Fifteen years on from achieving the Good Friday Agreement, the situation of Northern Ireland shows some remarkable improvements. Paramilitary violence is all but over. A political accommodation has been achieved between ‘hardline’ representatives of two constitutional opposites — Sinn Féin and the DUP.
Unfortunately, segregation in Northern Ireland remains. It can be seen in formal, public policies — through separate schools systems, duplicate leisure and social service facilities, and restrictive social categorisation of individuals in equality monitoring. It affects the choices people make in their daily lives — where to live, where to shop, what sport to play, which friends to make.
This has a cost, human and financial. The human costs include being intimidated out of your home, being accosted because you’ve walked into the ‘wrong’ part of the neighbourhood, being bullied at school because of where you or your parents came from, being prejudiced towards others out of ignorance or outright hatred.
Financially, research by professional services firm, Deloitte, estimates that the cost of the effects of Northern Ireland’s divided society is up to £1.5 billion, every year. Put another way, if the population was able to progress to a more shared future, then the savings could be applied to improving vital services for everyone.
Challenges include the need for locally elected representatives — both at the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as the reformed local District Councils — to make hard decisions about the allocation of budgets, priorities and services.
Progress will have been made when such choices are made on the merits of the issue at hand, and not by politics of identity. Furthermore, the more the local communities and neighbourhoods have ownership of the decisions affecting them, the better.
Achieving this goal will require political and community leadership. We wish to contribute here, particularly in promoting a new generation of political leaders. In addition to attracting young people, with their refreshing idealism, we also need those with longer life experiences — personal and professional — who so far have remained outside the political arena.
It is clear that there is much work to be done. Success will occur over a longer timeframe — decades and generations, not in a few months or years. At least as much time and effort that went into normalising and progressing relations in the political realm — namely the British and Irish governments, political parties within Northern Ireland, and the role of the wider international community, especially the United States and the European Union — will be required to secure the peace and advance Northern Ireland.
As the work to secure a durable peace in Northern Ireland is far from finished — some would say it’s only begun — it is important to learn and apply the appropriate lessons from our peace processes here to other areas of conflict across the world. Likewise, there is much to learn from others’ experiences of developing more cohesive societies. It is important not to think that Northern Ireland has solved it all, that the methods used can simply be transplanted elsewhere.
In Northern Ireland, there are many organisations and individuals who have worked for peace and progress, who remained committed to that cause. We do not seek to replicate any such work. Indeed, we will need to partner up with those with the practical experience required for our work and programmes.
We will work intelligently and proactively, with imagination and creativity. We will make best use of our independence, to encourage leadership and challenge stagnation. We will encourage everyone to get involved and do his or her part.
We believe that now is the right time for us to step up and make our contribution towards a progressive and outward-looking Northern Ireland society, our future together.