Living further apart…

The SDLP‘s former Finance Minister, Sean Farren considers one of the problems that remains outside the remit of political negotiations and has been largely left for civil society to consider and worry away at – the polarisation of the two communities in Northern Ireland in both rural and urban areas. Here he draws on his experience of his own North Antrim constituency.By Sean Farren

From a community viewpoint most of our towns, villages and townlands are ghettoes, or consist of ghettoes in which our communities live apart.

Some this ghettoisation has been the product of earlier troubles, some of an understandable congregating by newcomers close to existing inhabitants of a similar background. In times of peace and of more relaxed community relations the reverse tendency emerged and a degree of inter-mixing of our communities occurred. This was most marked in the post-ww2 period until the mid-nineteen sixties.

However the recent thirty year period of communal conflict troubles reversed tendencies to create mixed communities. But with the ceasefires, the Good Friday agreement and other attempts to reach a political settlement it was not expected that communities would continue to drift apart. Unfortunately this is what continues to happen.

Some recent examples in North Antrim as elsewhere are the direct result of intimidation and harassment by people in one community against those in the other. Those responsible seem intent on creating a situation in which the whole of Northern Ireland consists of communities living apart, geographically and socially.

Attacks on homes, on halls, on schools and churches have contributed to this ghettoisation. So too has the flying of flags, behaviour at parades and protests by one group or another.

People in a community whose homes, halls and other property come under attack no longer feel welcome to stay in an area. They move out as soon as possible to where they feel safest – amongst their own, be these Catholic or Protestant, unionist or nationalist.

In moving out they not only lose their neighbours they bring their business with them. If Catholics are not welcome in an area they will withdraw and, as they go, they take with them their business with local traders, shops etc. Likewise if Protestants are unwelcome they too will withdraw support from local businesses.

Is this what we want to see happening everywhere? Do we want to live separately under separate flags only occasionally mixing with each other in ordinary every day events?

If so, all of our towns, our villages and townlands will soon be islands of separated communities. The results are not only children being educated separately, and churches attended separately, but we will not even meet people from the other community in the street. We will cease to know each other as neighbours across the community divide. No wonder then if we see each other as strangers and in some cases as enemies.

As someone from the nationalist community who wants to see all of the people of Ireland coming together in the common name of Irishman and Irish woman, this is not my vision for our society. Nor is it my vision for how the Good Friday Agreement’s aim of a totally peaceful and exclusively democratic society is to be achieved.

Marking out territory as ‘nationalist’ and using the Irish tricolour to taunt and provoke unionists just as unionists do in marking out territory with the Union Jack, will never create the conditions for unity. Nor will conditions for unity be created by showing a lack of respect for traditions associated with the unionist community. If there is to be place in a united Ireland for unionists, there must be respect for their traditions. Otherwise the idea of unity is a sham and will never be achieved.

The same is true for any agreement in the immediate future. Just as nationalists rightly demand respect for our traditions, so too unionists have the right to expect respect for theirs. These simple lessons must be learned by us all. Otherwise there will be no reconciliation and no real peace. At best an uneasy peace will exist in which we grow more and more apart rather then come together.

Of course there are many people from both communities and from our different churches who are involved in building bridges and doing their best to break down the barriers that exist between us. Many community organisations also deliberately set out to create opportunities for such contacts and do so in ways that are very successful in bringing people together. But bringing people of different traditions together is now something which has to be organised, not something that happens naturally. A sad reflection on a modern, twenty-first century society.

A future where we live in peace and at ease beside and amongst each other, whatever our community background, whatever our religion, our colour or our political affiliation should be our common goal. Otherwise we perpetuate division and sow the seeds for future conflict. Let’s hope our community, church and political leaders will rise to the challenge.