I doubt this will be the only time this is addressed not only because it is a contentious issue, but also because it is an issue that relates to my PhD studies and to my work with FMPCI. I had been thinking of posting something about this since about November last year when I started giving the subject some critical attention after attending the Inter-Irish Church Meeting in Edgehill Theological College. However, credit where credit is due – the reason I am writing about this today is because it was brought to my mind by Peter Stitt (writer at Liberal Meritocracy) after he wrote a very nonchalant piece that mentioned the issue.
First off, let’s not be too trite. This is a big issue. It will be a source of contention in Northern Irish politics for the coming decade – of that there is no doubt. What is up for grabs however is how the contention is managed. Historically, the Northern Ireland assembly have not been too great at dealing with these sorts of things.
There are a number of issues to consider:
The Political Ramifications
The Alliance party seem to be the only ones dealing with the issue from a holistic perspective at the moment – at least realistically. Unsurprisingly, and correctly, they want to use the coming decade as an opportunity to bolster economic and cultural development throughout Northern Ireland. However, Alliance are not coy – they are acutely aware of how tenuous talk of this can be, and with their holding of the Justice ministry being called into question of late, their ability to affect change in a decade such as the one we are in is questionable and hangs in the balance.
There has ben posturing from Sinn Fein and the DUP, and they are making the right sorts of noises, but when push comes to shove are they really angling for a shared future, and a dignified look at the past? If we are to look in any detail at their publication of Cohesion, Sharing and Integration document (PDF) there seems to be no inherenet plans, or agenda for how exactly they are going to achieve cohesion, sharing or integration. It’s disappointing that this document, which could have been a signpost to a brighter future has been usurped by niceties, banalities and frivolity.
Everything for the coming decade rests on Politics. It needs to be right here before it can be right elsewhere. If there is a lack of clarity about the contentious celebrations (most obviously the Signing of the Ulster Covenant 1912 and the Easter Rising 1916) it could have disastrous social, cultural and future ramifications from which an emerging government like Northern Ireland could find it hard to recover.
Now, am I saying that this will make or break the devolution agreement? Am I saying this will lead to the resuspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly? No. But, what I am saying is, it could add unnecessary weight and strain to a still young government.
The Social Ramifications
This decade has the potential to be commandered by extremists on both sides if it is mismanaged at the political level and it has serious ramifications for the future peace agenda in Northern Ireland if this is the case. For this not to be the case it will require shrewd political management and innovative grassroots execution. The Assembly must rely on ground level, community services to deliver these programs contextually and sensitively.
As a community worker myself, I have some cards in play here. It’s important for the communities in which I work, and indeed, communities across Northern Ireland that this is done right. An improper celebration of these events could be catastrophic on the ground where most of the tension still exists.
There is no doubt that Northern Ireland has come on leaps and bounds in the last number of years, and I for one hope to see that continue. However, there is still a lot of ‘unknowing’ and fear on the ground. No matter how much the Assembly and political parties have come on they simply must take the people with them, otherwise they are not leaders, they are merely innovators. In 1971 an official Working Group on Peace Walls expressed its concern at the erection of interface barriers, that if they remained then the “abnormal becomes the normal”. Unfortunately, this has happened. Peace walls are normal. Division is normal. This is a problem for communities in Northern Ireland. I would like to signpost at this point to a post on Slugger O’Toole highlighting the work of Dr Jonny Byrne who has written extensively and researched peace walls. He notes that division runs deeper than peace walls, indeed, from my own observations I would suggest that there is a bit of an identity crisis brewing beneath the surface in Northern Ireland.
In short, this decade needs to be managed properly at the community level.
The Futurist Ramifications
There seems to be a bit of snowball effect here. Proper political management cascades into proper community management which will trickle down to a sense of hope and expectancy for the future. This decade has the opportunity to secure a shared future and I hope it does.