How a problem is viewed has serious consequences for how it is dealt with. The Workers’ party has long argued that the problem of sectarianism has to be dealt with through the encouragement of integration – spatial and educational – between the people of Northern Ireland and the development of political structures which will lead to the recognition of a common citizenship, regardless of religious background. It was in this spirit, and with reservations, that we supported the Good Friday Agreement. We viewed it not as a final settlement but as a first step towards our goals of integration and citizenship. On this basis, we believe our vision of secular, democratic, socialist politics can best take root.
Who can deny that life has improved since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement? However, the way that the integration debate has been framed by others shows that, although the daily sectarian murders are behind us, the sectarian mindset remains, particularly, we would argue, among our mainstream politicians. In a recent article American journalist Kevin Cullen describes how in Northern Ireland “there is a lingering acceptance of widespread segregation”:
Not only is there an official ethos of separate but equal, but an infrastructure underpinning it. There are three times as many so-called peace lines — elaborate walls separating working-class neighborhoods — than there were at the height of the Troubles, 88 of them at last count.
I walked through Protestant housing projects in North Belfast and noticed many vacant apartments. On the other side of the peace line, the Catholic projects were overcrowded. But there is no attempt to move Catholic families into the vacant apartments because, as they say in Belfast, even the dogs in the street know there’d be riots.
With segregation the status quo, there is an enormous duplication of public services, such as schools, community centers, and health clinics. (‘Boston Globe’, March 14, 2010)
Moreover, it can reasonably be argued that the structures of devolved government in Stormont encourage the institutionalisation of sectarianism and the reification of essentialist identities. It is within this context of increased separation that we analyse the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration document. We must remind ourselves that this document would not have been published at all were it not for pressure placed on the DUP and Sinn Féin by the Alliance Party as part of the deal leading to the devolution of justice and policing. The Shared Future document, we should also remind ourselves, was allowed to lie gathering dust during the period when the SDLP/Ulster Unionist Party were in control. None of the nationalist and unionist parties is willing to confront these issues.
Why Cohesion, Sharing and Integration should be rejected
While the Workers’ Party may have had some reservations about the Shared Future document, in our view Cohesion, Sharing and Integration has totally abandoned the philosophical underpinnings of the previous document. According to the ‘Fundamental Principles’ of Shared Future, ‘Separate but equal is not an option’:
Parallel living and the provision of parallel services are unsustainable both morally and economically…the costs of a divided society – whilst recognising the very real fears of people around safety and security considerations – are abundantly clear: segregated housing and education, security costs, less than efficient public service provision…Policy that simply adapts to, but does not alter these challenges, results in inefficient resource allocations. These are not sustainable in the medium to long-term. (Section 1.4, Fundamental Principles, Shared Future).
The new policy has abandoned the aim of reconciliation, treated culture and identity as fixed rather than evolving and has proposed flawed new community relations infrastructures which are weaker than the existing systems.
Along with other civic society bodies, we believe that this document should be rejected. It offers no basis for the kind of integrated society that people aspire to and instead holds out the vision of a future of increased separation and division based on accidents of birth. Cohesion, Sharing and Integration sees ‘cultures’ and ‘identities’ as given and stable entities but research data indicates at least generational differences , which suggest that the reality is more complex. The survey information in the graph below[a] taken from the recent Public Engagement Survey, indicates that national identity, far from being fixed, is an evolving concept and that younger cohorts are more likely to label themselves as ‘neither Unionist nor Nationalist’. Moreover, as the Joseph Rowntree trust, in its comparison of Shared Future and Cohesion, puts it, “the Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys show that an increased Irish identification among Catholics, and particularly among the young, goes hand in hand with a steady or even falling voiced desire for Irish reunification, even while large sections of young Protestants are moving from a British to a Northern Irish identification. These are real changes whose significance is not immediately evident and which are elided when ‘cultures’ are reified” (p.16). However, the Workers’ Party believes that unless a real culture of common citizenship is encouraged at government level, sectarianism and division will remain part of everyday life for many thousands and the possibility of a return to sectarian violence will remain.
[a](Political persuasion by age - see graph at end of document)
The Workers’ Party notes with concern that there is no mention of ‘reconciliation’ in Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, which instead argues for ‘mutual accommodation’ (7.1) between differing groups. As the Joseph Rowntree Trust correctly notes, “this privileges one set of cultural choices – political compromise from existing cultural standpoints – over other choices that are equally present in Northern Ireland”. The Workers’ Party very much doubts whether ‘compromise’ or ‘mutual accommodation’ are strong enough concepts to hold off the dangers of re‐sectarianisation especially among the young. As well as denying the complex reality of the myriad choices that people make with respect to their identities, the separate but equal philosophy underpinning the Coherence document buys into the pessimistic view that sectarianism will always be with us.
This is further emphasised in the way that Cohesion, Integration and Sharing frames issues relating to culture. Instead of a society where cultures might permeate, share and evolve, the Cohesion document envisions ‘an “intercultural” society – a dynamic process where different cultures and communities interact, learn about and question their own and each others [sic] cultures. Over time this may lead to cultural change.’ (7.1) Again the nature of cultures -‘own’ and ‘others’- are not seriously in question here, although it is admitted there may be change in the long-term. In its division of problems into those which can be tackled in the short, medium and long terms, Cohesion postpones dealing with core issues which, we would argue, should begin to be dealt with immediately.
The Workers’ Party believes that the impoverished vision outlined in the Coherence document leads to some very dangerous policy recommendations. We are fundamentally opposed to the suggestion that any future delivery mechanism in relation to community relations would be based on a model of consultancy by ‘community practitioners’. We have no confidence that such a model would deliver anything other than the entrenchment of sectarian attitudes and practices. The Workers’ Party would like to place on record its opposition to any suggestion that the Community Relations Council (or any other independent body) should be scrapped. We believe that it is necessary to keep in place an independent body charged with overseeing community relations. If anything, we would like to see the CRC strengthened. Moreover, we believe there is a compelling case for the establishment of an Institute of Citizenship and Reconciliation as a centre of excellence that would point to positive alternatives to sectarianism. In the wake of the Good Friday Agreement and the maintenance of (most) paramilitary ceasefires there is a case for shifting concern from conflict resolution and ‘peace building’ to positive reconciliation between our people.
We call for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration to be replaced by a document that accepts the fluidity of identities rather than attempting to place them into a predetermined straightjacket.