Continued divisions in our society impact upon people in many ways, including how we live and learn, work and play. These divisions bring significant human, social, economic and financial costs.
If we are to build our economy, how can we seriously attempt to attract investment when we continue to maintain a segregated society? If there is not a long term commitment to an open and shared society, then we will not attract the level of investment and jobs that we need for our economy.
If we do not urgently agree a way forward on how to make a society that is open and respectful of other people’s identity, then we may not solve these issues for generations to come.
However, fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, that challenge has yet to be seriously tackled. The First and deputy First Ministers should have produced an overarching document that puts the delivery of a genuine shared future at the centre of the how the Executive operates. Yet, after six years of delays they have instead published a strategy that is low in ambition and weak in terms of detail.
While some of the specific individual proposals are to be welcomed, and indeed some of these reflect ideas previously put forward by Alliance, the document itself is not going to create the necessary step-change towards reconciliation and integration.
A rounded judgement on its effectiveness cannot be reached without agreements on the way forward on dealing with flags, parades and dealing with the past. These are now to be addressed through a dedicated working group. While this is similar to a suggestion that Alliance put forward earlier this year, its success will be judged on the basis of whether it has the capability to deliver an end result on such sensitive issues.
Critically, there are three major aspects of creating a shared future that remain unaddressed. Firstly is the lack of any targets to increase the number of places available at integrated schools. When you think of a shared future, integrated education is often the first issue that comes to mind, yet it isn’t even mentioned in their document. This is despite the increased demand by parents for their child to go to such a school and the recent Belfast Telegraph poll which found that 79% of parents support this sector.
While there is a proposal to build ten shared education campuses, this will not achieve the same benefits as integrated education, and may only package segregation under a new guise. We will only be able to build a shared society by increasing the level of close contact that our children have with those from different backgrounds.
Through opting for these shared campuses we are actually saying no to integrated education in these areas for 50 years – the life-cycle of a school.
In contrast to integrated education, Alliance believes that shared education is promoting separate but closer. Children being dropped off at the same bus stop in the morning will not improve community relations when they have different uniforms, different teachers and learn in different buildings.
Secondly, there are also no serious initiatives that outline how we will create shared spaces and shared housing throughout Northern Ireland. We must take action to prevent the marking out of territory. Alliance believes that every space should be a shared space. This is not about making all areas neutral but rather it is about ensuring that areas are welcoming to all cultures and ethnic groups by removing those things that are used to threaten or intimidate.
Thirdly, the strategy does not contain details of how we will encourage a mutual respect for all cultures and traditions. We must commit to supporting a vibrant, lively and open society where everyone is free to celebrate their identity or identities in a peaceful society, while fully respecting the lives and rights of others.
Earlier this year, the Alliance Party put forward proposals on how a shared future should be created in our document called ‘For Everyone’. We did so because we do cannot create a shared society merely by tinkering around the edges. We must tackle the underlying problems of segregation in our society in a serious and comprehensive manner.
Other political parties may be content with headline grabbing stunts that deal with the symptoms. Alliance intends to tackle the causes of division and build an integrated society for everyone