Cohesion, Sharing and Integration: Northern Ireland Can Do Better

image The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a British charity which has funded human rights, peace and equality work in Northern Ireland since the 1970s, today released a damning response to the OFMDFM’s Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) document.

CSI is widely seen as a replacement for the previous Shared Future document, which was crafted during Direct Rule. The CSI document is currently being subjected to a  consultation process, which includes public meetings and an invitation to craft individual responses.

Rowntree’s report was prepared by Prof. Jennifer Todd, Director of the Institute for British Irish Studies (IBIS) at UCD and Prof. Joseph Ruane of UCC. It can be read in full here.

Along with Todd and Ruane, I agree that CSI is wrong to abandon the process of reconciliation in favour of ‘mutual accommodation.’ I also suspect that CSI wishes to scrap or seriously compromise the work of the Community Relations Council.

This is my response:

The issues raised in the OFMDFM’s CSI policy document are among the most important facing Northern Ireland today. In recent months, Northern Ireland has seen increases in interface violence (i.e. during the ‘marching season’) and attacks by dissident republicans, not to mention ongoing sectarian and hate crime incidents.

While we have had relative peace in Northern Ireland since the Agreement of 1998, it is important that policy makers are vigilant so that Northern Ireland does not sleepwalk its way back to the Troubles.

It is my concern that CSI, rather than laying out a vision and a plan to take Northern Ireland towards a better future, actually provides a framework that could facilitate such ‘sleepwalking.’

CSI falls far short of the vision and plans laid out in the previous Shared Future document, which – if we need reminding – was produced through a long and comprehensive engagement with civil society.

Now, the input of those civil society actors, including many world-leading conflict resolution and reconciliation practitioners, has been tossed aside in a favour of a limited and limiting document. Among the problems with CSI:

Abandoning Reconciliation

The Shared Future document referred to reconciliation as a process and a goal that was worthy of working toward. Reconciliation is an ambitious objective. But comparisons with other post-conflict societies show that if reconciliation is not pursued, it is all too easy to slip back into old patterns of separation, division, and the renewal of violence.

Reconciliation is never mentioned in the CSI document. Rather, there is talk of an ‘intercultural’ society and ‘mutual accommodation.’ This seems to indicate that OFMDFM is content to settle for a begrudging, ‘benign’ apartheid.

CSI conceptualises relationships in quite static terms, referring to interacting and learning about other cultures. But it does not recognise the possibility of changing cultural identities, except perhaps in the very long term. It also does not recognise the potential of creating inclusive, overarching identities that can transcend (and be held along with) traditional communal identities.

Conflict resolution and reconciliation practitioners can testify that these changes are possible and have indeed happened (albeit slowly in many cases). This is confirmed by a growing body of academic research on identity and cultural change. To close off this potential for change, as CSI seems to do, is short-sighted.

The related issues of ‘dealing with the past’ and victim/survivor support are also not integrated into CSI. Again, comparative international research and experience demonstrate that reconciliation is much more difficult when the past is buried or ignored (rather than debated and discussed through public institutional forums), and when the needs of victims and survivors are not taken adequately into account.

CSI’s simplistic pledges to get flags removed underestimate the depth of the problems and the issues involved. As long as Northern Ireland’s past is not dealt with, groups that would still see violence as a political tool can keep drawing on the past to justify their actions.

Taming Civil Society

The CSI document frequently mentions working alongside communities to develop and implement policies. It is admirably vague about how this might happen.

Most alarmingly, it proposes replacing the current Community Relations Council (CRC) with some other sort of institutional arrangement. It provides four options for this, all four of which place more power in the hands of a proposed governmental Ministerial Panel and less in the hands of people who have years of experience in facilitating dialogue and reconciliation work on the ground.

It speaks of practitioners and academics being at ‘arms length’ and acting as ‘critical friends’ of the Ministerial Panel. But it is likely that under such arrangements, these ‘critical friends’ would lack true independence and could be much more easily ignored than a body like the current CRC.

From an international perspective, the establishment of the CRC was one of the most innovative and effective strategies undertaken during the Northern Ireland conflict. Some of my current research is on Zimbabwe, where an organisation like a CRC would be immensely helpful in coordinating the work of civil society groups, monitoring the quality of reconciliation work, and spreading the word about ‘best practice’ in conflict resolution and community development.

Curtailing the power and the functions of the CRC would greatly compromise ongoing conflict resolution and reconciliation work. It also is worth pointing out that the Shared Future process resulted in a recommendation for a CRC-like body to continue its work.

Does the reconciliatory work of the CRC somehow challenge the ‘benign’ apartheid agenda of CSI?

Do we need reminding that In an ethnic party political system, like we have in Northern Ireland, it is in the electoral interests of the ethnically-based political parties to keep people in their ethnic blocks?

Further, the fact that the entire Shared Future consultation process has been ignored by OFMDFM should be enough to raise alarm bells within Northern Irish civil society.

After all, the Shared Future process was admirably comprehensive and many civil society groups had their say. They said that reconciliation is important. They said that reconciliation is hard work that requires support from government in financial terms as well as the independence to critique government policies and innovate new practices on the ground.

There is a real danger that CSI comes to civil society at a time when there is ‘consultation fatigue.’ For example, after the Shared Future we had the Eames-Bradley consultation process on Dealing with the Past, the recommendations of which have been swept under the carpet by the British Government and studiously ignored by OFMDFM.

As the authors of the report on CSI for the Rowntree Charitable Trust (October 2010) put it, ‘effective critical friendship requires equality of status which does not exist when one of the ‘friends’ is the government. It is in government’s own best interest to create a watchdog, not a poodle.’

Long on Platitudes, Short on Policy

CSI is a consultation document so we cannot expect it to be comprehensive in its policy aims. But much of the document is comprised of banal statements with which all could be expected to agree: it is a cheerleader for ‘equality of opportunity’ and the inclusion of ethnic minorities. There is not nearly so much mention of people with disabilities or from the LGBT community.

It is admirable that both the Shared Future and CSI recognise the presence and contribution of Northern Ireland’s various ‘communities.’ But the language of CSI makes me suspect that OFMDFM wants to deal with relationships between Catholics and Protestants, and other ethnic and minority groups, in the same way. This shows a stunning disregard for Northern Ireland history, and it is not realistic or appropriate.

With the taming of the CRC and civil society, as seemingly envisioned by CSI, it will be much harder to monitor and evaluate any progress (or lack thereof) in the relationships between all of Northern Ireland’s communities.

Can Northern Ireland Afford a Shared Future?

The Shared Future process and the document that resulted from it, while not without its shortcomings, is a much better starting point for moving Northern Ireland forward than the CSI document. Throughout CSI, reference is made to the current difficult economic climate. With cuts all around, CSI may be hinting that Northern Ireland just can’t afford a shared future.

I think it is important to put it in this perspective: what costs more –economically in terms of pounds and pence, as well as emotionally in terms of social capital and general good will – policing riots in the Ardoyne, or funding some community workers on the ‘peace walls’?

Serious grassroots conflict resolution and reconciliation work is far more cost-effective than any sort of security or police response. We need investment in community relations right now, not after a period in which CSI has encouraged separate cultural development, resulting in further deterioration in community relations.

Summary of Key Points

  • Restore reconciliation – not mutual accommodation – to the agenda
  • Reconciliation is not possible without ‘dealing with the past’ and adequately addressing the needs of victims and survivors. This should be recognised by OFMDFM and integrated into any future community relations policy
  • Despite ‘consultation fatigue,’ Northern Irish civil society is responding to CSI. Listen! Civil society contributed a great deal during the Shared Future process, which represents a much better starting point than CSI for building a better Northern Ireland
  • Northern Ireland needs an independent community relations body like the CRC that cannot be easily co-opted or controlled by Government
  • Grassroots conflict resolution and reconciliation work is cost-effective, especially when compared to expensive security responses

Dr Gladys Ganiel, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, October 4, 2010

(Photo: statue in Stormont, sourced on flickr, by billpolley)

2 thoughts on “Cohesion, Sharing and Integration: Northern Ireland Can Do Better”

  1. This piece was very helpful at a meeting I attended tonight where several people from a variety of backgrounds were considering how to respond to the CSI document. Thanks Gladys. Tim Foley.

Leave a Reply