Sectarian divisions cost more than money…

David Gordon has managed to get a hold of the Deloitte report ‘Research into the financial cost of the Northern Ireland divide’, surrently being ‘sat on’ by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Apparently the new devolved adminstration is trying to put some clear blue/green water between themselves and the previous Direct Rule adminstration. Below, Michael Wardlow CEO of NICIE argues that the cost of maintaining separate futures, particularly in education, is avoiding Northern Ireland’s overwhelming need: ie to build trust within and between its two main communities. Sinn Fein, for one, were not convinced, seeing ‘Shared Future’ in direct opposition to ‘Equality’. By Michael Wardlow

The recent report, ‘Research into the financial cost of the Northern Ireland Divide’ drawn up by Deloitte reveals that £1.5bn from the public purse is spent annually to run a divided society. Although the economic implications are significant, the real cost of separation and division over the past 40 years must also be measured in terms of the lives lost, families devastated, opportunities missed, the thousands of young people we have exported, the businesses which have been destroyed, and perhaps most significantly, the damage to the fragile trust which existed between the people who represent what we call the “two traditions”.

The report, although commissioned by a previous administration, reflects a stark reality for which we are all culpable. There is no place for the culture of the bystander – a view which denies any personal responsibility for process of history, where we see this outcome as some one else’s fault.

We are all charged with moving our society ahead, and if the report indicates anything, it is that the future must be shared. We cannot accept any form of cultural apartheid, however neatly choreographed that may be. There is no longer any room for the notion of ‘equal but separate’ being acceptable. The future is not one in which we can work out allocations of schools, health provision or housing on a “one for you and one for me” basis. Hard decisions need to be taken based on real need.

We do not have £1.5bn to reinvest as the nature of government allocations means that the block of funding is mostly predetermined. We do, however, have the opportunity to ensure that the programme for government is predicated upon and audited against sharing over separation. We should only do apart what we cannot do better together. Why continue to accept that we need 165 additional school bus runs because of fear of what might happen if the two traditions, Catholics and Protestants, happen to be on the same bus at the same time? While not playing down the safety issues of this, it remains a fact that the pupils who are educated in 61 integrated schools in Northern Ireland are living proof that children from the different traditions can travel in harmony together on the same bus at the same time!

The report draws a series of tentative conclusions on education, including “greater collaboration across the schools sectors and consolidation within the schools estate” which, it suggests, could “result in savings”. This makes common and economic sense. Education provision needs to be based on community audits and area based planning in local areas involving all the education sectoral interests as recommended in the Strategic Review of Education by Sir George Bain. It is our view that this recommendation should also involve parents and not reside with the education stakeholders alone.

There is a gathering momentum threading its way through opinion polls that indicates that people in Northern Ireland are willing to share and want more sharing to take place between communities. The NI Life and Times Survey 2005 revealed that 79% of respondents, if they had the choice, would prefer to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood; 87% would prefer to work in a mixed religion workplace; and 61% would prefer a mixed religion school. Furthermore, a deliberative poll in Omagh conducted by three major Universities – Stanford University, USA; Queen’s University in Belfast; and the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in January 2007, clearly indicated that people want more sharing with 71% specifically stating that they would support integrated education.

In the recent elections, the Northern Ireland voters sent a clear message to our local politicians: they wanted our political parties to work together and share the collective responsibility to run the region. Since devolution, we have watched the politicians take a courageous lead at Stormont to develop a power sharing executive. However, building trust must also take place at local level, within and between local communities.

If the Deloitte report does anything at all, it should serve as a call to action.
All of us have been part of the past and all of us, in one way or another, whether as “actor” or “bystander”, have some responsibility for bringing us to where we are today. More importantly, however, is that all of us take one small step towards creating a society based on sharing and not predicated upon separation. It was in that way that the movement for integrated schools began and is maintained.

Michael Wardlow is Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education

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