Monday, 18 July 2011

Violence on the streets points to political problems

From Friday's Irish News.

Yes, it’s that time of the year again.  The annual mayhem is in full swing in Northern Ireland.

Sectarian clashes at an interface in East Belfast were followed by dissident republican disorder in Craigavon, then - not to be outdone - loyalist rioters torched cars and attacked police last weekend, after a dispute about flags in Ballyclare.   All this before the familiar scenes of destruction engulfed Ardoyne on Tuesday night.   

The summer threatens to be a long and hot one for the security forces, at flashpoints across the province.  It’s thirteen years since the Good Friday Agreement heralded a hopeful new future for this part of the world, but although power-sharing is firmly entrenched at Stormont, on the ground our communities seem as divided as ever. 
Politicians may frequently pay lip-service to their desire to “move on” from traditional quarrels and deliver a “shared future”, but evidence from the streets suggests either that people aren’t listening or else the parties’ fine words aren’t being matched with actions. 

We’re entitled to ask whether the executive is doing its utmost to tackle segregation and whether a system which entrenches sectarian voting blocs can ever break down divisions in our society.

In recent months the DUP and Sinn Féin have both talked up efforts to attract voters from outside their respective communities.  The Shinners claim that a number of working class Protestants, who feel abandoned by unionist politicians, are attracted by the republican party’s record of community activism. 

Meanwhile Peter Robinson has appealed to Catholics to vote for the DUP, emphasising its supposed moderate credentials.  Buoyed by the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, which suggests a majority of Catholics are happy to remain part of the UK, he believes a softer, friendlier party can capitalise on passive pro-Union sentiment. 

It’s all rather encouraging - in theory.  The parties say they want to reach out beyond their traditional supporters and embrace the notion that policy, rather than religion, could determine the contents of a voter’s ballot paper.  Unfortunately, around the executive table or out on the campaign trail, such aspirations are too easily forgotten.

The two largest parties had a perfect opportunity to do something concrete about division last year, when they published the draft of their long-awaited Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI).   As it turned out the document was almost universally regarded as a failure.

It contained platitudes aplenty, but skated over key areas like shared housing and integrated education.   It didn’t even bother to calculate the economic cost of sectarian division to our society - for the record it’s estimated that segregation carries a price tag of £1.5 billion each year. 

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, pithily diagnosed the problem, when he addressed the Assembly last month.  Pointing to an increase in the number of peace-walls erected since the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 he observed, “Northern Ireland needs a genuinely shared future; not a shared out future”.

It’s a comment which summarises neatly the parties’ failure to “get” what integration and sharing are really all about.  With justification the perception flourishes that their commitment to CSI is skin-deep and that the political institutions operate as a sectarian carve-up, rather than a genuinely cooperative enterprise.

If the violence which continues to flare-up during the summer months doesn’t support that argument, then the political reaction to it certainly does.  Some of the DUP’s representatives have adapted to the party’s touchy feely new image, but there are just as many who quickly revert to type.       

Sammy Wilson was categorical in his condemnation of loyalist violence, stating that “if there are conversations to be had with the PSNI, you don’t have them at the end of a petrol bomb”, but Willie McCrea was quicker to focus on the perceived short-comings of the police, rather than the culpability of rioters. 

The difference in emphasis suits the DUP, with one message aimed at moderate unionists who are repelled by trouble and another tailored to loyalist heartlands where the PSNI’s actions are viewed as provocative.  For the Catholic voters whom Peter Robinson claims he wants to attract, it will simply appear that the party is talking out of both sides of its mouth.

Sinn Féin does exactly the same whenever violence breaks out in republican areas.  Its condemnation of dissident rioters is tempered by half-hearted backing of the police, which the party claims it is holding to account. 

Sadly, for all their claims to the contrary, it seems the representatives who dominate our Assembly still have a carve-up mentality.  Until Northern Ireland’s politics are really all about a shared future, rather than a shared out future, the prospect of peaceful streets remains remote.   

1 comment:

Timothy Belmont said...

Good to hear you again, Chekov, after the break!

I'm afraid - and am I unique? - that my attitude, or attitudes haven't sufficiently changed with regard to Northern Ireland.

Is it generational that I feel I remain in a 70s time-warp?

McGuinness was right in his sentiment and instinct when he articulated that some Unionists "don't want a Fenian about the place".

That said, I do feel a bit alienated from the whole political process in NI. I'd still yearn for fuller integration with the Mainland and, as a consequence, vote Conservative (or even UKIP, because I have an unhealthy distaste for the EU and all things metric).

Sorry. I have that off my chest and is anybody surprised?