Concepts of a shared future and consensus based politics have recently gained prominence with many politicians trying to persuade us of their commitment to these ideals.
Despite their valiant attempts it is however now increasingly apparent that the terms are being used and abused for selfish and strategic party political interest.
A shared future isn’t just about a few warm words and appearing at the odd symbolic event but instead it’s about a new beginning where everyone is respected, included and accepted.
Unionist leaders claim they are fully behind the idea of creating a shared future, yet in recent months they have adopted a ‘them and us’ approach and created the tribal Unionist Forum to consider concerns of one community in complete isolation from wider society. The renaming of a play park in Newry after Raymond McCreesh shows that Nationalists do not fully understand how good community relations are fostered either.
These and many other examples prove that actions speak louder than words with the Alliance Party’s credibility on the issue of shared society proven, whether via actions taken by Justice Minister David Ford or Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry or via the publication of our document “For Everyone”, detailing our vision concerning what a shared future should look like.
In our document we highlight the wide range of work that needs to take place to achieve a shared future starting with our education system. Too many young people grow up without knowingly coming into contact with those from a different background. This division continues and is cemented as a result of our segregated education system and must stop.
The integrated education sector has successfully shown that when children from all backgrounds learn together these experiences stay with them later in life. Socio-economic and educational benefits associated with Integrated Education combined with the strong demand from parents who want their children to learn and grow up together provides a clear basis for the Education Department to prioritise growth in this sector.
Despite the overwhelming demand for more integrated schools the Education Minister continues to fail in his duty to provide sufficient supply. In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement promised “initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education”, yet 15 years on there have been very little movement to help this sector. With falling enrolment numbers and school rationalisation on the horizon the time for action is now.
It is not just our education system that we should be looking at to radically transform our society. Issues such as identity, culture, public spaces, parades, housing and how we deal with the past need to be tackled.
This is not to say that shared spaces have to be neutral spaces. Public spaces should be areas where all ideas and identities are celebrated. We want to create a shared community that is safe and welcoming to all sections of the community.
Alliance firmly believe that a shared future isn’t built upon the premise that Belfast is a British or Irish city but instead on the basis that it should be a shared city welcoming to all regardless of national identity.
The compromise proposed by the Alliance Party concerning flying of the Union Flag on designated days at Belfast City Hall reflects this position. It balances Northern Ireland’s position within the UK against reality that we live in a divided society accommodating people of different nationalities whether British, Irish, Northern Irish, European, other and none.
Since our foundation we have worked hard to move Northern Irish society forward on this basis by consensus and compromise, when necessary and possible, despite the strong opposition experienced from Unionists, Nationalists, Republicans and Loyalists on many occasions.
Stubborn ‘not an inch’ approaches designed to stop decision making cannot be allowed to leave Northern Ireland divided forever. Consensus is about working with reasonable people to get a reasonable solution that everybody can support. It should never be about vetoes, diktats, threats and dirty tricks. Alliance will not yield in its opposition to such tactics and are determined to move forward together.
The battle is hard, the decisions are difficult but I firmly believe that we will see the goal of a shared future delivered. We owe it to future generations to resolve those issues that continue to divide us, to settle the tectonic plates and build a stable shared future together.