FMDFM’s consultation paper A Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration reads like a plan for radical transforming action. Not a bit like “ motherhood and apple pie” if I may beg to differ from the esteemed Mark Devenport. On the face of it, the programme cuts across what most local parties stand for and the very dynamic of local politics. Are we to take it seriously? How can we not, for there it is, boldly in print and signed by both of them?
Peter and Martin actually embrace the much derided results of Life and Times surveys to conclude unquestioningly that hefty majorities support integration in housing, the workplace and education. They go on to pledge their joint commitment to a non sectarian nirvana .You don’t believe me? Take a look at the commitments, especially the long term ones.
- Encouraging shared neighbourhoods;
- Reducing and eventually eliminating segregated services;
- Tackling the multiple social issues effecting and entrenching community separation, exclusion and hate; and
- Cultural Identity, including issues around flags and emblems, murals, bonfires, cultural expression, language and popular protest.
Why don’t they shout this from the rooftops? Where to date has been the promised “leadership?” But perhaps we’re too hard on them. Too much harping on the Ardoyne riots, not enough attention paid to the overall lessening of tension in so many unsung local initiatives? So let’s give the Executive marks for shared spaces, and the gradual grinding engagement over the hot spots.
It’s when it comes to legislative action, like the inept Public Assemblies Bill that the weaknesses crowd in .
“Reducing and eventually eliminating segregated services?” Not in education, with the likes of Caitriona and Sammy around, we won’t. If they really mean integration, where is the bold plan to eliminate the vestiges of clerical control over schools and substitute a programme for specialist schools, leaving it to parents to opt for academic or vocational/technological secondary schools, with a Protestant, Catholic, secular or integrated ethos of their choice?
Yes, we know there’s a gap between vision and reality. How long is long term? But they’re right to warn we’ll have to do more for less. The programme wrestles with the governance of delivering it all – through the Community Relations Council, partnerships or should we try a new quango? You’d think they were planning a new regime for China instead of our tiny area. We need fewer bodies not more, but with more power.
In truth politicians haven’t got enough responsibility. They are hemmed in by section 75 (thank goodness) and so much is farmed out to quangos. And when people haven’t got enough to do, they make mischief. For my money, the Executive should take direct charge, the Assembly should scrutinise and the CRC should act as the watchdog. It’s called government.
By now, you may have spotted the fallacy at the heart of the programme that may explain the suspicious ease with which it’s accepted. “Cohesion” etc is about community relations. And to most politicians, community relations are an add-on, a marginal element rather than the driving force behind all policy. Community relations are too narrowly defined. There’s not the slightest hint of irony in politicians defined by sectarian difference championing the choice of integration, no sign that the division they talk about so eloquently might have something to to with the way they conduct politics.
Until the parties redefine what politics is about , the cohesion document is so many fine words. Do we really want a shared or a separate but equal future? Are Peter and Martin pretending to believe we want the former when they really believe we’ve settled for the latter? If the former, it has to mean much more than truces at interfaces and nicely paved town centres. It has to challenge the very basis of political parties and their behaviour. Why not spell out what that means for them in the consultation?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London