There’s an interesting feature in the Belfast Telegraph signed by five Protestant Ministers. It lays out their hopes and vision for what needs to happen in the areas targeted by the £33 million pounds announced last week by the Minister for Social Development. It is probably significant that this call comes from an unquestionably independent strand of civil society, the Churches.
The Minister spoke of a ‘poverty of aspiration’. Government cannot change that on its own. So in our public debate, we need to look beyond the immediate financial pressures and the deep underlying problems that seem to be permanently with us.
What do we aspire to see happen over the longer term? What might be some of the marks of a healthy, confident and happy community 10 years from now? To see hope and to describe a better future is an essential part of making the most of whatever opportunities are available.
We are not prophets, but here are some of our own aspirations for North and West Belfast:
* A place where culture and tradition are celebrated happily and without any sense of threat; where celebrating the past is not an end in itself, but provides a spur to build great things for our grandchildren to celebrate from our generation; where festival is both normal and hugely attractive.
* A place where the very best possible education is sought by, and provided for, both children and adults. The Minister drew attention to the gruesome fact that ‘of the 15 wards performing worst in educational achievement, 13 are predominantly Protestant’ (and most are in the greater Belfast area). Historically, the churches were at the forefront of providing public education, and there is a new and awesome responsibility on them to argue publicly, as well as privately, for the very best education to be provided in our areas.
* A place where young people are valued, but also seriously challenged to become the movers and shakers of the future; not written off or demonised as a generation, but given all the encouragement and support they need to become active participating citizens, and where their gifts and talents are channelled into highly productive and satisfying work.
* A place where senior citizens both feel safe and are safe in their own homes; where their wisdom and their company is valued; where younger neighbours help willingly, and inter-generational contact is normal.
* A place where family life is important – and where both parents care for both daughters and sons; where the rates of teenage pregnancy fall, and the rates of marriage rise; where conversation and encouragement matter more at home than cable television and the rented DVD.
* A place where those with disabilities and those who are vulnerable make their own contribution to the life of the community, and are properly cared for in that community.
* A place where petty crime is not accepted as part of the landscape, and where criminality is rejected and unprofitable.
* A place where people want to live right throughout their lives, because the housing is excellent; the education is first rate; transport is straightforward; community life is vibrant; and the streets are safe 24 hours a day.
* A place where government departments and public agencies are properly represented on the ground by people who care about its future, and are themselves prepared to live in it as well as work there.