Time to stop tightening our knot: CRC Annual Policy Conference 2014

This year’s annual policy conference organised by the Community Relations Council considered how we might “Finish the Job” and find ways to resolve outstanding issues in the peace process.

The conference attracted a wide range of practitioners, statutory agencies and policy makers, who examined the engagement of civic society for the greater good, as well as explored how to create positive momentum to keep the peace-building process moving forward.

The conference focused on the following areas:

  1. Reflection on the CRC-published Peace Monitoring Reports (recurring issues and implications for the future)
  2. Challenges for reconciliation
  3. Roundtable discussions to identify “What needs to be finished?”
  4. Delegates’ opportunity to address panel of political representatives

The conference was hosted at Duncairn Complex, managed by 174 Trust. Its Executive Director, Bill Shaw, welcomed all to “the best music gig hall this side of anywhere”. Barney Rowan later replied that this contrasts to the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was “out of tune”, “not cool but sometimes cold”, and whose tone can be “shrill, screaming, definitely not soothing”.

Paul Nolan, author of all three consecutive Peace Monitoring Reports, described how the constructive ambiguity of the language within the 1998 Good Friday Agreement means that when politicians go and push forward on an issue, each communal bloc are actually going in different directions. Dr Nolan likened this to two men pulling a rope in a tug-of-war, where the harder they pull, the tighter the knot gets.

Positively, Dr Nolan pointed out the facts that in 2013, there were no murders of police or security force personnel, nor sectarian murders of Catholic-versus-Protestant or Protestant-versus-Catholic. Indeed, the year saw Northern Ireland host the Irish Open golf tournament and the international gathering of the G8 leaders.

Even the controversial statements by Pastor James McConnell, which brought negative impressions in global media, resulted in our society drawing a line, publically, and apologetic acts by the First Minister, Peter Robinson, to the Muslim community.

Yet the flags dispute persists.

Why so?

Dr Nolan posited a hypothesis of a “perfect storm”:

  1. The educational underachievement of Protestant boys (of whom 80% attain <5 GSCE passes)
  2. Demographic change whereby Belfast is no longer majority Protestant populated
  3. Sudden appearance of contentious issues on political agenda reflects reality of existing bad relations, not good relations

He suggested that the result may be a shift of politics to “unionists versus everyone else”. For example, demographically someday there may be a Sinn Fein First Minister. While there may no call for a plebiscite, such an event would likely cause a convulsion among political unionism.

That is, while the mantra is that equality doesn’t threaten anyone, in life equality does threaten some people.

Dr Nolan mooted how to we get it so equality doesn’t threaten anyone.

Jacqueline Irwin (CRC Chief Executive) identified and explained three prominent themes for this year’s conference:

  1. Numbers. We are becoming obsessed once again with the trends of demographics; instead, “we need a new trick” to make them less salient
  2. Tone. The tone of political discourse particularly matters when any society is coming out of conflict; she complimented the project, The Compassionate City of Belfast
  3. Delivery. At the end of the day, what matters is making a real difference in people’s lives

Ms Irwin added that complicating progress of the above are planned structural changes (what gets done how), as well as the need for adequate financial resources. And then there the “old chestnuts” of flags, parades, and dealing with the past, she added.

But Ms Irwin reminded all that the CRC logo, with its weave pattern, represents who we are and will continue to be — interwoven and interdependent.

The audience then watched a 20-minute video, which featured four individuals whose organisations are involved with the topics discussed: dealing with the past (Kate Turner (Healing through Remembering)); flags (Dominic Bryan (Institute of Irish Studies)); commemorations (Maureen Hetherington (The Junction); and parades (Neil Jarman (Institute for Conflict Research)).

Barney Rowan introduced the panel of political representatives:

  1. Alex Attwood MLA (SDLP)
  2. Paula Bradley MLA (DUP)
  3. Caitriona Ruane MLA (Sinn Fein)
  4. Chris Lyttle MLA (Alliance)
  5. Ross Hussey MLA (UUP)

Carina Maggee from Youth Action immediately posed a question on young people and their participation in the political arena. Responses varied from the practical (“We need an Assembly whose operation reflects the society we live in, for example working mothers.”) to recognising that political involvement is not limited to electoral contests (“There are ways of serving the public in a political party short of standing for election.”)

Delegates then had table discussions — I facilitated one — with the task of presenting one question and one suggestion to the political panel. With ten tables at work, perhaps unsurprisingly the result was wide ranging. Many queried the level of commitment to the public policy on community relations, TBUC (Together: Building a United Community), citing a lack of political leadership, policy planning as well as inadequate financial resourcing.

The response from the panel was likewise wide ranging. Caitriona Ruane emphasised the urgency of addressing educational under attainment (“by Catholic boys as well as by Protestant boys”). Chris Lyttle observed that the political structures offered by the Good Friday Agreement do not help the effort in trying to achieve its declared aspirations. Alex Attwood argued for a technocratic solution: “We need a paradigm shift … with parties adopting the right values, passing new laws, with rigorous enforcement.”. Paula Bradley gave due acknowledgement of the value of community work (“without which I would not be in politics”). And Ross Hussey provided a positive example of communities coming together in his constituency of Omagh, and expressed his optimism in the potential of the planned Omagh Education Village.

In response to Mr Lyttle particularly, Barney Rowan mooted whether we should have put the Haass final draft proposals to the people for a vote, as was done with the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

The next round to the panel were suggestions from the tables. Some notable comments:

“The past is our battlefield, used to score political points. Do we use the past in the right way?” (Barney Rowan)

“I voted ‘No’ [in the 1998 Referendum] but I am glad we have the Good Friday Agreement.” (Paula Bradley)

“Those who love peace have to be more organised than those who are content with the status quo.” (Chris Lyttle paraphrasing Martin Luther King)

The event concluded with reflections by Rev. Lesley Carroll and Denis Bradley.

Rev. Carroll declared that community relations (practitioners) need to be very clear about what they want. There is a disconnect between leadership that we give from the community, versus that demonstrated by politicians. She asked how do we make that linkage.

She argued that it will be the civic, political as well as community leadership, combined, that will bring us together. But it would really help to have a sense of a shared task: “The only way an ever-tightening rope can go is it snaps. We don’t want to see where that sends us.”

Denis Bradley also presented a challenge to community relations workers — does it work internally (for the sake of good relations) or to the two dominant identities here (British and Irish constituencies)?

That is, good work alone does not necessarily change anything.

Mr Bradley called on the British and Irish Governments to re-engage in the peace-making process, in order to provide stability, so that we can have hard conversations. For him, the “new trick” is to have safe places to discuss and explore topics such as the role of the Commonwealth to a redefinition of Irish nationalism. Here, external actors can help release the tension in that knot.

Repeatedly, the point was made by several that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater, in our self-criticism of shortcomings post-Agreement. It was acknowledged that we are in a much better place than before, and how many other societies in similar situations of communal division would welcome a process such as ours, with at least the positive outcomes it has produced.

At one point during the proceedings, I observed Ms Bradley asking Ms Ruane for a glass of water from the table pitcher, which was courteously given. Perhaps a superficial observation, but it was not so long ago (20 years can be a blip in ethno-nationalist epochs) that suggesting these five parties share a single platform would have been thought as chancing your arm, if not outright mischievous by event organisers.

I am confident that we can finish the job, as it were. But it’ll happen most likely the same way as we made significant progress before, by including (indeed, insisting upon having) all of the actors involved. It’s disingenuous to contend that our provincial politics of identity can be quarantined and left for self-healing. That ain’t going to work.

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