Stalled progress

Twenty one years on from the Good Friday Agreement it is clear that Northern Ireland does not have the settled and just peace that we expected.  This was clear before the terrible killing of Lyra McKee, but it is even more clear now.  That tragedy has amplified the sense in which progress has stalled or worse.

Northern Ireland society has made far too little progress over the last 21 years.  Society remains to a large extent segregated; suicide rates are terribly high; far too many children leave school without the basic and life skills they need; drug dependence is widespread; poverty rates are high; our economy is too small; where economic improvement takes place the benefits are not spread across all of Northern Ireland; thousands of our teenagers feel forced to leave every year to make a better life elsewhere.  And, of course, we still have murders carried out by paramilitaries.

None of this is acceptable.  The next few weeks need to be a period of reflection.  If we keep doing what we have done, the same outcome is likely.  We must break out of the cycle.

Coincidentally, a series of podcasts was launched on Good Friday in which leading figures in Northern Ireland and the Republic consider how we can move ahead – indeed the series is called ‘Forward Together’.  We asked sensible people sensible questions – ‘how do we strengthen civic society?’; ‘how do we achieve a shared and integrated society?’; ‘how do we deal with the past and do so in ways that achieve reconciliation?’; and ‘how do we address the constitutional question without generating division?’.

Remarkably, responses have been wide ranging, while all being positive.  The answers have been imaginative and different, rather than being repetitions of the same few suggestions.  Happily only one person approached declined to be interviewed.  People who have themselves thought long and hard about how we fully put The Troubles behind us have been keen to share their thoughts.

In that first Good Friday podcast, Bishop Ken Good – the Church of Ireland bishop of the cross-border diocese of Derry and Raphoe – emphasised the Christian message of forgiveness and repentance, urging other Christians to practice this principle.  He also expressed his frustration at how our political system and the media culture emphasise division rather than focusing on the points of consensus.

Former Ulster Unionist Party leader and former victims commissioner Mike Nesbitt in the second podcast interview considered the future of unionism.  He concluded that a civic unionist movement needs to be created that is parallel to the emerging civic nationalist movement that was displayed at the recent ‘Beyond Brexit’ event at the Waterfront Hall.  Mike contemplated how this might lead to a positive coming together of civic unionism and civic nationalism.

In this Friday’s third podcast interview, Avila Kilmurray – a co-founder of the Women’s Coalition – argues that civic society organisations have been undervalued.  She argues “civil society in many ways was the backbone of society in the 70s, 80s, 90s”, but that the strength of that experience is being drained away.  Avila suggests that the lack of trust placed today by politicians in civil society is in fact a reflection of their lack of self-confidence.

We are releasing two podcasts a week for a period of around three months – more than 30 interviews have been conducted.  Each is very different and each contains ideas that warrant discussion.  Next week Frances Black – a senator in the Oireachtas, a famous singer and with family roots in Rathlin Island – considers the relationship between The Troubles, addiction and serious social problems.

Across those 30 plus interviews many well known voices will be heard.  They include Linda Ervine, a unionist who is also an Irish language activist; Professor Jim Dornan, who was key in developing some aspects of cross-border healthcare; Peter Sheridan of Co-operation Ireland and a former senior RUC officer; and Maeve McLaughlin of ‘the Derry Model’.  Political voices include independent unionist MLA Claire Sugden; Green Party leader Clare Bailey; DUP former finance minister Simon Hamilton; and Sinn Fein former finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.

We also interviewed three writers who have researched the past to ask them what they have learnt from their work and what the wider society can learn from past events and their impact.

If there was one message I expected to hear from the interviews, it was the importance of integrated education.  Instead, I heard the caution from Bishop Ken Good, who warned that “to talk about the magic bullet of ‘educate them together and everything will be fine’ is too simplistic”.

Rather the impression I have been left with is the commonality of the experience of The Troubles.  Communities that identified differently in fact had very similar experiences of tragedies, deaths and deprivation.  If that commonality of experience could be accepted then greater progress might be achieved.

And across loyalist, unionist, nationalist and republican voices, there was a respect for the use of citizens’ assemblies in the Republic.  Serious consideration needs to be given to how citizens’ assemblies might be adopted more widely in Northern Ireland to address the very many problems we are facing – and which are felt across the sectarian divide in similar ways.

I recently attended a talk organised by the Wave Trauma Centre, where survivors of The Troubles talked about their disabilities and the loss of close family members.  School pupils attended from a range of colleges.  One of the pupils said how deeply he had been affected by this experience and how much better it would be if schools taught history in ways that showed the personal damage caused by past violence, rather than focusing only on the political disagreements related to different identities.

If more of us could recognise those similarities and the human impact of division, perhaps we could achieve much faster progress towards healing.  That might sound optimistic, but there is probably no real alternative.

  • The ‘Forward Together’ series of podcasts can be heard though the Holywell Trust peace and reconciliation charity’s website and the Slugger O’Toole website. They are funded by the Media Grant Scheme of the Community Relations Council for Northern Ireland.

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