The Alliance Party has launched its response to A Shared Future – the NIO’s consultation paper on a new community relations strategy for Northern Ireland. In it, Alliance calls for a major shift in thinking in which community relations lies at the heart of government, and is a consideration in all policy decisions.
Earlier this week, Alliance delegations visited Edinburgh and Glasgow to learn some of the lessons as to how Scotland is dealing with their problems of sectarianism.
Speaking at a news conference this morning, Alliance Leader, David Ford stated:
“Tackling Northern Ireland’s deep divisions must be the greatest priority for our political institutions. For several years, Alliance has pushed for major changes in government thinking on community relations.
“A Shared Future represents a major step forward. It is significant that government now articulates a strong, clear and coherent vision of a shared and integrated society, where people can live and learn, work and play together in safety.
“This puts to the bed the arguments that Northern Ireland can be managed with a form of ‘benign Apartheid’. Apartheid was never benign, and ‘separate but equal’ is no solution to our problems.
“For far too long, community relations has been on the periphery of policy-making. The devolved Executive under David Trimble and Mark Durkan failed to publish any consultation document.
“This failure of leadership contrasts with that of Jack McConnell and the Scottish Executive in relation to their much lesser problems, and the problem solving approach taken in some of the northern England towns that suffered from race riots in the summer of 2001.
“Any new strategy must be about much more than a review of structures. It must be about creating the policies to actively promote and encourage sharing and integration, and crucially to protect people’s free desire and choice to mix with each other.
“All government decisions and policies have an impact, either positive or negative, upon our divisions. Community relations must be central to all government departments and public bodies, and all policies should undergo an assessment for Policy Appraisal for Sharing over Separation (PASS).
“A Shared Future is weak on specific policy areas. All Government Departments can make a contribution to improving relations, and Alliance is proposing a nine-point plan to expand the number of integrated education places, in line with parental demand.
“Alliance believes that the promotion and maintenance of mixed housing should become an explicit objective of the NI Housing Executive. There is a fundamental link between breaking down segregation and the provision of security.
“Finally, there are a number of issues A Shared Future fails to address.
“As a society, we need to properly quantify the human and financial costs of segregation. Government either directly or indirectly caters to different sections of society through the provision of schools, health centres, job centres, leisure centres and even transport routes. Such additional costs could be much better invested in improving the quality of public services for all. Alliance staff are currently conducting a project to assess these costs.
“There is a clear link between community relations and identity issues. In Northern Ireland, there is a tendency to pigeon-hole people into this artificial construct of the ‘two communities’.
“Some people continue to insist that Protestant equals unionist and that Catholic equals nationalist. In the 2001 census, 14 percent of the population, only a trivial matter of a quarter of a million people, did not want to be categorised – but government insisted on forcing them into boxes. Yet some continue to argue that people’s right to define themselves must be trampled upon.
“Ultimately, how can we seriously improve community relations, while continuing the system of communal designations in the Assembly? Right from the top-down, the message is given that people should see themselves in terms of ‘them’ versus ‘us’. Is it any wonder than competition over territory and resources, and inter-communal violence results.”