Naomi Long said: “This is the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the troubles as we know them. Whilst reflecting on the past and how far we have come, we must also look forward and plan for a better future.
“I want the next 40 years to be marked not only by the absence of violence, but by the building of a stronger, more united, more integrated society where diversity can be celebrated rather than feared.
“As someone whose entire life has been lived out against the backdrop of the troubles, I recognise the significant change which we have seen in recent years, but the transformation of our society is by no means complete. We still live in an overwhelmingly segregated community and our potential to develop economically and socially will not be fully realised until we tackle segregation and division.
“The events of 40 years ago led to the building of walls, which were seen as a temporary solution to a crisis situation. Little thought was given at the time as to how people on each side of the wall would be able to rebuild relationships and one day have the confidence, sense of safety and security which they need to enable walls to be removed.
“The legacy is that the walls have remained, have grown longer and higher, and even in recent years new ones have continued to be built, setting in stone the divisions between people and creating a barrier to progress for some of our most disadvantaged communities.
“Local communities and voluntary groups have been discussing what steps might need to be taken to create the right conditions for their removal and there have been some imaginative suggestions. These are sensitive and difficult issues, but we cannot avoid them if we want the benefits of peace to be maximised for everyone.
“The walls are not just a symptom of the division, hostility and violence – They also act as physical barriers to tackling those underlying divisions. Everyone recognises that the walls cannot be pulled down in a climate of fear or without the consent and support of local people but, if they are not to become a permanent scar on our society, work needs to start to support the ambitions of local communities to see their areas regenerated and transformed in this way. That requires proper planning and resources, but it also requires political leadership which has been lacking.
“OFMdFM effectively suppressed the release of Deloitte’s Cost of Division report, which was eventually made public through an Alliance Party Freedom of Information request. They appear unwilling even to acknowledge the economic realities of the cost of division. They have also repeatedly failed to bring forward the publication of the draft Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy which was to set out their vision for a fairer, more prosperous shared future.
“Alliance is keeping the pressure on the Stormont Executive and we recently submitted a paper to OFMdFM on the devastating cost of division. Alliance is showing leadership on these issues and it’s time that OFMdFM responded to this challenge.
“We have estimated that segregation costs our society around £1 billion each year and the Deloitte report suggested this figure could be as high as £1.5 billion annually. At a time when the Executive are being forced to make cuts right across vital public services we simply cannot afford to ignore this. And, yes, it will take time to unlock this money, it will be a slow process, but that makes it all the more important to make a start now.
“Division costs at the human level. At best, it limits people’s opportunities to mix with one another, to fully participate in and contribute to society and realise their full potential. At worst, it leads to violence and destroyed lives. Division has social costs too. It is no coincidence that there is a high correlation between segregation and deprivation, and the two must be addressed if we are going to have a better future for everyone.
“Division also has a negative impact on our environment. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors argue that the divisions in Northern Ireland impact upon our carbon footprint – which is one of the worst in the UK.
“Finally, division brings an economic cost. It hinders labour market mobility, access to training, dampens tourism and investment, and limits our ability to attract and maintain top talent here. It also creates an unstable foundation on which to build for the future.
“Just because unionists and nationalists are in government together does not mean that division and segregation have ended. It does, however, provide us with an opportunity like never before for meaningful transformation. OFMdFM need to show they are capable of delivering on these issues and are committed to tackling the root causes of division. Now, in the 40th anniversary of the start of the Troubles, is as good a time to start that journey as any.”