Seize the opportunities opened up by the Good Relations strategy. Don’t write it off

Mick’s last post is probably representative of the muted reaction to the long awaited initiative. All the same I’d rather take a more positive approach and – yes!-  begin with accepting it at face value.   So I’m asking: are critics justified in  writing off  already the Cohesion Sharing and Integration statement ( not yet a strategy and not actually labelled CSI)?  Do we pin all the blame for its gaps and evasions on Peter Robinson and the DUP and Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein?  Let’s start with where we are rather than where we’d like to be. What can be said in its favour?

This statement carries more significant implications than frustrated critics realise.  “Sharing” across the community rather than “benign apartheid “ is now  on the public agenda. It will not be removed.  Robin Wilson has given a depressing account of how what began as a paper by the civil servant Jeremy  Harbinson   was kicked into touch for over a decade. This Assembly briefing note written in 2009 shows how policy thinking  evolved and stalled.   But now at last, albeit in diluted form, a version of a Shared Future  has  become Executive policy. “Reconciliation” is restored as a policy aim, where once “cohesion” thought by some to be weaker and code for continuing separation, was preferred.  Momentum will not stop here, whether the parties realise it yet or not.  The challenge now is how to build upon it rather than sit back complaining about the leading parties. The future is too important to be left to the politicians. The opportunity  should not be cynically thrown away.

Don’t let’s jump the gun.  FMDFM are promising a “good relations strategy” within the next 2 weeks. Several test beds such as 10 shared education campuses are already planned and proposals for 10 shared neighbourhood developments will be brought forward within the next two months.  No doubt as much public spending as possible will be branded as  Good Relations. And why not?

A new “independently chaired” working group of the five parties is to be formed  to tackle the most politically toxic issues. The smaller parties may resist entanglement and suspect an alibi against failure but how can they reasonably refuse participation?  A strong independent chair who issues periodic progress reports would be a hedge against making political mischief. This appointment is crucial.

When the new working group gets down to business, dealing with the past should be left out of it. Agreement here is not foreseeable nor is it politically necessary. No political party with a direct stake has any interest in  pursuing full disclosure and a comprehensive approach, whatever the public posturing. Cold cases remain matters for prosecutors and the courts.  It’s unwise to work to Willie Frazer’s agenda.  On the other hand a deal on flags is and a new agreement on parades are mutually dependent. The leaked Cardiff meeting on parades and talk of a deal on flags looks like choreography to add early substance to the CSI statement. We must hope so. Progress here would give the biggest boost to morale for years.

The challenge to make further progress is now open to non- party critics among the elite too. Perhaps inhibited by being ultimately employees of the Executive, they have pulled their punches, notably over the great gap of education.  It isn’t good enough to produce a set of reports and shrug when they’re sidelined. If it’s true that integration could make much faster progress than the school sharing programme which preserves existing structures, what is there to hold them back now?

The Assembly members should now modify their jealous guardianship of the social agenda and throw  it open. For the life of me I don’t see how this presents any serious political threat to any of parties.  Such a change of approach is clearly implied by the   FMDFM statement. They may be realising at last that too tight coalition management means that in the end, they will be landed with all the blame for failure. A more open process means they can share the credit for any success.

Engagements and consultation can expose once and for all the scope of public demand for greater integration and how it could be brought about with consent. Wider participation will be essential anyway to monitor the success of integrationist experiments and take lessons from them. Plainly this cannot be done  only by the monolithic Education Board, much less by  DUP/SF  diktat. The replacement of the Housing Executive may suggest more localist models for education too.

The new CSI strategy presents challenges to unions, lobbies, academics and other interest groups who are to put it mildly, disgruntled with the political system.  This stand- off is mutually destructive and cannot go on.  Civil society is essential  to make any social  policy flourish, none more so than a good relations policy for this stubbornly divided society. For instance, integration experiments in housing will need a clear rationale and regulation.   On what criteria?

I have been unable to discover a clear vision of what CSI finally entails. Is it about cohesion (which might mean retaining quite a lot of separation) , sharing ( too ad hoc and limited?) or integration ( secular or avowedly Christian?).  Without academic selection, how can the dilution of schools like Belfast Inst or Lumen Christi be avoided  while appalling low standards elsewhere are raised ? Do people want the remains of institutional clerical control and influence to be removed or retained? Is this community fated to be defined for ever in two rival political cultures?  Is it really true that public opinion is well ahead of the politicians?  The time has come to find answers to the hard questions. FMDFM have not made too bad a start.



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  • GavBelfast

    Cutting through the flannel and flim-flam – from Thursday and in stuff written about it since – the abiding emotion remains one of disgust at the sheer audacity of that pair who have, variously, whipped-up people and then seek adulation for gimmickry and window-dressing.

    Of course, apart from their own holier-than-thou attitude to criticism, from Robinson in particular, political pygmies in their own parties, and cheerleaders from a range of interested parties, such as the endless community groups and ghetto-dependent tourism-types.

    Well-meaning and occasionally useful idiots, within and without a media that is generally far, far too pliant towards this do-little pair, also play their part in this pantomime.

    Not falling for ANY of it, here or anywhere else.

  • Brian Walker

    So Gav, they’re setting up targets to fail? Why should they bother?

  • Harbison Report, January 2002 [pdf file]:

    Acknowledgement of the problem: acceptance that the issue of dysfunctional relationships between communities in Northern Ireland is a major and continuing problem facing society and that divisions are the manifestation of deeply rooted mistrust and suspicion which extend into the core patterns and structures of relationships at all levels in Northern Ireland.

    Nothing to do with trust or suspicion IMO but all to do with two opposing constitutional aspirations.

  • Devil Eire

    …they’re setting up targets to fail? Why should they bother?

    The donkeys have caught sight of the carrot.

    “These proposals come after the Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers linked a major British government financial package for Northern Ireland to the Northern Executive making progress on improving community relations. While Mr Robinson said there was no relationship between yesterday’s announcement and Ms Villiers’s comments, he added that any additional financial support would be welcomed.”

    Perhaps they think a feint in the right direction will net them the prize?

  • Brian Walker

    Are above comments really the whole story?

    Do you actually the “two constitutional aspirations” define soclety completely? So you hate/shun/refuse to deal with the other side? Is life really like that?

    Devil Eire, so it’s all about how to spend British bribes is it? What happens after they’re spent?

  • Brian, the constitutional aspirations very much define the political realm as you can see from voting patterns; it’s more about ‘getting one over’ on themuns than about hating/shunning/refusing to deal; it’s also a natural outworking of the 1998 Agreement.

    The following from the 2002 report sounds promising until you look at the cherry-picking:

    The vision as articulated in the Programme for Government was overwhelmingly endorsed:

    “that Northern Ireland should become a peaceful, inclusive, prosperous, stable and fair society, firmly founded on the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust with the protection and vindication of human rights for all”

    Unionist ‘reconciliation’ is set in UK context; nationalist ‘reconciliation’ in a UI one.

    Moyle District Council has had a good relations strategy since 1991 – allegedly – yet the last time I was there back in December it was like a bear-pit; the members also went into committee when the topic I went along to hear about was being discussed 🙂

  • Brian Walker

    nevin .. ” define the political realm ” yes, you’ve said it. but all of life and society? The contention is that the realm badly needs to open up more to society. And so I argue for people to take part and not sit back rumbling about the past the whole time.. All those young people, do we really want them to be clones of their forebears?
    There are political opportunities here inside and beyond the structures.

    C’mon shake it up!

  • Zig70

    So after all the bad blood over flegs and parades, it’s now happy families. Then the next news item is Obama’s coming. Smile for the cameras everyone.
    ‘So what!’
    That’s what the electorate have been saying in increasing numbers.

  • tacapall

    “So after all the bad blood over flegs and parades, it’s now happy families”

    Well I suppose that would be true if you brushed under the carpet the fact that some elements of unionism and loyalism simply cannot refrain from being the sectarian bigots that they are. I can imagine the uproar from the unionist community if a young protestant girl and her catholic friends were subjected to similar treatment on the Falls Road by paramilitaries aligned to a political party that enjoys the hand of friendship from Sinn Fein.

  • “The challenge to make further progress is now open to non- party critics among the elite too.”

    Before I do any ‘shaking’, Brian, can you elaborate a little on what you mean by ‘the elite’?

  • Brian Walker

    elite is a term to cover influential professionals in civil society. A bit nerdy I know but clear enough

  • aquifer

    Robinson’s catastrophic and unapologetic treatment of the flags issue, Sinn Fein’s promotion of cultural apartheid over a shared NI state, and the way they both exclude other parties, entitles us to expect the worst, though what has been written tries hard not to offend.

    Though what is government funding now?

    Bigger sectarian schools will lead to more residential areas with one group dominant. This sharing lessons bunkum is just to take the bad look off rule by Rome. Sorry if the term has too much historic resonance, but the hierarchy have interests to declare, interests in achieving high rates of church attendance, recruitment of recent immigrants, and increasing donations to keep the whole shebang solvent.

    Lets wait until the Tsunami of welfare reform hits. Will people remember what a Labour Party is for, or wave flags and blame the other side?

    Peter’s weapon of mass distraction is already unfurled.

  • Brian Walker

    well, Peter has a lot of to do to lift the weight of cynicism. What’s wrong with so much comment is how it pins all responsibility onto the political leaderships.
    The coalition is a lowest common denominator. The main parties are not as monolithic as they sometimes appear. The DUP’s writ failed to run in Ballymacarett. SF seems relatively stronger although they have failed to see off the dissident republicans. The early belief that both parties couldn’t be outflanked turns out to be not entirely valid.

    Both need to consolidate within before they make much progress together.

    That’s why both are open to external pressure as never before over shared future policies. The governments have spotted this. So should have the keyboard critics.

  • I like this George Bernard Shaw observation: “The power of accurate observation is often called cynicism, by those who don’t have it”.

    The elites of London and Dublin constructed the 1998 Agreement and the legislation and modifications that followed; it’s hardly surprising that their efforts would reflect the wishes of their sponsors to contain the NI contagion to NI; local politicians with their divergent constitutional aspirations had limited scope to make a difference.

    How can the DUP and SF be expected to make progress together when not only are their goals opposing but the position of first minister is now awarded to the largest party? IMO the top requisites of a shared future strategy would be shared sovereignty and the merger of strands 2 and 3. Are London and Dublin prepared to grasp this nettle or will they attempt to pressure Peter and Martin to forsake their supporters?