Irish Peace Centres (IPC) hosted a ‘Creative Fringe’ event at the Alliance Party Conference last month. They used different mediums, including a ‘Question Time’-type session with a panel of speakers, to share ideas on how to make peace work in Northern Ireland.
The panel consisted of Naomi Long MP, Chris Lyttle MLA, Anna Lo MLA, Breidge Gadd from the IPC Management Committee and Noreen Campbell, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education. The event, with a good turnout given it was held after lunch, was Chaired by Peter Sheridan OBE, CEO Irish Peace Centres and Cooperation Ireland.
After introductions were given as to what the IPC is and stands for, there was a short break for everyone to contribute to the ‘Blue Sky Thinking’ wall, inviting radical ideas to inspire thoughts, ‘Molecule Structure’ word association piece for a “growth of thinking”, as well as a clothes horse where people could stick up general questions about peace in Ireland. This was an unusual and interesting start, or perhaps as the woman next to me put it, “annoying”, but all comments and questions that came out of it were put to the panel somewhat anonymously.
Housing and education were main themes for the largely Alliance Party panel, with questions such as “Has the community moved ahead of politics?” and “How did Noreen create a safe area at school?”, as well as “Can a middle class party solve a working class problem?”
Long suggested that where communities can appear to have moved ahead, when problems start issues can revert, which is why we must never be complacent about positive change. She argued that an acceptance of integrated models is needed to continue moving forward. She gave the example of housing; that children need to be brought up in integrated societies to prevent intimidation, particularly because when people do not necessarily ‘fit in’ with their birth community, they don’t feel safe. Long concluded that no-one has a ‘right’ to choose and/or control segregated communities. In response to audience reaction, Lyttle added that community consultation and inclusion is important for housing.
Another question followed this; “How soon can I walk anywhere I want in Belfast?”, to which Lo said a focus is needed on bringing interfaces down and creating shared spaces with trust and respect. She explained that where the CSI intended to help with strategy, it should help develop integrated and shared housing to create integration as a ‘norm’ rather than ‘exception’. Long added that there was nowhere in Belfast she would not go and feel safe.
To the safe schools question, Campbell replied that a key ingredient was to start with children and who they are, rather than labels. This creates opportunities for them to learn about, with and from each other. She said that young people are idealists; they want a good future and need to see a capacity to create their own. Gadd added that places like London are ‘unsafe’, and we must consider that not all problems are sectarian-based. She then illustrated that her own children enjoyed their education in Protestant schools and left as Protestant, until arriving at university in Scotland where it is ‘cool’ to be Irish.
The question was then asked as to “How do we educate Catholic children in integrated schools?” Campbell explained that history and legacy are the actual reasons for a segregated system and we need to work with the Church to challenge the system. She said that challenging the Catholic Church’s moral obligation, commitment to equality and civil values, would make it impossible for them to continue with the system.
In response to the “middle class party” question, Lyttle seemed rather taken aback. He then established that he himself is not from a middle class background and in fact the Party work hard with the working classes.
Long then responded that a middle class party cannot solve a working class problem, which is why politics cannot be class-based. She said individual rights, principles and values should be considered rather than group rights.
Gadd disagreed, claiming Kenneth Clark as a Conservative Home Secretary has a closer grasp on crime committing, and how to come out of it, than Jack Straw ever did. She added that lines of class are now blurred and people work everywhere, so it is more important to understand the dreams and needs of the dispossessed.
The question was also rejected by an Alliance audience member, who argued the problem was not ‘working class’ and that it had been caused by other classes. Another member then pointed out that there are “less problems in golf clubs!”
The final question was, “What was Naomi’s question at the Prime Minister’s Question Time?”.
Long, after the PM had promised continued support of NI, had asked him if that was because of security concerns. David Cameron’s answer was, “I’ll write to you”.
Long explained she asked this because we need to be progressive and not hide from the past. She went on to say that politicians don’t have all the answers, and we need to make sure people are comfortable being British, Irish and in their own skin on the island of Ireland.
The session was then closed, after a final idea from the ‘Blue Sky Thinking’ wall was read: “Rename Peace Walls as Hate Walls”.
The questions and answers provided during the event were very much in line with the general message of the Alliance Party Conference; that the housing and education should be integrated, and this would help solve most of NI’s problems. It is interesting, however, that the economy was only touched upon briefly following the last question, which was actually unrelated. However, despite initial scepticism of the participant-based presentations, the 75-minute event ran smoothly and productively, with interesting results and even an unexpected debate on ‘class’.