Derry City and Strabane District Council reneges on its earlier promise to “give recognition to diverse narratives…”

Start out wrong, fail to address and you will end up in the same place. Is the current acrimony within Derry City and Strabane District Council a case in point as the Derry Model muddles its way towards the Equality Commission?

The YouTube recording of its meeting on Thursday November 26, does not make for comfortable viewing. At the previous ‘zoom’ meeting, the following proposal which when tabled was not complete in wording before Councillors rushed to voice their support, produced inter-party acrimony and considerable unease across the community:

“That given the injustice of partition, that this Council will not celebrate and commemorate in any event in relation to the centenary of NI2021.”

This is in evidence again. Passionate rhetoric failed to deliver a solution as the parties and independents single – mindedly gravitated to their chosen voters and preferred narrative. One councillor showing greater empathy than others has intimated that this ‘one’ was always likely to be a problem. People sometimes make problems for themselves.

A vacuum cleaner approach was adopted towards any alternative views. Any aspect of participative and inclusive governance was dismissed.

The politically loaded and motivated proposal is described by the Mayor as a ‘corporate policy.’ In addition to the predictability of an overly impassioned reaction from unionism the rancour is shaping what seems like an attempt at political damage limitation.

Following a ‘call-in’ signed by eleven Councillors, the muddle has continued and issues of previously Good Relations and ethically shaped practice, procedural adherence and parity of esteem remain unresolved.

It is all paving the way back to old quarrels and echoes of a troubled past as ideological pursuit and what is seen as exercise of power in the interests of communal supremacy with lack of respect for others, has re-emerged. It is prompting challenge and questions on different levels inside and outside Council. Trust is fractured

In 2015, DCSDC adopted a motion, part of which is provide below:

“That Derry City and Strabane District Council mark the decade of 100th anniversary from 1913 – 1923 in a fitting and dignified manner, by giving recognition to the diverse narratives of the period, including the 1916 Easter Rising, the Battle of the Somme and other significant events by putting in place a working group that will compile a commemorative programme ……..”

 In addition, guidance materials issued to applicants for funding advised the following;

To be mindful of the importance of the principles from Ethical Remembering to Ethical

Doing:

  • remembering the context,
  • remembering the whole decade,
  • remember the future,
  • remembering ethically
  • remembering together.

This approach worked from 2016 onwards but has been set aside if not abandoned on this occasion for the sake of promoting a particular narrative. It has created problems but instead of taking these on, the politicians in forfeiting a ‘fitting and dignified manner’ and ‘diverse narratives’ are keener to take on each other.

Moving through the Decade of Centenaries, the Council adopted the corporate position of not organising any events directly but facilitated community and cultural groups to do so. However, it also avoided taking any corporate political position linked to one narrative or political ideology.

This time, as the motion indicates, it has adopted a narrow political stance with regard to the NI Centenary and identified this as the corporate view of Council. This runs counter to the policy and guidance issued in 2015 and also shows that a majority may have the strength of numbers but being stronger does not mean that you are right. There is a lack of equality and parity of esteem. Council needs to revisit the meaning and governance implication of the words

At the meeting where the ‘call-in ‘was tabled, the Council refused to rescind the previous proposal and instead, at the behest of mainly nationalist or republican members, the matter is being referred to a Business and Culture Committee for referral to the Decade of Centenaries and then back to Council. The Business and Culture Committee has met and concluded that there are no legal or equality issues pertaining. Ethical is not addressed.

Listening to the debate and the comments of Sinn Féin and Social Democratic and Labour party members a strategy has already been determined whereby funding will be made available to groups wishing to organise events and, in an attempt to clarify whether or not Council staff will be available to assist, there will be an indication that the previous prohibition inferred by the proposal, will be clarified.

The outcome is prescribed already in a choreographed attempt to cool the situation and protect the ‘Derry Model’ of the city as a site of inclusion and parity of esteem.  But, the issue is not just about funding and resources, human or otherwise. The actions as decided upon are futile.

Procedurally, the Council has not acted in accordance with its own previous practice when an inclusive process allowed for nationalist and unionist involvement. Now, in respect of a celebration and commemoration seen as a mainly unionist occasion, equality of treatment and parity of esteem in political and heritage terms is absent with Council adopting a political view linking the NI Centenary to ‘injustice’.

This is a departure from before. Labels are being used not just as a means of designation but definition as those who give their political allegiance to Northern Ireland are told that their place in the city is as a result of ‘injustice.’ Ethical remembering is set aside in the interests of ideology.

A paper presented by a high profile Cultural and Heritage Organisation in the city to all of the political representatives and seen by the author asserts that:

 

  • Council is diminishing the legacy of those, many of whom would have been relatives of the present population, who believed that it was their right to petition to opt out of Home Rule and were prepared to accept, in the interests of peace the compromise of a separate parliament for NI……… The NI Centenary is being nullified and treated as being of no importance or value. This is being visited on the community which holds a different view.
  • Council has bowed to a factional and collective nationalist/ republican ideology by distancing itself from any acceptance of the majority preference for the Union and taking the opportunity to show that it does not recognise NI. This is referenced as a corporate stance but it has taken the Council into political terrain. Council is taking a position on the right of NI to exist and fails to show any empathy with pro-Union individuals and/or groups who reside in the Council area.

 

The document further argues that the attitude of Council is

 

  • Taking the Council into territory where it can no longer be seen as pluralist in action or values; that this is discrimination and breach of Section 75, Good Relations and it is therefore the case that Council needs to conduct an EQUIA as to the effects of this decision on rights, community relations, the GFA and New Decade, New Approach.

 

  • Rejecting the values and vision of a ‘shared community’ the supreme irony being that two of the parties who voted in favour en bloc, Sinn Fein and SDLP, speak of an Agreed Ireland and A Shared Ireland, respectively.

 

  • Challenging the legitimacy of the state and by inference, the right of pro-Union people to give it their loyalty and allegiance;

 

  • Inferring that those who engaged in violence and insurgency to de-stabilise NI were justified.

 

The points being made seem valid and sit uncomfortably alongside the history of the Council avoiding any such political positions in 2016. Free Derry, is seems ,is only free for some.

In Good Relations, T:buc, Section 75 and New Decade, New Approach  talk of  breaking down barriers between communities; building equality, reconciliation and an appreciation of diversity; and developing commitment to better relationships within and between communities are writ large.

The Good Friday Agreement speaks of achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, the protection and vindication of the human rights of all, partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships.

DCSDC has signed up to this but actions and attitudes are the true test. These are the standards against which its decision is measured and this applies to any Council anywhere regardless of political profile. Is it too unkind to suggest that some of the members may speak of walking in the shoes of ‘the other ‘but are careful, in the interests of the party mantra, to make sure they do not fit?

Ironically, as is reported in the Impartial Reporter, Dec 1, a Sinn Fein Councillor on Fermanagh and Omagh Council is calling for ‘clarity on alleged censoring of a motion proposing to create space for planning constitutional change in Ireland as the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act approaches.’ When the shoe fits!

To suggest that the situation will be solved through funding is condescending, insensitive and patronising. The same applies when regret is expressed at the movement of population particularly during the years 1969-75 when many unionists as a result of violence and civil unrest left the West bank for the East bank of the river Foyle. Little was done at the time to prevent it; little has been done since to reverse it.

To make a mistake once is excusable but to repeat it when the consequences stare you in the face is not. Ethical leadership needs to emerge soon as the community begins to wonder how after 20 years of Peace and Reconciliation funding the acclaimed progress of the Derry Model is presenting as more limited than claimed.

Does the Peace and Reconciliation model itself need fresh analysis and evaluation?

“Hands Across The Divide” peace statue by sculptor Maurice Harron in Londonderry” by brookscl is licensed under CC BY-ND