Yet, when I reluctantly concluded last week that Alliance could no longer support that five-party process, the DUP and Sinn Fein made the ridiculous suggestion that we did not really want to see a shared future strategy developed.
Nothing could be further from the truth. We didn’t leave the process because we didn’t want to see a strategy, we left it because we wanted to see a strategy that would make a real difference to our community’s future. Sadly, having attended every meeting of the working group over eight months, it had become clear to us that the other parties only wanted to settle for a lowest common denominator of agreement that would not address the big challenges.
We could not continue to participate in a charade where others seem determined to minimize progress and reject the most modest goals and ambitions.
In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement emphasised the value of work being done by many organisations to develop reconciliation and mutual understanding, and the vital role of that work in consolidating peace and political agreement. It said that “An essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing.”
Yet, 14 years later, what do we see in practice? While Alliance was proposing a high level landmark review of equality and sharing in housing and neighbourhoods to ensure that the future does not need to look like the past, the DUP and Sinn Fein, with the apparent support of UUP and SDLP representatives, were carving up the land around the Girdwood Barracks site and leaving one area obviously for Catholics and another obviously for Protestants.
And when Alliance proposed to the CSI working group that we should set a target that by 2020, 20% of our children should be educated in integrated schools, not one of the other parties were prepared to accept any target at all. There are powerful economic and social reasons to promote greater sharing and integration. This is not about social engineering but rather reflecting the real demand from parents themselves.
Actions speak louder than words, and we must conclude that the DUP and Sinn Fein do not want to produce an effective shared future strategy. Profiting from it as they do, they are only too happy to maintain the status quo of division. Two separate sets of housing at Girdwood, one for Protestants and the other for Catholics, with a buffer zone in-between is not shared at all. Indeed, it is the opposite. Housing should be allocated on need, but the supporting actions of government can help to promote and maintain real sharing in housing by addressing threats such as intimidation, claims to control territory and the abuse of flags.
People are increasingly fed up by the annual marking out of territory in the name of culture, and frustrated with the inaction of the authorities and the impunity with which it happens. People living in the shadow of the flags and murals feel intimidated and powerless to stop it. And what sort of message are we sending out to tourists and potential investors?
Alliance believes that shared space does not need to be neutral space, and that there must be scope for the celebration of cultural tradition. But it must be done in a manner that doesn’t compromise the rights and opportunities of others. That’s why Alliance wants to see the regulation of flags. But the other parties didn’t agree.
We have not given up on a shared future. Far from it. But it is clear that an effective strategy will not emerge from a closed-doors exercise with limited ambitions. Let all parties bring their ideas to the table. We will continue to debate what might work with everyone, but this time in public.