‘Transformative decisions on Northern Ireland have not been taken’, laments Peter Osborne

Peter OSBORNE (Community Relations Council). (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Northern Ireland is more than 20 years into a 50 year peace process, which is being held back because government here has failed to take the radical transformative steps that are required.  This is the view of Peter Osborne, the former chair of the Community Relations Council, in the latest Forward Together podcast.

Peter explains: “We are in a process that will last at least 50 years. Some people thought when the [Good Friday] agreement was signed, we had peace. We don’t. Some people thought it would take 10 or 20 years. It won’t. It will take generations and it will be at least 50 years. So 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, we are less than halfway through this process…. There are no quick fixes. But we also need to understand that it can go backwards as well as forwards. There is no inevitable forward flow to the peace in Northern Ireland and we are in a very serious situation.”

He continues: “Politics is really important, but it’s about more than politics. I think in 20 years since the agreement, we haven’t taken the transformational decisions that are necessary. We still have a society that is as segregated as it ever was.”

Peter argues that we must do more to integrate our society and rebuts suggestions that integrating education and housing represents ‘social engineering’.  “Our system has the greatest degree of social engineering that there’s ever been.”

As well as being socially harmful, segregation is also extremely wasteful of resources, suggests Peter.  “So we need to take a really serious look at how we can have one teacher training college for everybody in Northern Ireland. I think we need to take a really serious look at how structurally education is managed through area planning. And we also need to come up with initiatives that encourage local areas where there are two, three or four schools when there actually should be one or two to reduce the number of schools in that area. That will save millions of pounds…. But it needs some really courageous big political policy decisions. And we haven’t taken those decisions yet.”

He instances: “In two villages a mile apart, along a part of the coast in Northern Ireland, those two villages have fewer than 250 children of primary school age. Yet those two villages a mile apart are served by four separate schools. That wouldn’t happen anywhere else in these islands.”

Peter is dismissive of the limited objective to create more shared housing.  “Our shared housing policy has an ambition which equates to less than 1% of total housing,” he points out.  And the policy promoting shared housing has to be backed by the enforcement of law intended to prevent intimidation. “I think the law and the legal guidance is very clear. You cannot erect things on lampposts…. It’s not just a policing issue. It’s for other agencies, too.

“Can you take those flags down everywhere? I think that would be a huge challenge, because of the number of flags that are up. I understand that. But when you come to a shared housing area, I think you need to implement the law when the law says you cannot put flags up. It is even stronger when it comes to flags that are related to a prescribed illegal organization when it is done, especially, to intimidate. Those flags should be coming down in those shared housing areas and we should have zero tolerance when the flags go up.”

Peter believes that the political leaders of the two main traditions need to recognise that it is in their mutual interests for Northern Ireland to work.  He says: “If I was a unionist, I would want reconciliation here because I would acknowledge that reconciliation is an important part of making this place work, especially when we are all minorities in Northern Ireland. There is no majority. We’re all minorities. And so any way you make this place work from a unionist perspective is to help reconcile the peoples in Northern Ireland so that they can work together better. But if you’re from a republican background, I think the exactly same argument applies.”

Peter fears that civil society is not sufficiently powerful or forthright in Northern Ireland, because of its dependence on public funding and the experience that many organisations have closed following withdrawal of funds.  “I think it’s really important we find a mechanism for civil society to have its voice heard,” he says. “I think that if you looked at some of the issues that are problematic in politics in Northern Ireland today, I suspect if you handed some of those issues over to civil society, they’d find an answer very quickly, regardless of what those issues are.”

He continues: “I am a fan of things like citizens’ assemblies that we’ve seen working in the Republic of Ireland very, very successfully…. So there are mechanisms that work. And I think in Northern Ireland we need to find mechanisms to apply civil society ‘s voice, because when you look at some of the big successes of the peace process over the last 20 years, then the big successes, I would argue, are policing and parading. What do they have in common?”  His answer is that the solutions emerged from civil society.

But, warns Peter: “We cannot afford another 10 or 20 years of focusing exclusively on political institutions as the way forward for this peace process…. It’s relationship building that is at the heart of peace building.”

The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.


  • Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.

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