Soapbox: Leadership that can join the dots even if others cannot

Peter OSBORNE (Chair, Community Relations Council) @OsborneTweets. Conference: One Place - Many People, Community Relations Council, Stormont Hotel, Belfast, Northern Ireland. @NI_CRC #CRWeek15

Peter Osborne has been involved in good relations, cohesion, community enablement and political engagement for over 20 years. He chairs the Community Relations Council and the regional board of Remembering Srebrenica. You can follow him on @OsborneTweets.

There is no inevitable forward flow to the peace process. It is work in progress that needs careful nurturing. It cannot be taken for granted.

We must make progress when we can, consolidate when needed and hunker down when things get bleak. The way things are shaping up with the institutions not yet re-established, trust in politics at an all-time low, and with the added prospect of a hard Brexit, Northern Ireland may be in for a rocky 2020s. Resilience is what may be needed.

Of course, we have come a long way in the last 20 years. Yet we are still a society as divided and segregated as ever.

So, if the worse happens are we ready to keep pushing forward? Is this society capable of rallying together in large numbers across the community from Bogside to Ballybeen, Ballymena to Belleek, to reclaim the peace in the name of all?

The answer is we don’t know. Sadly, that is no surprise. We certainly do know one thing – that we haven’t made the advances expected 20 years ago.

Despite the momentous and inspiring events of 1998 there have been plenty of sticking plasters applied to politics and society, and precious little significant structural reform that tackles the cause of division and creates a sea change in attitudes and behaviour.

Why should we be surprised, when young people who are not of the conflict generation still experience separate lives in schools, youth clubs, the sports they play or where they socialise; and those same young people also hear the robust not-for-compromise ancestral voices that their parents and grandparents heard so shrilly?

Why would we be surprised that many young people still leave never to return, frustrated by lack of change?

Why should we be surprised when some of them, living in still segregated communities attending still segregated schools, believe it when they are told the “other side” is winning and they are losing?

In the 8-10 years of the last Assembly terms and the current one the Northern Ireland Executive committed to build 487 units as part of their shared housing commitment – when in the same period up to 60,000 housing units will be built overall. It’s just not enough.

Victims still see legacy issues pollute politics and believe they are paying the price of the peace process that the rest of us enjoy. It’s not fair.

The political institutions seem incapable of healing fractured relationships across the community. It’s not inspiring.

There is still a segregated education system with no real sign of urgency to change. Even teacher training is segregated – can adults really not be trusted to train together to teach essentially the same curriculum? It’s not courageous. It reinforces sectional interest.

Segregation is a bankrupt concept – it is socially bankrupt, morally bankrupt and by publicly subsiding division it is helping to bankrupt our finances.

Failing to tackle the structural issues that cause division in the first place is a shameful indictment of policy making of this generation – a lost opportunity in what should have been the most creative phase of the peace process.

So, to those politicians recently elected, when the Assembly gets back to work again, justify your salary and legislate to drive the structural changes that will end segregation forever and reinforce peace, hopefully forever.

Visionary and courageous leadership is needed – genuinely civic not sectional leadership.

That leadership has been very evident in civil society in recent years. It has been evident within local communities and in the business and faith sectors.

These leaders in civil society are often volunteers, who do what they do because it is right and they want to contribute.

Because they see the need for leadership for the sake of their children and children’s children.

Because they can join the dots even if others cannot.


  • harmlessdrudge

    Who could disagree with any of this?

    Currently in the Republic the govt funds teachers’ salaries, including for faith schools that discriminate in favour of co-religionists. As 16% of the population is from the EU, and there’s more besides (v 4% in the UK and presumably less in N.I.), this means a growing number of children are suffering at best inconvenience and at worst discrimination as they cannot avail of schools in areas in which they live. There is broad and increasing popular support for removing state support from schools that are not open to all. It will happen soon (and should have happened already).

    When it does, it will make N.I. more out of step with the rest of the country. It is entitled to be, of course. But the fastest growing section of society on both sides of the border is those of no religion. At some point that minority needs to become more assertive and it will be everybody’s interests when it does and when religion is an extra-curricular matter. I’d like to think it’s inevitable. It will then be something else we have in common, throughout Ireland.