The Community Relations Council (CRC) celebrated community relations work with an annual week of showcase activities. The theme for this year’s event was “No More Them and Us?”
The flagship event from Community Relations Week 2012 was the annual policy conference that took place at Titanic Belfast.
In opening the event, CRC Chairman, Tony McCusker, talked about key issues that need to be addressed in the modern Northern Ireland: how to deal with the past; the need to make progress with young people and education (e.g. most boys aged 16-17 still do not meet people from the other community); and reducing housing segregation.
Mr McCusker noted the growing frustration with the lack of progress with the Government’s draft policy for community relations: Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI).
OFMDFM Junior Minister, Jonathan Bell MLA, discussed the role of leadership in developing community relations. In regards to political leadership, he used a metaphor of the good shepherd, whereby “It’s no good for a shepherd to go so far ahead of the sheep that they don’t know where to follow.”
Mr Bell also believed that “what units us is greater than what divides us”.
Fellow Junior Minister, Martina Anderson MLA, argued that OFDFM is “firmly committed to build a united community”, citing £50 million pledged to a good relations strategy.
Ms Anderson seconded Mr Bell’s remarks on the existence of sectarian attitudes among the middle and upper classes, calling for positive change in this regard.
Community Relations Award 2012
This year’s Community Relations Award for Exceptional Achievement went to Paul McCrory.
Mr McCrory is a founder member of the Short Strand Community Forum, and has worked with the community, particularly young people, in East Belfast for over 25 years.
According to Mr McCusker, “Paul is recognised as having played a central role in helping mediate during sectarian violence at the Short Strand and Inner East Belfast interface, making significant personal and family sacrifices to help build better community relations.”
Short presentations were made by Professor Michael O’Flaherty (Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission), Michael Wardlow (Equality Commission Northern Ireland), and Dr Paul Nolan (Community Relations Council).
Prof. O’Flaherty argued that human rights, conflict resolution and community relations are inextricably linked.
Thus, he made a case that human rights must be ensured, in order to enable the creation of a shared and better future in Northern Ireland. Here, the government’s role is to promote a culture of tolerance and respect.
Reflecting on his own UN working experience in global areas of conflict, Prof. O’Flaherty said that there remains a major gap — dealing with the past — in Northern Ireland’s post-conflict transition strategy: there has been Demobilisation and Demilitarisation, but no Reintegration, in the traditional DDR strategy.
Mr Wardlow said that there is a link between equality and good relations, and both of them are essential for a just and equal society.
He said that we should promote a shared, integrated and inclusive society: “Do we want a scared or a shared future?”
Dr Nolan spoke on the “other” community, i.e. those who do not describe themselves as exclusively Catholic or Protestant. This also includes those with no religious background, the LGBT community and immigrants.
He suggested that Northern Ireland goes for a “salad bowl” model of society, where the whole is recognisable as a salad, but inside the bowl are many different ingredients. He proposed a word familiar to those from Northern Ireland for this concept: “Throughotherness”.
Justice Minister unhappy with lack of CSI progress
In the conference keynote speech, the Minister for Justice, David Ford MLA, spoke of his dissatisfaction with the lack of progress in the development of the government’s CSI policy. He defended his party’s role, especially that of Alliance Party spokesperson, Chris Lyttle MLA.
Mr Ford set out seven criterion for his party’s support for any shared future government policy:
- Public spending tests to promote sharing on every public investment
- Legal acknowledgement that all space is shared space with no compromise on territorialisation, including a strong protocol on flags
- A comprehensive interface strategy that promotes openness and tolerance
- A landmark review of equality and sharing in public housing
- Serious investment in integration in teaching, including shared education and teacher training
- A comprehensive youth strategy to combat sectarianism
- An independent delivery system for community relations that has enough clout to challenge Government.
The presentations showed that there are still many things to do, the most important is coming to an agreement regarding community relations strategy in Northern Ireland, keeping in mind the importance of including those beyond the traditional Protestant and Catholic communities in the new Northern Ireland.