What kind of society?? by Eileen Bell

Enormous progress has been made in both the political and peace processes in recent years. The threat of terrorism, though not yet totally eliminated, is much diminished. The Good Friday Agreement promises legitimate cross-community government and the chance for political stability.

It remains to be seen if the blockage in the Agreement’s implementation can be overcome within the Review. Trust and mutual confidence among the parties will be vital.

However, irrespective of the outcome of the Review, the question remains – what type of society do we want in Northern Ireland?

Despite the rhetoric within the Agreement of peace, human rights, equality of opportunity, and equality of treatment, Northern Ireland seems to have settled for a rather limited vision of its society.

This vision is of one of limited conflict management or at best peaceful co-existence. Underneath, there is an undercurrent of continued, even deepened, community division, polarisation and segregation. Not only is this wrong, but it constitutes a deep threat to peace and stability in the long run.

We cannot be satisfied only with what has been achieved so far. The Good Friday Agreement must be a means to an end, not an end in itself. We must constantly strive for improvement. We must articulate a wider vision of a shared Northern Ireland.

Here are three areas where we need to make a start.

Let’s start with our schools. At present, almost 97% of children attend segregated schools. Opinion polls consistently show that around two-thirds of parents support the concept of integrated schools, while around a third wish to send their children to one.

Around the world, integrated education is the norm, with parents having the right to opt out. We are the wrong way around. To date, Northern Ireland has only scratched the surface in the provision of integrated schools. The present Government and the future Executive must move progressively from 3% provision, to 10% and beyond. Alliance has set a target of reaching 10% by 2005.

The people of Northern Ireland had already been forced more and more to live separated from other parts of the community by ‘the Troubles’. However, this segregation has not lessened since the cease-fires. If anything it has become steadily worse. Sectarian intimidation is still driving many people from their homes.

Too many of our housing estates are now marked out with the sectarian markings of paramilitary groups: the painting of kerbstones; the erection of murals glorifying paramilitary organisations; and the hoisting of flags, many of which are outright paramilitary in their nature.

This is a problem for both Loyalist and Republican areas alike. In all circumstances, they are wrong. What kind of message is it sending? It is saying that this area is the exclusive preserve of one side of the community. Other sections are just not welcome.

Little can be done about what is placed on someone’s private property. However, much of these sectarian symbols are on public property. Their presence is illegal and often constitutes vandalism.

Yet, rarely do we see prosecutions for these activities. Rarely do the public authorities – the Housing Executive, the Roads Service, and the Police – do anything to remove them. There is a gross failure on the part of the agencies of government to do much about this problem, although the NIHE have begun to realise the scale of the problem.

This is not just a problem of aesthetics. It is a problem of human rights. When people are forced to live in the midst of symbolism they find objectionable, their human rights are broken. When people are too scared to speak out, or even not to give something for the local bonfire, for fear of intimidation and even violence, their human rights are breached.

These breaches of human rights are not just suffered by people from a different tradition to the predominant one in any area, but by many people from that tradition itself.

We have already come some way in Northern Ireland in recognising that someone is being discriminated in the workplace if sectarian symbols are present; employers have a duty of care to ensure their removal.

The same principles that apply to where people work should apply to where they live. The law prohibiting discrimination in the provision of goods and services may be enough, but they have yet to be tested. If it is insufficient the law should be tightened up.

This problem cannot just be tackled from the top down. Community action from the bottom-up is required to turn the places where we live into areas where all sections of our society can feel comfortable.

Even greater human rights abuses are being imposed on the people of Northern Ireland. Despite the presence of official cease-fires, paramilitary groups have continued to engage in attacks on people accused of alleged anti-social activity.

These actions are often described by the misnomer ‘punishment attacks’. The process shows no respect for international standards of justice – paramilitaries act as judge. jury and executioner. The victims are maimed and sometimes killed. Yet torture and capital punishment are again rejected by international convention. These activities are human rights abuses of the worst kind, abuses against the right to life.

The lawful statutory agencies and the police can work to fill this policing vacuums. Control of no part of Northern Ireland should be conceded to paramilitary groups.

Human rights organisations, which rightly spend some of their time scrutinising the activities of the security forces, should turn their attention to these abuses. Clear public pressure – loud and vocal – is required.

There is a race on between the forces of sharing and the forces of separation. At this time, the forces of separation are winning, or holding off the challenge of the sharers. But we can turn this situation around. We must use the foundation of the Good Friday Agreement to reshape our society for the better.


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