Co-existence in Northern Ireland? Compound

Co-existence in Northern Ireland?
I asked this question many years ago as we moved into a new era of peace and reconciliation. It was evident then that people couldn’t remember when the indigenous communities in Northern Ireland ever co-existed with each other. So I hosted an International seminar to look at coexistence and we learned that some countries involved in peace and reconciliation strategies had issues around co-existence and although schools encouraged integrated education and organisations provided inter community projects the participants returned to the shelter and the purportedly safety of their own community. Therefore almost 2 decades after the ground-breaking Good Friday Agreement are we any closer to co-existing? My opinion is a definite NO, and if at this stage you’re thinking “why don’t they just get over it and move on?” then you are underestimating the effects of “The Troubles”. The immense loss for all sides in this conflict has been too much for some whose fathers, mothers, uncles, neighbours have been murdered on both sides. Even though most people have tried to get on with their lives and definitely value the relative peace they now have, few have actually forgotten what happened. Emotions can still run high in some areas, especially when you add in the everyday problems of modern politics like unemployment, deprivation, the recession and cuts to public services. Northern Ireland’s politicians still have to deal with these issues, but the backdrop of split communities makes things that much more complicated. From 2011 – 2015 we had 89 persons in Government and 19 in Opposition. Truthfully we had a percentage of the Government in opposition to each other. This, not wanting to, or non-ability to, work together put strain on the electorate who voted for change. We could also see this type of “them and us” approach filtering through into local councils and in particular Belfast City Council where many PUL communities were feeling their culture, heritage and communities were being now discriminated against. Northern Ireland is completely different from the rest of the UK in the way we vote. . Because the two sides identify so closely with different religions, faith plays a very large part in Northern Irish politics. In particular an example is instead of, say, “left wing” or “right wing”, in Northern Ireland the two main political sides are distinguished by culture, history and religion. I believe it’s very important that people understand this before trying to get their heads around the way people vote and understand why we are so divided. The issues we currently face for example, deprivation, unemployment and the cuts to public services are now overshadowed by the emergence of the idea a two tier policing is in existence and the continued attacks by republican groups on anything that’s British (this was evidenced by the CIRA speech in Carrickmore over Easter). The world renowned Good Friday Agreement in 1998 laid plans for paramilitaries to hand over weapons and allowed some prisoners to be released. It also led to a reform of the police service, because the old police force – the RUC – wasn’t trusted by many nationalists and Republicans. This purported peace deal was also responsible for setting up a devolved Government in Northern Ireland. It was very clear that implementing this agreement was a very difficult objective and in 2006 a further meeting was required to clear up the obstacles in our devolved Government. This would go down in history as The St Andrews Agreement. The key elements of the agreement included the full acceptance of the PSNI by Sinn Fein restoration of the Assembly and a commitment by the DUP to power sharing with Republicans whilst restoring peace through the GFA, Loyalist groupings had influenced the cessation of violence and assisted in the decommissioning of Paramilitary weapons. However, representatives from Loyalist groupings were not present at this important meeting another form of non-inclusive work by our elected assembly. It is also believed that an agreement between Government and republicans allowed for around 200 letters to be given to leading IRA terrorists giving them a form of Amnesty that would not allow them to be charged with crimes related to the conflict. This hypocrisy angered the Protestant community, victims groups and Unionist Politicians. One rule for one terror group and none for others. This lack of trust has saw Protestant communities react in many ways against what they feel is discrimination and a lack of respect for their culture and heritage. We just need look at the parades issues and once again the Protestant community feel they are being discriminated against. Dissident Republican led community groups appearing to force decisions by policy makers to their demands through the threat of violence.
Belfast illustrates how far Northern Ireland has come and how far it has to go. Belfast, straddling the Lagan River has received much investment capital since the coming of peace. The city centre, once deserted after dark, is now a masterpiece of restored architecture and trendy boutiques. A new riverside promenade winds past a revitalized district, the Titanic Quarter, named for the doomed luxury liner that was built here in 1909-12. The Lagan, once a neglected, smelly and polluted river hosting Belfast Lough, has been dramatically rehabilitated; an underwater aeration system has vastly improved water quality. Walkways, cycle paths and new road restrictions are providing the city with greater accessibility for consumers and tourists. Probably the only place where we can co-exist is in Belfast City Centre. Pubs, theatres, cinemas, museums, restaurants and boutiques allow for members of our community to relax and unwind before returning to their segregated communities. However, around the perimeters of our City Centre we enter a different world. Here lies a plethora of religiously segregated communities. Walls separate some communities others are separated by imaginary lines that represent an interface but still these interfaces exist either physically or imaginary. Much community work over the years has assisted in reducing the conflict on interfaces however the telling of our history has reinforced barriers and continued the “them and us” attitudes. Politicians have manipulated our communities for their own political gain and in Unionist communities their failure to recognise their responsibility to accept that Loyalism was important and those who engaged in the conflict should be included in the political world or included in all talks relating to peace is this country. I believe that it will take decades for the hatred to end. I also believe that Northern Ireland’s best hope of peace and coexistence lies with the very men who once engaged in the conflict. I’m not trying to justify the conflict, but I do believe that sometimes the only ones who can make peace are those who engaged in the violence. If we look at the suicide rate among Belfast’s youth that has risen sharply since the Troubles ended, I believe a factor in this is due to the fact that the youth had a sense of camaraderie and a feeling of a shared struggle provided by the paramilitary groups. This has been replaced by ennui and despair and a high level of criminality which included the profit for ex paramilitaries in the supply of drugs. This criminality and lingering sectarian tensions are also discouraging investment in communities. However, the replacement of lurid paramilitary murals with historical and cultural murals and the perceived peace is a move towards making areas accessible to others. I don’t believe when Sir Edward Carson said, “We used to say that we could not trust an Irish parliament in Dublin to do justice to the Protestant minority. Let us take care that that reproach can no longer be made against your parliament… let them see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from A Protestant majority.” Sir Edward Carson, Ulster Unionist leader, 1921, he meant for existing Government and Assembly to redress the balance by discriminating against Protestants. Surely the great man wanted and fought for a fair and equal society for Northern Ireland.
So did the ceasefires, decommissioning of arms, the Good Friday Agreement or the St Andrews Agreement assist in the co-existence of the communities in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately I think not. They call it Power Sharing and use terminology like inclusive and shared futures but really do they think the working class people in this country are fools? I see it only as a division of power between Unionism and Republicanism that fosters the division between working class communities pushing apart those on the ground by creating feelings of losing territory, culture and heritage. A shared future oops I’m afraid not. The only thing our MLAs share is expenses and government funding. Unfortunately my idea of a Northern Ireland where everyone can live together, express and share their culture, live without fear and trust that those in power are working for us and have no hidden agendas is a fiction of my imagination. So can we co-exist? Not now. Could we ever? Well the future is with our young people now. We have failed them and unless they make small changes then we will be stuck in this abyss for many more centuries.

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