Slow creep of apartheid and permafrost

Seán Farren spoke recently at an inter-party debate at a conference in Limavady called, What Shared Future?. He argues that the collective failure to implement the Belfast Agreement leaves Northern Ireland open to what at best will be a benign apartheid, and at worse running the risk of “future explosions”.By Seán Farren

Democracies everywhere face a similar challenge when it comes to accommodating diversity. The fundamental issue is that while a state recognises and respects differences in language and religion, for example, tension frequently exists between that goal and the need to create a sufficient degree of social cohesion such that people and their communities can commit to and participate in common political and civic institutions.

Here in Northern Ireland we hoped that our answer to this challenge was to be found in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement of 1998. And while we have failed to have it properly implemented I and my party believe that it still offers the best possible basis on which to resolve the tensions which arise from the diversities of allegiances, religious beliefs and political aspirations which exist among the people of Northern Ireland in the first instance, between the people of Ireland and, to a lesser extent, between the people of Ireland and Britain.

The agreement’s constitutional, institutional and what were termed its confidence building measures, i.e. human rights, police reform, prisoner releases, decommissioning of paramilitary arms, cultural rights etc., covered all of the contentious issues that have lain at the heart of our conflict.

The constitutional provisions are essentially beyond dispute except by a very few. Northern Ireland will retain its present status within the UK unless and until a majority vote for change.

It is likewise with the agreement’s provisions with respect to human rights, equality, cultural matters, police and judicial reform etc. I’m not saying that everything in these areas is perfect but the basis for moving forward is there and indeed much has already been achieved with respect to many.

But like many other agreements implementation of some provisions has proved extremely difficult, as difficult almost as achieving the agreement in the first place. Indeed the point has been reached that if we’re not willing to move more quickly than we have been over the past eight years, full implementation could well take as long as the troubles themselves.

Critical to that failure have been the conditions under which parties have felt they would participate in and then remain participants in the political institutions of the agreement.

I do not intend to offer any view on who or what has contributed to the suspension of those institutions but rather to focus my remarks on what I believe will be the consequences if the opportunity we are being promised to have in the next few weeks to restore those institutions is not availed of.

Failure will have its most serious consequences in the area of community relations. Failure will mean that at best a benign form of apartheid will exist here. At worst, the suspicions and hatreds underlying that apartheid will fester and smoulder risking future explosions of a greater or lesser sort.

We now live in a residentially more segregated society then ever before where much of our social life is carried on in highly segregated ghettos.

In such a divided society wearing the ‘wrong’ tee shirt or ‘wrong’ school uniform can provoke an attack sometimes with fatal consequences; the celebration of your team’s victory can provoke a riot if you choose to celebrate too near an interface area; buses carrying people to some event or other can be attacked simply by passing close to the ‘wrong’ ghetto; even centre city places of entertainment have become marked as ‘orange’ or ‘green’; investments and developments in one community are jealously compared to those in the ‘other’. To those examples the perennial problem of what can happen when parades are organised to pass through or close to locations claimed by the ‘other’ community.

Overcoming and eliminating such manifestations of our sectarian divisions will take time but tackling them in a concerted way is an almost impossible task in the absence of shared political institutions. If political representatives cannot be seen to be working together but instead are seen as perpetually at loggerheads with each other, there are no shared examples of how positive relationships can be developed across the North’s community divide. People may now enjoy the same rights but there is little or no sense of social cohesion or mutual responsibility.
While it is true that in Northern Ireland civic society provides some opportunities for the joint participation of people from all sides, there are large sections of civic society in which participants are mono-cultural either Catholic or Protestant, Unionist or Nationalist. Workplaces have undoubtedly become increasingly more mixed, a situation most marked in the public service. But workplaces bring people together essentially on a functional basis and so tasks and discussions are mainly work focused.

Furthermore, workplace neutrality from community identity has been emphasised and legislated for as necessary for peaceful and safe environments. Hence the strict control exercised over the display of emblems, flags etc. However, this neutrality also inhibits the normal exchanges about politics and events one would expect between workplace colleagues.

Outside the workplace where people come together for social and recreational purposes, the same mixing of people from different communities does not take place to any significant degree. Churches, schools and sporting organisations have long been where this single identity development has been most evident. Now these networks have been joined by many others.

Over the period of the troubles and since a wide network of community based organisations have come into existence, a high proportion of which are mono-cultural. While many form links with organisations in the ‘other’ community, or with similar groups in the South, their single identity focus is an over-riding characteristic.

Cultural organisations which exist to promote the cultural heritage of our communities, the Irish language and Ulster-Scots movements and their associated interests of music and the other arts, are enjoying considerable renewal and growth. Such commendable renewal and growth are inherent to acknowledging the diversity of our society. But despite the desire to make our cultural traditions open to all, they remain overwhelmingly linked to one community or the other.

In a society where shared spaces are few and many of these are very fragile, such developments require a wider context in which the policies and support underpinning them are debated and determined in common. Otherwise the pillars of apartheid will continue to grow side by side with no more than very tenuous links between them.

In the coming weeks we are promised a fresh initiative by both governments. The aim is to break the current logjam in ways that hopefully will restore the Assembly and all of the other key institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, e.g. the North-South and the British-Irish councils. It will be in these institutions and in the new arrangements for policing that political leadership will be provided and the healing process which our society so desperately needs will be able to develop.

Responses will be anxiously awaited to see how positive politicians will prove themselves to be. Demands that one party or the other show itself to be democratically whiter than white, or that support for the police must await the rooting out of the last alleged colluding officer, will be seen for what they are – cynical demands designed to avoid entering partnership arrangements and committing to working with others for the greater good of all.

Unless we show ourselves willing to respond positively and provide the leadership which our society requires we will condemn our people to a long period of moving increasingly and ever more rapidly apart. The permafrost of apartheid will truly have gripped the North.