Thursday, 17 January 2008

Society isn't healing - neutrality and integration are on the back foot

It is not a regular occurrence for me to agree wholeheartedly with a group of churchmen, but five Protestant clerics from north Belfast have identified rather neatly some of the most pressing concerns about the carve-up which Northern Ireland government has become. The article that the five signatories have produced identifies a distinct lack of emphasis on integration, community relations or sharing in the Draft Programme for Government. The shelving of the policy initiative A Shared Future is symbolic of this indifference to creating anything other than a divided society.

Such a tendency has long been detected by those who view the DUP-SF twin nationalisms axis as little more than a sectarian partitioning of interests in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein in particular is pursuing a policy of separate but equal. The motivation of republicans is simple enough. Shared and neutral spaces mean that dissatisfaction and disillusionment with Northern Ireland’s constitutional status dissipate. The DUP are too entrenched in a sectarian mindset to see that separate but equal is damaging to the Union and in many cases accede to this agenda.

Meanwhile on the streets of north Belfast division remains as acute as ever and new peace walls are being erected. The concept of mixed social housing is rubbished by those who wish to retain effective apartheid in working class communities and any attempt to eradicate political or national symbols in the same areas are derided as an infringement of liberty. Whilst there may be power sharing at Stormont, in no way are we moving beyond the notion of two competing sectional interests.

These church ministers are correct to be concerned. The mindset that perpetuates division hides behind rhetoric of respect and equality. It conflates neutral spaces and integration with the destruction of cultures. By necessity it focuses on things which separate rather than unite us. It fetishises difference.

Of course it is entirely fallacious to claim that attempting to increase shared spaces and minimise offence to others will destroy anything valuable in our culture or dissipate identity. Refraining from hanging a flag from a lamp-post is not curtailing one’s liberty, it does not demean one’s sense of oneself and it is not going to unravel the fabric of tradition in our society. Similarly, whilst national identities are fully recognised as legitimate within the framework of legislation, participating in Northern Ireland bodies or institutions is not depriving anyone of their sense of Irishness, or indeed Britishness.

There are differences in the two major communities here which do to some extent define us in important ways. Of course those differences have to be respected and accommodated. It is not necessary however to concentrate predominately on those things that separate us to the exclusion of that which we share. It is not wrong to believe that making environments neutral is a good way of causing people to feel more comfortable living with neighbours of different religions and political beliefs. It is necessary to make our sports and hobbies accessible to as many people as possible. It is necessary to explain each other’s cultures in such a way as we might come to appreciate and understand them rather than see them as something threatening.

The Executive have a responsibility to set the tone for the rest of society. Some strides are being made. Even Edwin Poots attendance at a GAA fixture last night is a small but positive step. Unfortunately the overarching ethoses of the DUP – SF carve-up remains focussed on difference. Until such times as this changes, or voters begin to look beyond the division and seek real progress in Northern Ireland, this is likely to remain the case.

No comments: