Expressing Identity — Addressing Division: CRC Annual Policy Conference
by Allan LEONARD for Northern Ireland Foundation
20 May 2013
This year’s annual policy conference of the Community Relations Council (CRC) was held in Derry-Londonderry, a fresh change from the usual Belfast venues. Indeed, the Maiden City has demonstrated leadership in community relations for many years. In his introductory remarks, outgoing CRC Chair Tony McCusker pointed out that the city easily has the most events for this year’s Community Relations Week.
In regards to the recent statement by OFMdFM Ministers, Mr McCusker made the observation that most of the progress in community relations in Northern Ireland has been achieved by community organisations on the ground.
“It’s been ten years since we started the dialogue on Shared Future, three years on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration,” said Mr McCusker.
He expressed a slight fear that OFMdFM’s planned new document, Together: Building a United Community, will be rushed (because of economic incentive deadlines posed by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers), and we’ll end up with policy that is not well thought through.
Mayor of Derry City, Kevin Campbell, asked, “How often do we challenge ourselves to engage with cultures that are not our own?”
He added that community relations cannot be done in a policy vacuum, and suggested making the most of world experiences in sport and language (the Mayor is an enthusiast of the Irish language).
Comedian, commentator and social activist Nuala McKeever spoke poignantly about the loss of her partner, Mike Moloney: “It pushed my refresh button on what is possible.” She shared his belief in the possibility of the possible.
In regards to expressing identity, Mr Wood said, “It is a great place to start, but a terrible place to finish”. He argued that in fact we hold multiple identities, which are also changeable. Rather, he presented a formula whereby hybrid identities + equality + openness = opportunity.
He also said that while multiculturalism puts you in a box “and that is where you stay”, an Intercultural City Model has overlapping cultures and, significantly, moves about (is not fixed).
His suggestions included empowering bridge builders not gate keepers; develop places where people meet; and don’t avoid conflict, but expect it and manage it.
Furthermore, he claimed that while legislation will not cause people to interact, policy can incentivise encounters. There needs to be more mixing, not more avoidance, he stated.
Mr Wood proceeded to give several examples of good practice, including Mayor Jasmin Imamovic in Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina; Bradford; Subotica, Serbia; and Loli Arnaut in the Basque country. If there’s just one diversity strategy that we should read, he said, it’s the Barcelona Intercultural Plan.
In response to the keynote presentation, Noirin McKinney described the main objectives of the Arts Council (of which she is Director of Arts Development). She spoke with conviction of how the arts have been used as a means of community engagement, citing the success of the Re-Imaging project (with intimidating murals replaced with positive symbols reflecting the local community).
Peter Osborne liked Mr Wood’s assertion that Northern Ireland represents “a unique fusion of identities, with special flavouring”. Mr Osborne said that we need to respect difference, while cultures need to be respectful and all need to open up for mutual influences.
He also said that people need to have trust in public institutions, including the Parades Commission (of which he Chairs). Providing a set of statistics, he argued that the assertion that the Parades Commission is over-interventionist is “just not true”.
Mr Osborn concluded with three suggestions:
- We need to avoid avoidance (i.e. “It’s okay to be from Orange or Green cultures)
- Bridge builders need recognition and encouragement
- Institutional capacity (civic and political leadership) needs to be developed so that it works for the common good
From her perspective as Director of Legacy, Oonagh McGillion described the process of the City of Culture 2013 bid, which included reaching out to those groups who may have felt marginalised. She declared her belief in using culture to unite communities. She also defended planned research projects, as the objective is to embed intercultural thinking in the research outworkings.
Jim Roddy began by describing the work of group, Unity of Purpose, which is composed of local businesspeople, politicians, and statutory representatives. The group meets once monthly, with no agenda, “but we talk honestly” about current and foreseen issues in the city. Their motto is, “You hurt me, you hurt us all.”
Mr Roddy also described his experiences as a member of the Forum for Cities in Transition. He made a specific reference to an exchange trip in Mitrovica, Kosovo, where that city’s members got into an internal heated exchange in the presence of guest Northern Ireland Assembly Speaker, Willie Hay MLA. The Derry-Londonderry delegates refrained from intervening, later telling their Mitrovican hosts that the argument was okay: “It was where we were in our city 20 years ago.” Yet, Mr Roddy added, in Mitrovica they live without the flack jackets and killings that were endured in his city.
Mr Roddy concluded with positive examples of community relations work in Derry-Londonderry. Last weekend’s event, Bright Brand New Day, featured an iconic meeting between the Lord Mayor of London and the Mayor of Derry City — unfathomable not so long ago. And he also singled out the good work of Michael Doherty (Peace and Reconciliation Group) and Brian Dougherty (St Columb’s Park House).
After a tea break, Jonny Byrne (CRC Chair of Policy and Communication) introduced the panel for the discussion on “Expressing Identity — Addressing Division”.
Eamonn McCann emphasised the point that the community you grow up in doesn’t have to be the sole determinant in your politics. Also, the politics of Northern Ireland hasn’t always been a contest between militant nationalism and militant unionism: “I’m told there are two communities in Northern Ireland: that didn’t define my father’s politics and it doesn’t define me!” This was underscored by a subsequent remark from the floor, that young people like her, while acknowledging each others’ background and respecting the past, are not defined by it.
Fionola Meredith (Chair at Golden Thread Gallery as well as Source magazine) argued that Protestants/Unionists should embrace the Irish language, which they spoke in the past. She said that the way forward is to depoliticise language. Ms Meredith described the Irish language project run by Linda Ervine, including the fact that her brother-in-law’s family of David Ervine all declared themselves as Irish speakers in the 1911 Census.
Alex Kane began with a list of symbols that are regularly used to emphasise communities, including flags. He mooted, “Why do flags matter? If we had genuine reconciliation, they wouldn’t matter.”
The salient issue, it appeared, was one of vision: “You can’t build a shared future if you do not agree on the ultimate destination. It’s not possible for the DUP and Sinn Fein to create a shared future … because they despise each other.” Instead of expecting these two largest political parties to create a strategy, Mr Kane argued that it should happen naturally from within wider society: “You can’t legislate sharing.”
A staff member from the Equality Commission and I challenged this from the floor. I cited CRC Founding Director, Mari Fitzduff, who made the case that while identities are indeed resilient, behaviour can be changed through incentives. I gave specific examples of fair employment and social housing legislation.
In his summary and reflection remarks, Phil Woods said that we need to move beyond a bucket of frogs mentality, whereby just as a frog is about to escape, another one behind pulls it back. Or if a frog does escape, it never comes back. “We need kids to return to Northern Ireland and bring their world experiences back with them,” he said.
He was depressed by the tone of some of what he heard today: “This is the only place in the world I’ve been where the conversation always goes back to … a downward vortex.” He added that he does not accept a dereliction of duty of the political class, if only because he has seen political heroes elsewhere, especially in the Balkans, rise above the cynicism of peace agreements.
CRC Chief Executive, Jacqueline Irwin, closed the conference with special compliments to Nuala McKeever and thanks to all those responsible for the event.
She also said that “fear is stopping us from moving forward. We need to let go, in the name of our common humanity … we are the movement that will make the change”.