This past week, one of the local students enrolled in the Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation where I teach commented that the “Together: Building a United Community” document had not generated much public debate.
Of course, the document did lay out the commitment to establish all-party talks on flags, parades and dealing with the past – which has now manifested in the Haas Talks. And there was an initial flurry of media attention around the idea that the peace walls would all come down within the next ten years.
But beyond that, there has been little discussion of the content of the document and especially, how it has been received by practitioners working on the ground – even in those areas that are supposed to be taking down their peace walls.
On Saturday, a panel discussion on ‘Towards a United Community?’, held just before the AGM of Platform for Change, went some way towards getting those voices in the public domain. The panel featured Katie Hanlon from the Ballynafeigh Community Development Association, Jean Brown of the Suffolk/Lenadoon Interface Group, Alan McBride from the WAVE Trauma Centre, and Michael Boyd of the Irish Football Association.
Across the board, the panellists were relieved that after the travails of the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration document, a new document had been produced.
But panellists, and those in the audience participating in the wider discussion, lamented that the document lacked newness, freshness, and an inspiring vision – and seemed to have been drafted with very little consultation with those working in community groups.
For them, the document was a curious mix of trying what had been done before (one person compared it to reviving the ACE schemes), while failing to recognise ‘good practice’ models that had emerged in more recent years.
It was also pointed out that the document includes no indication of how its plans are to be resourced, and this in a context where funding is running out and ‘community organisations are dying on the ground.’
As all of the panellists have been involved in community work for the better part of two decades, some wondered if their past work was considered of any value at all. They worried that the progress they had made was not valued, and that the lessons they had learned and the cross-community relationships they had built would simply be forgotten – making the goal of a ‘united community’ even more difficult to reach.
It was perhaps inevitable that the issue of ‘political leadership’ was raised, with one person pointing out that those who had framed the policy ‘have no experience of actually sharing anything.’
It does seem that politicians continue to set a negative example through combative language, and ramping up rather than quietening down tensions around parades, flags and commemorations.
The comparative study of peace processes emphasises the importance of political ‘choreography,’ meaning that politicians may act in a certain way when speaking to different ‘publics’, especially ‘hardline’ audiences, than they do in behind doors negotiations. Even so, one of the key questions raised was whether our politics can get to a point beyond this sort of choreography – assuming there is an element of choreography involved. We of course cannot always be certain of this. But as one speaker said,
‘When politicians treat each other so badly (in public), it gives people in my community permission not to engage the other.’
Others asked if in the absence of inspiring leadership from political representatives, was there any hope it could emerge from within civil society? Community work is sensitive and fragile and may at times require anonymity. That’s one of the difficulties of spreading gains made ‘on the ground’ in local areas throughout the rest of the society.
Community groups often struggle to be heard – as the feeling of exclusion from the ‘Together: Building a United Community’ process attests. But models of good relationships developed within civil society could go some way towards softening the language of public debate and give others ‘permission’ to see the future in a different light.