For years our politicians knew about little more than throwing shapes for their electorate. Some, more than others, took the time to study and then work the system to bring out the vote. In the case of Sinn Fein they have an impressive record of democratically engaging communities whose equivalent elsewhere simply do not vote.
But as Peter Geoghegan points out in his Irish Times Op Ed today, talking the talk is not the same as walking the walk. OFMDFM commissioned a consultation on its own Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) report which was sat on for some 10 months; ie, from before the Assembly election, all through the summer and then quietly lodged on the OFMDFM website on 25th October this year.
Geogehegan picks a useful binary, Scotland first under Jack McConnell and latterly the more dynamic Alex Salmond:
Since 2006, Scotland is the only place on the planet that possesses both a sizeable Irish Catholic and Protestant population and an anti-sectarian strategy. The contrast with the situation across the Irish Sea could not be starker.
Northern Ireland’s devolved government has no anti-sectarianism policy. More than 13 years since the signing of the Belfast Agreement and the ending of a conflict that cost more than 3,000 lives, Stormont has yet to agree a formal strategy to address the sectarian division.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Under the 1998 Northern Ireland Act the Executive must formulate a policy for encouraging “good relations”.
Ayrshire MP Des Browne’s Shared Future initiative was designed to fulfill that promise, but it was junked as the work of a direct rule minister (though Browne’s family connections with ‘here’ gave him a sharper insight to the problems than most direct rulers. But it was dumped in favour of a more indigenous deal:
Finally put out for public consultation last year as a condition for the devolution of policing and justice powers, the document is lightweight, insubstantial and implausible. Responses, which can be accessed on the web, are almost universally critical, accusing the strategy of relying on an unhelpful, static view of identity, failing to build on existing work and lacking a clear vision for moving beyond sectarianism.
Forget cordite, the whiff coming off the Stormont administration smells more like bromide. Time and again First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness reiterate their commitment to working together to improve Northern Ireland’s lot, but the results belie the rhetoric.
It’s an old Alliance poster slogan to suggest that maintaining sectarianism reuires duplication and that an ‘Equality overall’ policy costs a lot of money to run. According to Geoghegan Alastair Adair of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors suggest these costs may total at about £1.5 billion. Ouch!
The problem seems to be a lack of political will. But the problems that were to be tackled from 1998 onwards still abide, without an agreed approach from Stormont Castle (where OFMDFM are headquartered):
Belfast is still by far the most residentially segregated city in Europe. This legacy of division won’t disappear of its own accord.
The Executive needs to take a leaf out of Scotland’s anti-sectarian book. Tackling Northern Ireland’s shame requires a robust, thought-out policy with coherent objectives and political will.