Equity Diversity Interdependence
Promoting a Peaceful and Fair
Society based on Reconciliation
and Mutual Trust.
Towards a Shared Future
Address to CRC Policy Development Conference, Belfast. 28th May 2004
There can be no greater issue in Northern Irish politics than the question of what kind of future we wish to create for ourselves. Indeed, if the peace process has been the overarching theme with which we have all been engaged for the last decade, then 'A Shared Future' encapsulates (some would say 'at last') the peace outcome which the whole enterprise has been aimed at.
The goal of peace in a divided society is a peace where the principle of antagonism – politics shaped on the basis that everything is a zero-sum competition between exclusive rival visions – is transcended by a recognition that progress and development are only meaningful in real terms if they include those very same others we have antagonised and been antagonised by. It is a recognition that the principle of human sacrifice for political goals gives way to a principle of political sacrifice for human goals. A culture of tolerance and variety is a culture where we do not have to fight for our difference but where our differences are recognised, lived out and freed to change and grow.
The Shared Future review should therefore be a key element of policy making in Northern Ireland. To date it has not been so. Improving community relations, or, even better, seeking good relations, remains a moral obligation to which lip service is paid, but which is usually postponed until after the last and (supposedly) decisive battle and/or left to others. Even programmes like the massive EU Peace Programme have had to struggle to insist on peace distinctiveness against the well-developed tendency in Northern Ireland to accept the cheque without making the change. Furthermore, that failure is then turned on community relations as evidence that the 'massive' (!!) peace industry is failing. As a representative of the most publicly identifiable body which acts to distribute focussed support money for reconciliation in Northern Ireland, I would like to place on record that the massive industry of public assertion is far away from the small sums we distribute in fact.
What we now know, ten years into the peace process, is that transforming a society from antagonism to peace will not happen through political fiat. The truth is that antagonism runs through the veins and sinews of our society, and is reproduced at local level, in our institutions and in our perception of what is 'normal'. Much of the discussion about group rights and individual rights that has taken place in human rights circles is a discussion about how quickly or how thoroughly we will move from antagonism and how best to manage the transition. Antagonism means that our communities have grown up as 'not the others' as much as communities focussed on single positive goals. At every turn, the presumption of enmity and antagonism justifies our lack of trust. The presumption that 'they' will exclude or eliminate us and everything that they don't like about us justifies our need to do the same to them.
Transition in this context means moving from one state to another, from antagonism to recognition. Otherwise, our so-called peace process will be little more than a gap in the level of our hostilities, as antagonism reinforces itself and regroups for the next enemy encounter. But transition from antagonism to peace means working towards an end to antagonism while antagonism still exists - and good reasons for the fear and anxiety of others also still exist. In the midst of transition is widespread and deep uncertainty about whether or who to trust, as the common sense of the past (prepare to defend yourself) gives way to a new necessity for the future (recognise your enemy as your friend). In a context where sharing is nobody's aspiration but everybody's predicament, Northern Ireland is a deeply ambivalent place, between the need to move on with others and the need to stay vigilant against them – 'just in case'.
The measure of progress in a peace process cannot therefore be attached to any single change – political, social or historic. Overall the question is whether we are moving from a culture of antagonism into one where a different presumption is normalised in each sphere. This is not a top-down or a bottom-up process (as the jargon has it) it is an either-or process – either antagonism or not antagonism. There is no order of causality, no first or second, but a role for everyone to contribute to acts of trust rather than acts of suspicious enmity. And in the middle of transition the priority is keeping alive the necessity of facing the crucial decisions across every element of public life, even while the doubts still remain.
No amount of money spent to achieve peace and reconciliation will achieve its goal if it does not embed and develop a culture which leaves antagonism behind. The paradox is that every time we confront our antagonism we are brought back into its orbit, so dealing with it threatens to derail the project every time. The very process of addressing issues, risks bringing back conflict. But there is no choice but to set the goal and embrace the risks and setbacks intrinsic to this enterprise. What cannot be allowed to happen is any deviation from the goal of a society beyond antagonism. The difference will not be made by the size of the cheque but by what we choose to spend it on. Otherwise, as a colleague recently remarked to me, we will continue to spend millions of pounds of money without producing the right amount of outcomes.
As we come to the end of the Shared Future process, it is crucial to re-emphasise our priorities. The vision of a shared future and the measure of progress that flow from it must be embedded at the heart of government policy. There is no doubt that this is a long-term project. Nonetheless, if the vision of the first Programme for Government—of 'a peaceful, inclusive, prosperous, stable and fair society firmly founded on the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust'—is ever to be more than empty words, this version of community relations must be an essential element of any meaningful public policy mix. 'Shared' does not mean homogenous. In fact by recognising the need to share, we recognise that different people are working together. What is critical is that the rules of engagement are those appropriate to democratic equals working for their collective benefit and not those of mortal enemies working for insular community self-interest.
Without the vision at the core of government, all talk of 'joining up' is likely to remain rhetorical. Departments will continue to duck and dive and prevaricate. It is essential to orientate policy towards this goal, even if the specific policies which result will have to be adjusted to prevailing conditions. Policing, planning and service provision are as important as housing, education and community development. Cultural policy, investment and targeting social need in a meaningful way all demand that serious attention is paid to the imperative to support the emergence of a shared future. Anything less than this vision pays lip service to a peace process and avoids the consequences in practice.
All of this work needs to be informed by a new definition of improving community relations in Northern Ireland. This means moving on from a definition of improving relations that measures success through instant harmony to one that tackles real and outstanding obstacles to ending antagonism. Until now, the lazy tendency to caricature community relations work as the search for a naïve harmony and wellbeing means that any work is usually dismissed in the next breath as irrelevant and lacking in application to those in greatest need.
Community relations is about ending antagonism: making this place work 'with others', not 'without others'. Alongside constitutional politics, agreed security arrangements and human rights and equality legislation, community relations policy and strategy is the final critical element of any inclusive peace-building strategy in Northern Ireland, applying to all organisations and structures which foster defensiveness, avoidance or mistrust.
In spite of its apparent status as 'a waste of time', ongoing inter-community violence and tensions continue to demand a public response. Too often, community relations work has been invoked to bind up the wounds of antagonism but not to challenge its structure or purpose. After violence erupts, elected democratic politicians find themselves obliged to respond as a matter of urgency, although they are often, indeed usually, elected to articulate the hopes and fears of one side of this conflict relationship alone. This raises a deep dilemma: not to promote community relations appears to collude in non-democratic violence, but to promote it in such circumstances prioritises inter-community harmony over the fears and hopes of the community the politician is elected to represent.
The most likely contexts in which this dilemma will be exposed include violence at inter-community interfaces, over community self-celebration (such as parades) or against the police. When violence erupts, politicians find themselves obliged to retreat from any pretence that they represent all of the people to a situation where they 'take sides'. The result is usually a policy mix to manage the consequences while maintaining the system.
Such management of conflict usually involves:
This last element can easily be accused of rewarding bad behaviour and opens up a potential vista of open-ended blackmail. Responsible politicians and their civil servants are therefore usually concerned to limit or close down expectations at the very same moment as expectations are raised, leaving a residue of cynicism in many interface communities.
The mere management of conflict in areas where violence is feared or prevalent will predictably require that those in positions of public authority, whether political or administrative, turn a blind eye to local paramilitary formations. Elected politicians claiming their legitimacy as democrats, and their administrative servants, are obliged to pretend that they are 'against paramilitaries' with one breath while being 'realistic' with another, interacting with paramilitary leaders on a daily basis.
In practice, community relations work becomes reduced to targeted political management in interface areas, again measured by the presence or absence of riots. Success is measured by the absence of visible violence, or, at least, its containment in marginal areas. While this may be rather brutal and bleak, obliging people at the interface to live with peace walls, hostility, unpromising economic prospects and paramilitary control, it is at least better than the system-threatening prospect of cross community political breakdown. In the face of three and a half decades of violence, and decades or centuries of tension and sporadic violence before them, it is a compliment to the continuing democratic aspirations of communities and politicians in Northern Ireland that community relations work has emerged at all.
The greatest problem with 'management-as-solution' for community relations is that it holds out no prospect of coming to an end. Predictably:
'Discrimination by postcode', whereby simply coming from an area is ground for suspicion, becomes part of a deepening cycle of local deprivation. Interface communities will either be areas of persistent mass unemployment or characterised by out-migration. These in their turn are the roots of the next round of instability. The only thinkable solution becomes the eradication of one side of the interface (always the others) by the numerical victory of our own side, and the gradual creation of larger apartheid blocks of population from which 'the others' are excluded.
In the interim, public tranquillity is mistaken for peace, reinforcing an illusion among citizens living at a distance from immediate danger that they have no responsibility for change or encouraging the presumption that the wider problem of a lack of fundamental trust has ceased to exist. Northern Ireland remains mired in its own political paradox: those with the greatest interest in change (i.e. those living on or near an inter-community interface) are those with the least possibilities of political influence, while those with greater power of political and social action have no interest in engagement. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland exports much of its brightest and best young talent.
The only convincing version of community relations work sets its goals far beyond managerialism. In this view, community relations work is the search for the foundations of trust between all people in Northern Ireland who have been divided on the basis of perceived political, cultural, religious or ethnic background. In a profound sense, community relations work is the assertion that core democratic values—equity (justice and equality), diversity (variety and freedom) and interdependence (relatedness and social cohesion)—must prevail above and along with all and any claims to 'national sovereignty'. Community relations strategy is designed to promote and prefer efforts at embedding of trust and dialogue in a context where both have been at a premium and the growth of critical bridging and linking social capital which are the sine qua non of a sustainable society and economy. It is intrinsically practical, seeking to build trust in concrete situations, characterised by confidence, ease of interaction and freedom of expression and movement. It is measured not by surface harmony, but by an increasing area of public life and interaction which can fruitfully and practically address real differences and conflicts with tin the prospect of a shared future rather than antagonism.
Defined in this way, community relation work looks beyond the polar duality of Catholic-Protestant or nationalist-unionist to include the quality of relationships across new and emerging divisions. The embedding of a capacity for dialogue in the social institutions of Northern Ireland is likely to become ever more important in a globalising economy. Furthermore, dialogue including members of new ethnic minorities extends from the core of Northern Ireland rather than treating small minorities as 'additional', and it does so while acknowledging the ongoing reality of 'traditional' divisions.
For a serious project to begin, government has to will the means and the mechanism. This is not primarily a question of budget size, but of the identification of priorities. It is also a question of balancing wide participation with the need to sustain the vision. Thus, the principle that politicians lead (which is crucial) must sit alongside, and cannot override, the principle that politicians are mutually accountable to the vision of a shared future. In the context of transition, this means that the ongoing demands of representing antagonism cannot suspend the capacity to continue with policy aimed at ensuring good relations into the longer run. Thus, at least in the interim, it is essential that an independent regional body like CRC, drawing on leadership beyond party allegiance, continues to exist, albeit with new powers and responsibilities and some party political membership.
The same issue applies to District Councils. Local flexibility and participation are certainly key values in embedding a shared future as is the integration of community relations into wider community strategy. But there is no point in promoting the role of Councils if they have neither the vision nor the capacity to act. The regional body should be given a role in transferring these responsibilities and skills over time, based on already existing practice and regional networks which alone have the knowledge and commitment to embed new practice.
Ending antagonism is the generational project in Northern Ireland, whatever its ultimate constitutional destiny. A Shared Future is one in which the principle of insular community self-interest has given way to the democratic imperative of participation as full citizens in a common endeavour. It is critical that we seize the opportunity of A Shared Future now and give it the priority it deserves.
 See Robert Putnam's work on social capital for a more detailed analysis.