30 April 2006

Shared future only way forward

Sunday Life

Duncan Morrow
30 April 2006

LAST week was Community Relations Week and an opportunity for both community and voluntary groups and public bodies to illustrate some of the progress being made in building better relationships as the foundation for a shared future.

With more than 150 events in the programme across Northern Ireland and all district council areas, it was recognition of - and encouragement for - work in progress.

The week's theme was 'Building A Shared Future' - a reference to the Government policy on community relations launched last year.

There are alternatives to a shared future, and we have lived them for decades.

But we should be in no doubt what they involve: killing, expulsion from homes and properties, massive economic destruction and random violence, particularly against the most vulnerable.

Any belief that an alternative to sharing here is consequence-free is not only naive, but dangerous.

If anyone tells you that A Shared Future is social engineering, laugh, and then offer a few observations.

We have been protected from the consequences of our local antagonism by the intervention of massive social engineering.

Communities that were ready to drive, burn or shoot each other out have been 'stabilised' by 'peace walls' and CCTV.

We have also ensured a minimum degree of public services through duplication - at huge cost to the public purse. But this social engineering in the foothills of polarisation has never really resolved anything.

None of this is to say that things have not got better in the last decade.

But the issue is not just stopping the violence, it is actually changing the fundamental relationships which produce violence.

The work, after the violence has stopped, is all about sharing.

The first requirement is leadership.

It is imperative that we end the ambivalence that is hanging around, that A Shared Future is just rhetoric - cucumber sandwiches for the 21st century.

This means some real decisions by political leaders to embrace the notion that sharing is not a short-term tactic, but a practical and moral necessity. That will mean a willingness to take on vested interests which define progress only in terms of relative benefits for one part of the community.

One of the fears around the restoration of devolution is that local politicians are not yet willing to take on these challenges, as the flak they will take will be from their own voters and interests.

But until we are able to meet these challenges, A Shared Future will be hobbled by being seen as a 'top-down' policy.

On the other hand, it is imperative that the British and Irish governments, and all of the international supporters who have invested so much in peace-building here, emphasise that the long-term sustainability of peace depends on just such a commitment - whether devolution is established in the short run or not.

In addition, A Shared Future requires resources to back up the policy commitments and a clear implementation plan.

As a start in this, Lord Rooker last week presented the first Shared Future triennial action plans by Government departments.

At the same conference, the Community Relations Council presented 90 research recommendations for action by Government to deliver on A Shared Future on issues from housing and interfaces to education and flags and emblems.

The Community Relations Council is not responsible for implementing A Shared Future, but it will be monitoring progress and acting as an active partner to those wishing to take steps towards sharing over separation.

Success will be measured by the degree to which hard questions are now addressed and properly resolved through dialogue.

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