Crossing Boundaries in a Policy Vacuum? Community Relations after the Flags Protest Roundtable

ibisflagsLast night I participated in a roundtable discussion at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, hosted by the Institute for British Irish Studies at UCD, titled ‘Community Relations in Northern Ireland after the Flags Protests.’ I’ve posted a summary of the event on the Slugger O’Toole blog.  The event was focused around the results of a report, ‘The Long View of Community Relations in Northern Ireland: 1989-2012,’ by Duncan Morrow, Gillian Robinson and Lizanne Dowds.

Roundtable participants included James Wilson (Garvagh); David Hoey (Sandelford); Duncan Morrow (University of Ulster); Gillian Robinson (University of Ulster); Jennifer Todd (IBIS, UCD). Chair is Melanie Hoewer (IBIS, UCD)

My remarks are below:

My remarks are set around the backdrop of two of the main findings of the report:

  1. The people of Northern Ireland seem surprisingly moderate, over time, in their acceptance of ‘mixing.’ But their attitudes do not match their behaviours, especially when it comes to having significant friendships with people from the ‘other’ community. The report tells us that 2/3 of both Catholics and Protestants have all or most of their friends of the same religion (p. 26). Young Catholics are most segregated in terms of their friendships (p. 83).
  2. People’s behaviours do not change unless or until there are significant changes in policy. To quote directly from the report: ‘… consistent attitudes have only led to behavioural change where there has been policy to promote and protect those taking action. Thus change has been most evident where action has been supported by institutional protection, as in the case of workplace and integrated schools. There has been less willingness to intervene in neighbourhoods’ (p. 162).

With the failure of the Haass-O’Sullivan Talks, it seems Northern Ireland’s politicians cannot be counted on to deliver behaviour-changing policies.

Given Duncan Morrow’s emphasis in tonight’s presentation on how important policies are in encouraging moderate behaviours, that doesn’t seem to leave us with much hope. To quote a tweet from Alex Kane yesterday:

‘We all need to face the fact that the political process in NI is dead. All trust has gone. Government in name only. It’s subsidised hatred.’

Working at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Belfast, my research has focused on Christian peace activism. There are some findings from my current work among Christian activists that provide us with insight into what – in a policy vacuum – civil society activists might do to:

  1.  promote ‘mixing,’ and
  2. influence and support policies on ‘dealing with the past’

Promoting ‘Mixing’

The recent 4 Corners Festival, organised by a group of clergy and laity around the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, has intentionally tried to encourage people to cross geographical, mental and spiritual boundaries in the city of Belfast. The idea for the festival grew out of conversations between Fr Martin Magill from Sacred Heart Parish and Rev Steve Stockman from Fitzroy Presbyterian, who hoped to use festival events to introduce people to new parts of their city, inspiring them to cross boundaries in their everyday lives.

At one level, going to an unfamiliar part of the city for a one-off event is a quite superficial act. But the main insight is that it is up to people to intentionally go out of their way to move outside their normal circles and be introduced to new people and new perspectives.

For the organisers of the Festival, living as a Christian in Belfast means being committed to living alongside people in all four corners of the city when the Festival is over. At a conference yesterday in Coalisland titled ‘Go and do thou Likewise: How Can Clergy Address the Legacy of the Troubles,’ I provided further practical examples of how Christian activists are intentionally working with or simply trying to meet people from ‘other’ traditions (you can read about these examples on my blog).

Many of you may be aware of the violent protests that took place outside one of the events at the 4 Corners Festival, at the Skainos centre in East Belfast. Brighton bomber Pat Magee and the daughter of one of his victims, Jo Berry were there to share their stories of their journey together. In light of the idealistic aims of the Festival, the irony of what unfolded on the lower Newtownards Road has not been lost on me. The protesters clearly did not want Pat Magee in ‘their’ part of the city, nor did they want to listen to him. And those of us who were inside the sanctuary of the East Belfast Mission Methodist Church, which is part of the Skainos Centre, were in a place where we could not listen to the protesters.

So even despite efforts to be intentional, many Christian activists don’t have the relationships or the ‘street cred’ to actually engage in conversations with the people who are protesting. That remains a problem.

Influencing and Supporting Policy on Dealing with the Past

We are wise to remain sceptical about the ability of a few inspired individuals to prompt change, especially in the current climate where fear is so prevalent.

But ‘Dealing with the Past’ seemed to be the area that generated the most agreement among the parties at the Haass-O’Sullivan Talks. Much significant work on dealing with the past has already been done by civil society groups, for example through storytelling projects. So I think there’s an opportunity for civil society activists to lobby and encourage policy makers to – at the very least – pick up on the Haass-O’Sullivan recommendations for dealing with the past. Activists could legitimately and hopefully lobby not just the Northern Ireland parties, but also the British and Irish governments, to enact policies for dealing with the past.

In her response to Duncan Morrow’s remarks about the Report, Jennifer Todd spoke about the need to identify the ‘triggers’ that set community relations back. The spectre of past events remain some of those triggers, as we have seen in the controversy over the last few days about the secret letters to On the Runs. From a practical and strategic point of view, the past may be a productive place for civil society activists to focus their energies.

Press the play button below to view a slideshow of photos from the event:

One thought on “Crossing Boundaries in a Policy Vacuum? Community Relations after the Flags Protest Roundtable”

  1. Again, excellent.

    “Much significant work on dealing with the past has already been done by civil society groups, for example through storytelling projects.” – Can you point me towards such storytelling projects?

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