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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