“The concept of a Shared Future is very different from that of a shared-out future.” —Judith Cochrane MLA
Despite a heavy police presence outside the Alliance Party conference at the La Mon Hotel in County Down, there were not, surprisingly, any flag protestors. Inside the hotel, however, there was much discussion on flags and other identity issues as party members put forward their vision on how to build a more cohesive and integrated Northern Ireland.
Following Party President Billy Webb’s opening speech, which commended his party colleagues for standing firm in the face of daily intimidation and violence, the first panel discussion of the conference put forward the party’s plan to build a shared society.
Titled, “For Everyone—Alliance Blueprint for a Shared Future,” the panel addressed the party’s latest Shared Future policy document and looked closely at the main issues: housing, integrated education, and shared space.
Chris Lyttle, party spokesperson on a Shared Future, chaired the panel and introduced the party’s For Everyone document.
Lyttle championed the Alliance Party’s role in Northern Irish politics and put forward the party’s guiding vision. Alliance, he said, represents the “change that people in Northern Ireland want to see from politics.”
“We are the alternative for everyone in Northern Ireland who wants to support a political party that can move us beyond the politics of the past into a new positive and vibrant politics for our future.”
“Dismantling division is the single biggest social and economic challenge for everyone in this community.”
Lyttle, deputy chairperson of the OFMDFM Committee, defended the party’s decision to withdrawn from the five-party Executive talks, saying that “it became clear that the ambitions of other Executive parties for a shared future weren’t as sincere as their language claimed.”
Lyttle put forward a counter proposal to the closed-door discussions that have characterised Shared Future talks in the Executive so far. Criticising the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, Lyttle said that rather than forming a single identity forum or calling for a premature border poll, they should form a Shared Future group.
In addition to elected representatives, Alliance’s proposal for a Shared Future group “would include members of our community with valuable experience and expertise to deliver real change on this issue.”
Division has both human and economic costs, Lyttle said. The economic cost of segregation and division in Northern Ireland is about one billion pounds a year. The direct costs of policing “illegal parading and violence as a result of failed political leadership” in recent weeks is fifteen million pounds—“more than the childcare budget for Northern Ireland for four years.”
All this results in lost business and lost tourism revenue. Therefore, Lyttle said, “to be pro-economy you need to support a pro-Shared Future political party.”
Northern Ireland, Lyttle stressed, “needs a political party who will put forward a different approach than parties bound by politics of the past.” Alliance, he said, has the “vision, policies and people fit to match the aspirations of this community to live work and play together in a safe and vibrant society.”
Judith Cochrane, MLA for East Belfast, and member of the Assembly’s social development committee, with responsibility for housing policy, argued for a more robust plan to deal with shared housing.
Cochrane argued that because division impacts on all parts of life, preventing the economic transformation of Northern Ireland, building a shared future has to be the Assembly’s number one priority.
The residential sector in Northern Ireland is deeply divided with over 90 percent of public housing segregated along religious lines. Alliance’s For Everyone document, Cochrane said, highlights how changing the neighbourhoods in which people grow up could make inroads into building a truly shared future.
Segregation, she said, “results in all sorts of negative economic and social consequences such as loss of investment, paramilitary economy, and people less willing to use basic public services.” Worse, it interacts with other aspects of poverty to create pockets of multiple deprivation.
But segregation isn’t just confined to social housing. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland live in areas with people from a similar background.
Despite this, however, polls show consistent support for mixed housing, and that most people, including Housing Executive tenants, believe better relations would result from greater integration.
Cochrane highlighted a 2010 study which stated that integrated housing should be trumpeted as the key ingredient for a peaceful and prosperous future for Northern Ireland.
“Only a radical review of housing policy,” Cochrane argued, “can provide the practical tools for how to end sectarian division in housing all together.”
Cochrane noted that some good work has been undertaken by Housing Executive around shared housing, but lamented that it still states on its website that it respects the wishes of those that want to live in singe or mixed identity neighbourhoods. This, Cochrane said, “is simply not acceptable.”
“How exactly does the Housing Executive support those wishes for single identity neighbourhoods?” Cochrane asked. She challenged the seemingly innocent language of the Housing Executive by casting it in a different light. “Are we to take it that if people asked for a white only estate that the Housing Executive would support the wishes of people to live there? Of course not.”
“The perhaps innocent language of the Housing Executive fosters an acceptance of segregation and discrimination. And if it was applied to any other category of persons under section 75 it would be a matter of international disgrace.”
“All housing must be promoted and protected as mixed. Every house and area should be open to people irrespective of background. Nowhere should be off limits for anyone. And there can be no tolerance of anyone claiming control over territory through the use of flags.”
Cochrane criticised the Girdwood announcement and communicated the Alliance Party’s disappointment and anger over the decision, claiming an opportunity to do something truly different had been lost. The current proposal, she said, will perpetuate sectarian divisions.
“The key task is to ensure that people may live in and use an area freely without belonging to the numerically dominant resident group. The focus should be on making spaces more inclusive and welcoming and that means having a robust policy on flags, emblems, murals and paramilitary memorabilia.” Such policy, she reminded the conference, is included the For Everyone document.
To close, Cochrane argued that economic activity depends on a safe environment where no one is at risk. The normalisation of relations is crucial for investment and the attraction of talent to Northern Ireland. As part of this process, housing has a major role to play in bringing people together.
In his introduction of Trevor Lunn MLA, Lyttle cited polls which consistently demonstrate that there is around 70 percent support in Northern Ireland for integrated education. Indeed, a recent Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll from last week, cited by David Ford in his leader’s speech, indicates that 79% of respondents would support a request for their child’s school to become integrated.
Despite this, Lyttle said, a recent report from the University of Ulster shows that all parties except the Alliance Party refuse to prioritise integration.
Lunn, a member of the Assembly Education Committee, discussed the party’s plan for integrating education. He focused on two issues: first, the present state of the Educational and Skills Authority bill, which would set up a single authority for the administration of education, and second, integrated education.
The target date for royal ascent of the Education bill remains sometime during the summer. He noted that problems still exist, such as the place of the voluntary grammar schools, and their fears of levels of autonomy and independence. But Lunn insisted such issues could be resolved, and reassured grammar schools they have nothing to fear, acknowledging that they provide quality education.
Moving onto integrated education, Lunn stressed that Alliance supports a fully shared society. Fundamental to that vision is the idea that children in Northern Ireland, regardless of background, should be educated together, and not in separate school systems. The Integrated movement, he said, has carried the flag on this issue for more than forty years, and said that Alliance will continue to help their work move forward.
Challenging Sinn Féin Education Minister, John O’Dowd, Lunn asked, in the light of the Belfast Telegraph poll, “How can he expect the controlled sector and the maintained sector to sort out our school estate without integration being fully considered as a default option?”
By 2020, Alliance would like to see twenty percent of children in Northern Ireland being educated in integrated schools. Lunn said Alliance will work to make the transformation process of those schools wishing to become integrated schools streamlined and easier.
If the Education Minister would “acknowledge his obligations under statute to encourage and facilitate integration,” Northern Ireland would reach that target easily.
Last up on the panel, following a long and loud round of applause, was Councillor Maire Hendron, Chair of the Belfast City Council Good Relations Partnership, who led the Alliance Party Belfast City Council group in their support of flying the Union Flag on designated days only.
Hendron defended the Alliance position on designated days, pointing to the fact that they took on board the legal advice presented to them, and studied the recommendations of the Equality Commission, who performed two equality impact assessments in 2002 and 2011. On each occasion the recommendation was that the Union Flag should only be flown on designated days.
Those designated days are determined by the College of Arms, the United Kingdom’s advisory body on national symbols.
“In spite of a sustained campaign of intimidation in the media, mainly instigated by the DUP, at no time did we deviate from what was the Alliance Party policy from 2002.”
She accused the UUP and the DUP of deliberately fanning the flames of fear and anger in selected loyalist areas through the distribution of 40,000 deliberately-misleading flyers which accuse Alliance of wanting to “rip down” the national flag. The actions of the two main Unionist parties, she claimed, inevitably led to the outbreak of flag protests on the streets of Northern Ireland.
Hendron defended the democratic process by which the decision was agreed and criticised Peter Robinson for his comments condemning Alliance’s position as wrong.
“A sustainable flags and emblems policy which recognises the constitutional status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and which respects the diversity of our divided society is urgently required for all of Northern Ireland.”
“It is imperative that the Executive exhibits badly-needed leadership in this matter to ensure that a policy is agreed prior to the implementation of RPA [Review of Public Administration, aka “Super Councils”] in 2015. Otherwise we are in for a very, very difficult time, if every council across the country can decided what they want to do.”
Despite such tensions and difficulties, she spoke of improvements in relations among the different parties at City Hall, and highlighted positive changes soon to be made in Belfast’s tourism and business sectors.
*Many thanks to Alan in Belfast from Slugger for the Audio from the conference.