Statement by the First and deputy First Minister
“As our first move in implementing our new strategy “Together: building a United Community “ we are delivering a political bombshell. We solemnly declare that, following the precedent set by the former IRA which made stable power sharing possible, we intend as soon as possible to dismantle our respective parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein. We call on the other parties to do the same and join us in forming new centre left –centre right groupings which will in time become new parties, all bearing the common character of Northern Ireland First and leaving the nationality question to the People. Tomorrow we will submit our plan for a voluntary cross community system of government with provision for an Opposition to the Assembly, where we are confident of winning overwhelming support. We will then call on Westminster with the support of all parties in the Dail to pass the necessary transforming legislation as soon as possible.”
Ahhh dream on. Keeping in tune with my last blog post on the subject which went down like a lead balloon I don’t want to be cynical. There is enough of that out there without me adding to it. We have nothing to be cynical about more than cynicism itself.
There is much to commend about the new United Community strategy, now that it has finally emerged. But questions follow the headlines straight away.
“Good relations” is added to “Equality” as a principal aim of government. But good relations cannot be legislated for in the same way as equality. How then can they be created? How substantial are the new incentives and how robust the mechanisms ? Top down to grass roots? Which grass roots?
“We are committed to:
• Establishing ten new shared education campuses;
• Getting 10,000 young people, not in education, employment or training, a place on the new United Youth volunteering programme;
• Establishing ten new shared housing schemes;
• Developing four urban village schemes;
• Developing a significant programme of cross-community sporting events;
• Removing interface barriers by 2023; and
• Pilot 100 shared summer schools by 2015
All very commendable and in parts even bold. But apart from the aspiration (or is it commitment?) to remove the peace walls – ( how did they fasten on 10 years, why not 8 or even 12?) – these are experiments, not policy itself. Such as it is the policy is tentative. It pins hopes on organic development and is light in social engineering. This is a not altogether bad thing. But the bland acceptance of the sectarian and social divisions in education is a glaring omission, beyond the FMdFM’s political capacity to tackle and beyond them it seems, even to analyse in public.
“This an Executive Strategy which places responsibilities on all government departments”.
Is it really? Can it be so when the other parties were apparently excluded from devising it? Never mind the restive communities which so far are beyond the horizon. An all party strategy should be planned by all the parties. That is what is meant by a multi- party coalition.
“ For the purposes of this Strategy, sectarianism is defined as: threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour or attitudes towards a person by reason of that person’s religious belief or political opinion; or to an individual as a member of such a group..”
Yes yes yes. But as in my little fantasy above, you the leading parties are the epitome of sectarianism, the problem not the solution. How then can you make it wither away? Sectarianism is not an add-on, it is intrinsic to the system and culture. So you’re facing up to that fact are you?
“This Strategy is not about managing division or allowing our history of segregation to continue. We are committed to creating a new, united, reconciled and shared society and we believe the vision outlined in this Strategy highlights the ambition that we all share. Later sections of this document outline a clear mechanism for delivery that will enhance the accountability of government to the community and enable the community’s voice to be at the centre of strategic decision-making.”
Brave words. But how to flesh them out? What is the funding, how is it targeted and what are the sanctions for failure, at all levels including the ministerial. Is the reformed structure of local government fit for the purposes of delivery? Will the new councils be onside?
So must it be all smoke and mirrors? Emphatically not, if the communities can form implementation groups out of the community relations structures and the appalling communications gaps exposed by the flags crisis are filled.
The paper itself contains evidence for cautious optimism. It includes the familiar polling results favouring living together which shouldn’t be dismissed as reverse nimbyism – ( integrate in everybody’s back yard except mine) – and the researches of Ian Shuttleworth, presented to the Assembly and noted by the Economist. Housing segregation he found, is not as complete as feared and has even slightly moderated. Out of such blue patches, the sun starts to shine.
The political parties will have a nerve if they go on stoking sectarian embers while professing these ideals and passing judgment on everyone except themselves. At the very least the ridiculous Janus-like facing in opposite directions at once as so stop.
My snap verdict is: we will have to change society before we can change the government. I ask: are we really happy with that?
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