain electoral support in the still tribal voting system.

The political deal worked out between the DUP and Sinn Fein was
truly historic, if not ideal. It had all the similarities of a marriage
of convenience, and like such marriages, love, understanding, respect
and trust are in short supply.

But is this a surprise? Could we ever have expected a set of cosy
relationships between these longtime political opponents to develop
overnight? Is it not the case that for the foreseeable future we shall
just have to accept that we will be administered on the basis of the
lowest possible political denominator?

The actions of Executive members so far suggest that we can expect a
series of policy decisions taken unilaterally without any collective
consideration evident. A decision on the Irish language was taken
apparently without any collective agreement or even, perhaps,
discussion. A decision on funding for groups related to the UDA was
also taken without consensus and indeed amid a public spat between
ministers. No collective responsibility here then.

While the current reality may be depressing for many and given that
it might continue for some time to come, what are the chances of a
Shared Future, however defined, succeeding?

Accepting the current political settlement, warts and all, still
provides the best landscape for moving beyond conflict towards a
society that has more to share than to divide. But it does require a
level of political maturity which so far is in short supply apart from
the obvious steps taken by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness to display
harmony while all around them appear at loggerheads.

I was never under the illusion that we would move rapidly onto a
cosy Shared Future following devolution, but I had expected the new
Executive to set an example on the conduct of debate on the issues that
divide. The big test of its collective resolve will be the content of
its first Programme for Government. If that document does not define
and embrace a Shared Future agenda, then the chances of a rapid
movement towards full peace and reconciliation will be limited.

But we do not have to rely only on politicians to shape our future.
Everyone has a responsibility to play their part. There is a corporate
responsibility for areas like business, the churches, the trades unions
and the voluntary sector to question whether they are doing enough to
apply pressure on our politicians to develop a Shared Future, as well
as examining their own role in creating a new society here. And
individuals must play their part by considering and taking small steps
in their own lives to overcome division and build relationships.

I was particularly interested in the editorial in last month’s SCOPE
about the role of the voluntary sector in the light of the research
last year on behalf of NICVA which contended that most voluntary
organisations did not address reconciliation in their work and took
limited steps to ensure representation of the different communities in
their areas. Politicians respond to popular opinion and it is up to
civic society to give them the incentive to change.

I also acknowledge the need to tackle the issue of so called
peace-lines which remain as an enduring monument to our divided
society. There is no easy answer to the very real fears that
communities still harbour. But difficult as it will be, there needs to
be a concerted effort by the public sector to help those communities
come to terms with a future without walls.

This requires the full involvement of community organisations trying
to shape the terms and conditions necessary for change, whether it is
building capacity for dialogue, physical development or policing
measures. In this the new Executive must lead and set an example by
giving the removal of peace-lines a clear priority in the Programme for
Government.

The current political arrangements may not be ideal but the
departure that their establishment represented from the previously held
positions of our political leaders do demonstrate that very big steps
as well as small steps are possible.

If Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness can put aside old enmities to
cooperate on matters of the interest to society as a whole, we know
that we are living in an era of positive change when even the
unthinkable is possible. Each and every individual in Northern Ireland
should grasp the opportunity that the new political era presents to
build a better, more shared future.

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