As Chair of the Community Relations Council, Peter Osborne, welcomed delegates to their annual policy and practice conference at Stormont Hotel, Belfast, he explained the event theme, “One Place — Many People”:
“All of us in this room are a minority of some sort; we are all minorities in this place we call home.”
Mr Osborne added that it will be relationships between us that will dismantle bigotry and sectarianism. But that ordinary people in Northern Ireland are suffering from crisis fatigue in the political realm, undermining trust in power sharing:
“There’s only one conclusion from staggering [from one crisis to another]: you fall.”
He underlined the important role of civil society, informing the audience of a fresh initiative called Galvanising the Peace, which the Community Relations Council is helping to facilitate.
The first guest speaker was Mark Browne, from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMdFM). He described the framework for the Government’s current policy on community relations, Together: Building a United Community (TBUC).
Mr Browne cited a list of TBUC accomplishments to date:
- the first (of ten) shared neighbourhood projects started (Ballynafoy Close)
- six proposals for shared education campuses are under consideration
- a 12-week cross-community sports programme pilot was completed (Lower Falls and Greater Village), with a second phase underway
- interface barriers have been reduced from 59 to 52, with formal engagement in 40 of the 52 remaining structures
- 154 applications received for united youth programmes, with £2.2m pledged for 13 projects
- five urban villages announced
- 70 summer camp pilot programmes completed; 35 scheduled over autumn
He added that work is also underway to deliver further actions, as part of ten-year lifespan of the TBUC strategy. Though in this regard, he said that this would be done with assistance from a wide range of organisations in the voluntary and community sector.
In the subsequent question and answer session, several asked Mr Browne if the sector was adequate equipped (read: funded). The senior civil servant replied that his job is to advise the ministers of the implications of their decisions, including not making decisions. Yet he also reminded the audience that funding issues for the sector are directly linked to the wider debate on the current budget (welfare reform impasse).
The keynote speaker was the Editor of The Detail, Steven McCaffery, who explained their infographics campaign, which has now been resurrected onto roadside billboards and telephone kiosks.
The motivation behind the campaign was twofold: (1) there were certain, important items not making it onto the news agenda; and (2) what was being publicly discussed was “cyclical slogans”.
The campaign’s objective is to push facts into our conversation, onto mainstream media, to challenge political discourse:
“While some of our politics feels frozen, our society is changing. In time, we must influence politics.” said Mr Caffery.
Even if that seems elusive, he added that at least it is vital to ensure that local communities are up to speed with reality, across various topics such as demographics, parades, language, the past, education, and the changing political landscape across these islands.
For the next few hours, delegates attended two workshops of their choosing:
- Our shared community (Marion Jamison and Rab McCallum)
- Our safe community (Mick Fealty)
- Our cultural identity (Shona McCarthy)
- Our children and young people (Koulla Yiasouma)
After rapporteurs provided feedback to the reconvened assembly, workshop panellists shared their learning.
Mick Fealty (Slugger O’Toole) positively cited our resilient cross-community relationships in Northern Ireland, but observed that we don’t appear to have any collective strategy to put this to good use. In regards to paramilitaries (former and current), he said that we need to separate their positive and negative forms of social capital, in a defensible, transparent and accountable way.
Koulla Yiasouma (Commissioner for Children and Young People) suggested that it is not just the case of ‘fix the kids and you fix the world’; they live in an environment that we’ve created. For her, children and young people have rights in the here and now: “They’re human beings, not human becomings.”
Marion Jamison (REACT) said that in regards to relationship buildings, you may not like what you hear from others, nor they of what you say, but truth is the key basis of such work. She suggested that politicians could learn from grassroots work, citing the Galvanising the Peace workshop sessions highlighting priority issues of health, education and policing.
Rab McCallum (North Belfast Interface Network) saw a reinvigorated community relations sector, but also expressed frustration with the political sector, noting that there were no elected representatives attending today: “Why do they not feel the need to engage with us?”
Shona McCarthy (Shona McCarthy Consulting) discussed the importance of the arts and conflict resolution, arguing that public funding is an investment for future returns, not a grant for a bookended project. Referring to her work for Derry-Londonderry City of Culture 2013, she asked why not have a region of culture, with relevant constructs and structures? For this, the Government will need to have a profound commitment to culture and the arts.
Summing up this well-attended conference event was CRC Chief Executive, Jacqueline Irwin, who attempted to put the day’s discussion into perspective:
“We are not at the start of a peace process. We are in the middle of it, a muddle of a peace and political process. Yet no one else has been in our place. We need to learn from what we have done so far.”
Ms Irwin then applied a safety net metaphor:
“The Community Relations Council has been a safety net, and some have fallen through the holes. But that means we need to weave the net tighter.”
Here, her proposal is for more local peace processes, like micro versions of the grand one we experienced, as well as to connect these up together. Ms Irwin’s hope is that we don’t need to address exceptional measures (emergency programmes), because everyone will be collaborative:
“A society that is working together is knit together.”
We need to knit in the political sector.
Allan Leonard is a board member of the Community Relations Council.