Need to Break from the Stifling Hold of Benign Apartheid

It is interesting to note the almost universal disgust at the notion of the territorial repartition of Northern Ireland since the release of British Cabinet Papers from 1972. Interesting, because what goes virtually unnoticed is that a ‘benign Apartheid’ is the sad reality of Northern Ireland today.

Despite, or maybe even because of the Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society, scarred by sectarianism and segregation.

There is much more that unites our people than divides them. Yet, they have been conditioned over time to think of themselves as belonging to two distinct communities – one Unionist, Protestant and British and the other Nationalist, Catholic and Irish. Northern politics is overwhelmingly dominated by a clash of identities, and those who seek to break from the norm through developing the centre ground are sometimes regarded as the greatest traitors.

When people are taught to think of themselves as groups, it is little wonder this translates into conflict over territory, and that so many police resources are eaten up dealing with street violence and interface conflict.

Despite the obstacles, there are a growing number of people who do not want wish to be associated with exclusive communities. In the 2001 census, 14 percent of respondents did not describe themselves as either Protestant or Catholic, while in the 2001 NI Life and Times Survey a quarter of Protestants and a third of Catholics did not describe themselves as either Unionist or Nationalist.

Contrary to the complacency of some, sectarianism is not just restricted to interfaces, nor is it just something practised by Protestants against Catholics or vice versa. It is multidimensional and endemic throughout Northern Ireland. It is about preconceived notions of others and putting people into boxes. When people are denied their free choice of identity by being assumed to be a member of one of the ‘two communities’, this is sectarianism.

Segregation is most marked in education. Today, 95 percent of children attend schools that are essentially Protestant or Catholic in ethos. Nevertheless, the integrated education movement deserves praise for educating as much as 5 percent of children over the past 20 years.

While there may be an overall increase in mixed housing, virtually all of this has occurred in the private sector, where there is a sense that people are more private about their identity and there is less sense of community.

In the public sector, housing has become increasingly segregated, a trend reinforced by inter-communal violence and intimidation. Segregation is marked out by the use of flags, murals, kerbstone painting, and other emblems. They convey the message that certain areas belong to one or other side of the community rather than everyone.

However, opinion polls show consistently growing support for mixed education, living, working and playing.

While segregation is not the formal policy of Government, with the exception of education, the spatial distribution of services such as leisure centres, health centres, and job markets reflects the patterns of residential segregation. This inevitably involves a substantial duplication of services, and absorbs resources that could be more productively used elsewhere.

In many aspects of public policy, the State works on the basis of institutionalising the ‘two communities’. Of the 14 percent in the census who described themselves as having no religion, 11 percent were artificially assigned to Protestant and Catholic communities on the basis of their name, where they lived or where they went to school. This approach is mirrored in the Fair Employment Monitoring regulations.

Notably through the system of Assembly designations, the Agreement institutionalises sectarian divisions, and erects barriers to the emergence of liberal democratic politics. The limited vision of the Agreement is of a society of separate but equal communities, skilfully managed at the top by elites.

In three successive Programmes for Government, the Northern Ireland Executive has failed to address community relations. It constantly stalled over the production of a community relations strategy.

The level of sectarianism and segregation in Northern Ireland would not be tolerated elsewhere today. The British Government was sparked into action to deal with racial segregation after the English race riots of the summer of 2001, and the Scottish Executive is tackling the much smaller problem of sectarianism in sport there.

But there is no sense of urgency here. That is why Alliance has this week launched its own community relations strategy – Building a United Community.

In it we argue that reform must be extensive and radical. It must challenge how we live, work and play together.

All public sector agencies must have a duty to promote sharing, ensuring that they do not inadvertently entrench separation. A new dedicated Integration Monitor should review progress.

Particular attention should be paid to education. Alliance has set a target of 10 percent of children attending integrated schools by 2010. There should be a presumption of all new-build schools being integrated.

People need to be encouraged to live in mixed housing. In doing so, they need a sense of security from knowing the police and criminal justice system will support their choice to mix.

Amongst other things, this means the authorities taking a more pro-active role, intervening to remove paramilitary flags and murals that are used to mark out territory.

It is essential to attempt to reconceptualise how identity and community are perceived. There must be an invitation to everyone, unionists and nationalists included, to join in something different, something better – a genuinely united community, that respects real diversity. As a central theme, Northern Ireland can be promoted as a distinct region of a decentralising British Isles and emerging federal Europe.

Apartheid, no matter how benign, cannot work; conflict management cannot be maintained forever. With no common bonds or overarching loyalties, it is relatively easy for separate communities to go their different ways. Unless the platform provided by the Agreement is used to build a shared, non-sectarian society, these divisions will eventually undermine the Agreement and cause its collapse.

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