Just three weeks after writing this, it’s clear that whatever vision put forward at conference will have to be reworked following the recent disturbances related to the removal of the flag from city hall. Robinson’s vision of an inclusive civic unionism might indeed be the DUP’s political objective, but he’ll have a hard struggle encouraging hardline unionists to move with him.
DUP affirms it will lead Northern Ireland to a shared future
By Barton Creeth for Northern Ireland Foundation
At its annual conference, the DUP affirmed its commitment to leading Northern Ireland into a shared future, and promised a comprehensive strategy to deal with the root causes of sectarian attitudes.
Saturday featured a panel discussion chaired by Junior Minister Jonathan Bell titled, “Working Together: What is a Shared Future?” Bell was joined by Lagan Valley MP, Jeffrey Donaldson; Queen’s University Vice Chancellor, Tony Gallagher; and Peter Sheridan, the Chief Executive of Co-operation Ireland. The panel explored a wide range of topics including parades, peace walls, education, victims of the Troubles, and the future of the Maze/Longkesh site:
[Audio courtesy of Alan in Belfast.]
Bell fielded the first question to Donaldson, who was asked to address this summer’s contentious parades and how we might reach a consensus of peace on parading issues.
“The issue around parades is something that once again this summer came to the fore, but those issues are really the symptoms of a problem, not the cause of a problem, and at the heart of the problem is that there are still sectarian attitudes that prevail in Northern Ireland, attitudes that are born out of the segregation of our society because of over thirty years of conflict and violence. And the peace walls that are up in Belfast separate out communities and that breeds mistrust, suspicion and fear and those are very powerful ingredients towards creating conflict.”
Donaldson stated that DUP parades proposals will “move us away from this sterile debate about sectarian attitudes and the reality of those attitudes towards building a culture of respect, mutual respect, understanding.” While welcoming suggestions from other parties and organisations, he claimed no other viable options have been brought to the table. The proposals put forward by the DUP, he stated, “provide a framework for moving us on to the next stage.”
Barriers to a Shared Future
Professor Gallagher identified two main barriers to a shared future. Firstly, he identified physical barriers–those institutions, mechanisms, and physical structures that divide our society and keep us apart, such as a segregated schooling system and the peace walls. Secondly, he identified emotional barriers, such as fear, anxiety and anger.
While identifying the barriers is fairly straightforward, he said, “trying to identify solutions is a much more challenging task.”
For Sheridan, the very language that is used to discuss the issues needs to be transformed. “I talk about a Shared Society rather than a Shared Future, because a Shared Future seems like something way down the road that we’re not getting to.”
The status quo, Sheridan said, presents a number of security problems for the future. “If we settle for communal segregation or separateness, then that is the ground that dissidents will breed from.”
People in Israel are “absolutely in awe of what has been achieved here,” Gallagher shared, reflecting on his recent trip to speak with Jewish and Arab educators about adapting the shared education model for their own context.
For those in other divided societies, such as Israel, Northern Ireland offers a vision of hope. It’s difficult for people on the ground where conflicts still rage to see a way out, but, said Gallagher, “the fact that a place like Northern Ireland, which was once also in that position, has achieved so much in a real short period of time, gives them hope of positive change.”
Gallagher explained what is happening with education in Northern Ireland.
“[In] the work I do in education, we’re specifically looking at the school system, we’re recognising the institutional barriers that the schools put between young people. What we’re trying to do is make those barriers porous by promoting shared education, promoting collaboration between schools.”
“We’re encouraging young people to move between schools to take classes. We’re encouraging teachers to move between schools to support and help one another. And what we’re finding is an extraordinary degree of enthusiasm and excitement. It allows people to maintain aspects of their own identity while having sustained regular engagement with others.”
Dealing with the past
Donaldson addressed how the party planned to deal with the needs of victims of the Troubles. He explained that there are three categories of victims: those that have moved on, those with no expectation of justice but want recognition and support, and those that don’t want the door closed on the prospect of justice.
Victims, he said, need recognition for their suffering, an opportunity to tell story, and a processes in place to pursue justice.
Donaldson was strident on the topic of the future of the Maze/Long Kesh site.
“For the record, there is no question of the peace centre at the Maze being turned into a shrine to any Terrorist organisation”
“What we will seek to do is to ensure that the narratives that are there reflect the totality of what happened there and not a partial approach to what happened.”
One of the crucial tests of what a shared future actually means, added Gallagher, is to ensure that victims receive a sense of justice. “What they don’t want is to be forgotten and ignored.”
“One of the best things we can do is create a society where there will be no more victims.”
Fear of Change
“Unionists have nothing to fear from a shared future,” argued Donaldson.
“The First Minister outlined this in his speech earlier. Support for the union is growing. And it’s growing not because we are besieged, not because we are, as Unionists, keeping our unionism in some kind of a defined box. It’s growing because we are reaching out beyond the boundaries that we have operated from before.”
“Above all, the union is for everyone in Northern Ireland, and that unionism extends beyond any sectarian, political, ethnic barrier, any religious barrier, and that’s what we mean by a shared future, one that embraces everyone in Northern Ireland.”
Creating Policy for Lasting Peace
Sheridan addressed criticism of the Peace Process saying, “We have made huge progress, and sometimes we’re our own worst enemy, as if we have never made any progress.”
He acknowledged that the “evidence for stopping the violence is there,” but cautioned that “the evidence for building a shared future isn’t there.”
“And some of the barriers that are still outstanding are that there is a sense out in the community that we divide up, that rather than working together, we manage apart. In the education debate, there is a fear of a dilution of people’s ethos.”
Defending the forthcoming Cohesion Sharing and Integration (CSI) document, Sheridan made clear it is not about creating a homogenous culture in Northern Ireland, but rather about protecting people’s individual identities.
“I hope that when the document comes out, that it’s absolutely clear, it is not about making us all the same. Because that’s some of the perception that is out in the community. But it is the opposite of that. And at the ministerial level, they are going to have to keep telling people that.”
“It’s about protecting people’s cultural traditions and religious backgrounds, working together and having the dignity to respect where we all come from. So I do think there is a big uphill battle of work to be done as soon as that document is issued. The next 20, 25 years will be about building shared societies on these isles.”
Gallagher said the choice is clear. “One option is where we simply live within our differences, and use public space as a space to express those differences,” and resign ourselves to a model for society where people live apart together.
But there is another option, Gallagher said. “My sense of a Shared Future is that we create a more connected and cohesive society” and “promote understanding, challenge mistrust, and build relationships of trust across the whole community.”
Sheridan reminded the audience that “when the document does come out we will have a long way to travel.”
“Shared society has to be constructed and nurtured. And that requires strong political leadership. It won’t be grown from the bottom up. It requires strong leadership at every level. Whether that’s in education, policing, in all our services, in health, and so it has to be driven through by political leadership.”
We are likely to see the CSI strategy undergo a name change in the new year, because, as Peter Robinson acknowledged with humour in his leader’s speech, it creates an acronym that sounds more like an American crime show set in New York and Miami than a robust plan to deal with a divided society.
But whatever name it takes, the strategy, according to Donaldson, will offer “the framework with which we can now move forward.”