SDLP Conference 2010 – A Shared Society

At the annual SDLP conference at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast, I attended a panel discussion — A Shared Society — chaired by Conall McDevitt MLA (South Belfast).

Panellists were: Prof. Colin Harvey (Head of School of Law, Queen’s University of Belfast), Dolores Kelly MLA (SDLP), Rt Rev Dr Norman Hamilton (Moderator Presbyterian Church in Ireland), Duncan Morrow (Director, Community Relations Council), and Tom Daly (former President, GAA, Ulster Branch).

McDevitt began with an SDLP perspective, describing how young visitors to the Northern Ireland Assembly don’t want a history lesson. Instead, “They want to know what we [MLAs] are going to do with the power that has been devolved to us, and how we are going to build a reconciled region and a reconciled island.”

“Leadership … must be about more than just protectionism. Because protectionism feeds prejudice. It allows difference to become the issue, rather than opportunity.

“That is why we are so annoyed with the proposed Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy … it sells us as people, short. It should be binned and we should start over again.

“Our vision is for a united people, it has been forever. And we believe that unity is only possible through reconciliation. It is time that we [in the SDLP] lead again the conversation in the true value and opportunity of reconciliation. We must build respect within and between the diversity that makes us up.”

The first question was directed at Norman Hamilton: “Why isn’t separate but equal good enough?” Hamilton’s blunt answer was that it reinforces our fears, and that current proposals are to manage fears, not to address them. He added, “Let’s get real and address our fears.”

Tom Daly was then asked about the role of respect in sport and wider society. “The divisions of society [in the province of Ulster] was staring us in the face, even the way that the GAA did and did not interact [with people] here. We saw the need to develop a community outreach programme.

“Our experience of that has been that as we have engaged — to put out the hand of friendship — we have found a welcoming response, both inside and outside the organisation.” Daly added that in order to maintain this, you need to be able to apply a consistent effort and focus, which can be challenging for an organisation as large as the GAA.

McDevitt than asked Colin Harvey to unpick the importance of laws (“the statute book”) — as a lever of society or an end in itself. Harvey replied that he saw a shared society as a “fusion of rights, equality, right relationships and social justice”.

For him, “Law is there to facilitate changes in society”. Not for the creation of a culture of litigation, but a culture of “rights, respect and responsibility” where the law can help us on that way.

Harvey underlined the lack of various provisions “promised in the Good Friday Agreement” — “What happened to our Single Equality Bill? What happened to our Bill of Rights? What happened to our all-Ireland charter of rights? There’s much, much more to be done.”

Duncan Morrow was asked whether he thought sufficient structures were in place to do the necessary job required by CSI. Morrow outlined some of the major problems that the CRC has with the draft policy: “Over £3 billion has been invested in the peace-building community over the past 25 years by the international community. This [draft CSI document] doesn’t even do the justice of reviewing where we’ve got to and where we need to go.

“The second point is that … I don’t think this document is serious enough about the scale and scope of the problem here. This is not about superficial attitudes; this is a historic legacy … of generations and centuries, where we now have a chance to write a different chapter.

“It’s written into the structures about everything we do — education, public housing.” He gave an example whereby if we said you were the wrong colour to live in this particular housing estate, we would be “an international pariah”, yet this is accepted locally as normal on grounds of sectarianism.

“It’s at people’s very basic decisions — where do you live, where do you go, what you say, what football jersey do you wear. This has serious effects on this generation.

Morrow concluded by saying that the bottom line was to stop with pilot schemes — “We have more pilots than Ryan Air” — and move on to a systems approach; CSI needs to say, “If this is a society that needs to move from terminal hostility to a place where we are going to share this place one way or another … then it needs to be about things like housing, education and economics.”

Refuting the popular belief that sectarianism only exercises the minds of the chattering middle-classes, Morrow said, “The people paying the price for sectarianism are not middle-class and they’re not chattering. An anti-poverty strategy that does not tackle how we get jobs into places where it’s currently unattractive to do so, is not serious.”

McDevitt summed up Morrow’s position by saying, “If there’s prosperity to be found in our diversity, there’s only poverty to be found in our segregation.”

Dolores Kelly MLA is the SDLP spokesperson on the CSI strategy, which she said should be about individuals and organisations working collectively and for society as a whole saying to the DUP and Sinn Fein that [the current draft document] is simply not good enough. “We need to continue to challenge them on it.”

Following this was a Q&A session, with contributions by individual practitioners of community relations programmes in their area.

Also, Morrow said that he would like to see among the unionist community an unambiguous commitment to equality, and for nationalists to examine whether “there is a space in your future for people who still want to call themselves British”.

Likewise, Hamilton examined the statement of groups not wanting where they are not wanted actually articulates the problem: why are they not wanted, what needs to happen to make them wanted? For him, it is unacceptable to have it so only your culture is celebrated in your own area: “That is simply managing division.”

“In putting together a shared vision for the future … I actually need to build a relationship (as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church) with the folks in the SDLP, so I can hear where you guys are at,” Hamilton said, adding that he needs the SDLP’s help in bridging the gap between the horrendous personal stories of fear and intimidation that he has heard and the type of society we want, and that “you need to hear from me as well”.

McDevitt concluded the panel discussion by encouraging delegates “to go back to our roots, to our radicalness, to our campaign experience, to our utter and unequivocal commitment to civil and human rights — to freedom and progressive politics.”

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