Friday, 28 August 2009

A shared future is not about politically correct dinner party guest lists

I usually find much to applaud in Alex Kane’s commentary. The UUP’s Director of Communications writes a weekly News Letter column, which is frequently cited on this blog with commendation. I have to challenge a section of Alex’s latest piece, however, which includes a rather blithe dismissal of ‘shared future’. It’s a puzzling stance, because the Ulster Unionist party should be proud of its position, holding the ‘Ourselves Alone’ coalition to account for its abandonment of the strategy.

“It is taken as a given that people in Northern Ireland want ‘something different’ in political and social terms and millions of pounds are spent on all sorts of cross-community projects and shared future propaganda.

If only we could all be educated together, live together, play sports together and work together, it wouldn’t be long before the old barriers collapsed, the peace walls crumbled and spanking new parties emerged to build a new Northern Ireland. Isn’t that right?

But maybe, just maybe, most people don’t actually want that at all? I am, supposedly, a pluralist, liberal unionist: but I live in an exclusively unionist area; I work for a unionist party; I am probably best known as a columnist on a unionist newspaper and a ‘unionist commentator’ on radio and television; I have no friends (in the proper sense of that term, as opposed to the Facebook sense in which everyone you know is somehow a ‘friend’) who are Catholic/nationalist; and I have little, if any, inter-facing with Catholics/nationalists other than through politics.

Do you know something? It doesn’t bother me in the slightest! I don’t have sleepless nights about it. And while I want to make unionism as attractive to as wide an audience as possible I don’t want to attract ‘Catholic’ unionists, or ‘women’ unionists, or ‘Hindu’ unionists just for the sake of attracting them.”

Now I appreciate that Alex is being brutally honest in this passage and to a degree he is taking aim at a brand of pomposity which makes itself a worthy target. But he is also carelessly generalising about an issue which is far more complicated than the liberal preciousness which he insinuates is at its root.

The term ‘shared future’, where it has worth, is not about the middle classes assembling scrupulously inclusive guest-lists for their dinner parties. Nor is it about imposing cross community friendships, where they are not wanted.

We have, in Northern Ireland, a society which is aligned along a pronounced sectarian and political divide. It has cost us lives and it is costing us money.

We are not talking here about regrettable, but ultimately inevitable, trends whereby similar groups of people tend to associate with each other. Huge amounts of money are being spent replicating public services, just so neighbours from a different background do not have to share a common space!

Let me be just as blunt as Alex. I DON’T CARE if people in blighted areas of Belfast, or elsewhere, ARE happy with their peace walls, or whether they don’t wish to share a leisure centre or a doctor’s surgery with those who live two streets away. This is an instance where their cooperation ought to be compelled. It is too damaging, economically and socially, to continue to operate de facto apartheid, where the state is picking up the bills.

If, by sharing certain public spaces, a degree of understanding between faiths or political viewpoints is the result, then that is a fortunate by product. But regardless, ‘shared future’ is not some woolly, do good aspiration. It is about tackling real problems which damage society and retard our economy.

Alex’s private affairs are his own and nobody wants to interfere with them. However the ‘community think’ which infects every aspect of political discourse in this country should very much be the concern of policy makers and they should combat it with an armoury of engineered solutions.

Where there are jobs in city centres, a short bus trip away, we are told that there is no employment in ‘loyalist’ or ‘republican’ communities. Where new social housing is planned there develops an inevitable battle about which ‘community’ should enjoy its use. It is unsustainable and untenable madness.

I hope that there is not a more prosaic explanation for Kane’s piece. I.e. a preliminary strike on the issue of candidate selection. The point of creating an inclusive list is that unionism cannot articulate its ‘theology-blind, colour-blind, gender-blind’ nature so effectively by fielding candidates who are exclusively white, protestant and male. Once again, the point is not positive discrimination for its own sake. It is an exercise in communication. I’m sure, given the nature of his job title, Alex understands that point.


Anonymous said...

Agree. As a long time reader of Alex Kane, I found myself very disappointed by the want of aspiration for a better more shared society in this piece by him.

Anonymous said...

Mr Kane seems to have been infected with some kind of anti Conservative aproach of late with several 'anti Conservative' posts. This is the latest in a series of comments which are not in line with our UUP policy on the joint iniative.

Has he been left out of the loop or perhaps not being seen as part of the new future, anyway we need to ensure his articles at least follow party policy loosely as our Director of Communications.