The concept of a polarisation of politics is one often talked about in today’s society, and in Brexit Britain and Trump’s America and so many other cases it is easy to see evidence of this polarisation. People follow different narratives that offer different (or alternative) facts and there is a demonised view of the motives of politicians that you do not agree with. In Northern Ireland polarisation of politics is nothing new to us, and it continues to this day and remains a problem that needs to be addressed. However, polarised politics should not be mistaken for the separate issue of sectarian hatred and divisions that used to exist in our society that transcended politics and warranted ‘cross community’ projects. The fact that our politics remains so divided does not tell the whole story of how far Northern Ireland has come in learning to become a much more inclusive society. So while there are still stark political disagreements the ‘bogyman’ image of the other side and sectarian hatred that once existed is simply no longer present, especially amongst young people whom cross community projects are usually aimed at.
A combination of a vastly reduced stigma and people being more connected than ever due to social media has meant that young people in Northern Ireland have looked outside the normal circles of school and sports groups which may still be segregated when making friends. The power of snapchat or a Belfast nightclub against the backdrop of already changed attitudes have done far more to bring people together than the artificial setting of a cross community workshop. The idea that young people are now doing anything special by being in the same room as their peers of a different religion is now so outdated that it is absurd and even laughable. When young people are forced to take part in something ‘cross community’ the forced nature of the interaction does more to highlight differences than to extinguish them.
Cross community projects were once a tool for reducing sectarian violence. While violence is still present in Northern Ireland the reasons have changed. Take for example the riots that stemmed from the decision to only fly the flag at Belfast Hall on certain days. The violence that came from that was due to pressure groups in Northern Ireland holding a misguided view on how to apply pressure on politicians and make their voices heard, not sectarian hatred. The clashes that happened were mainly between police and protestors, not Catholics and Protestants. Another example is the recent paramilitary shootings. The paramilitaries’ past is deeply rooted in the troubles but they now operate as organised crime rings and where they are allowed to function they will engage in infighting that leads to deaths, once again a problem but not one that can be fixed by cross community projects.
One area that Northern Ireland has seen a rise of violence caused by irrational hatred is attacks against immigrant families, an issue that has been comparatively ignored when compared to our obsession with our own past conflicts.
Cross Community Projects are outdated and a waste of time. More productive projects might focus on teaching young people how to properly engage with politics or to be more accepting of those coming from outside Northern Ireland. There is still work to be done to move Northern Ireland forward but in order to do so we must first recognise the progress that has already been made and stop pushing against already open doors.
Finn Purdy is an A-level politics student in Belfast with a particular interest in local issues. Twitter – @FinnPurdy