It's good to talk - Alliance opens debate on a 'shared future'

David Ford's Alliance party plans for shared future /

By Steven McCaffery

THE search for a strategy to deliver a ‘shared future’ for Northern Ireland is now getting the Celebrity Big Brother treatment.

David Ford, frustrated at the flawed efforts of his Stormont Castle housemates, has published his own plan to tackle sectarianism.

His message to the public is clear – read the proposals – then you decide.

The Alliance leader has been criticised for walking out of cross-party talks on agreeing a joint strategy, but he denies seeking to score political points and claims other parties are failing to deliver.

“Northern Ireland can wait no longer," he says.

“The potential for unresolved issues to cause real damage to peoples’ lives and to our future cannot be exaggerated.”

He adds: “We’re now putting forward our proposals, and we will be consulting with civic society to see how we move things forward.”

Alliance is launching its plans for a shared future after a Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy (CSI) published by Stormont in 2010 was heavily criticised – but talks on a new text have been overshadowed by months of protests and violence over restricting the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall.

The Alliance party has faced political criticism from unionists and intimidation from loyalists for its role in the flags decision.

But the issue nevertheless figures among the Alliance blueprint, which proposes that:

:: The Union flag flies on designated days at government buildings across Northern Ireland, with new rules to “defend neutral zones” against flying flags on lampposts, and a ban on all paramilitary emblems.

:: Talks on controversial parades should be held to reach agreement by September, on condition that all sides agree to abide by Parades Commission decisions in the meantime, defusing a potentially tense marching season.

:: The legacy of the Troubles should be the subject of all-party talks, to include the British and Irish governments, with legislation on an agreed mechanism in place by 2015.

The Alliance party’s decision to publish its own detailed proposals in response to the deadlock between other parties has underlined tensions at the heart of the Stormont government in what could be a difficult year, as reported by The Detail here.

But the efforts to break down sectarian divisions have been in the pipeline for a considerable period.

Following the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement the repeated problems in establishing a stable power-sharing government between unionists and nationalists meant it fell to Direct Rule ministers from Westminster to produce the 2005 document, ‘A Shared Future: Improving Relations in Northern Ireland’.

The DUP and Sinn Féin inherited the blueprint for ending divisions between Protestants and Catholics.

They reshaped the plan and following lengthy delays published their own model in 2010, the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy.

But the new set of proposals was branded a “backward step for community relations” following a project led by experts in Dublin City University which compared the two documents and found the “previous strategic goal of reconciliation” was replaced by the target of encouraging “mutual accommodation".

A string of organisations made similar criticisms and the Stormont parties agreed to revise the text.

The Alliance and the Ulster Unionists have since withdrawn from the process which they have criticised.

Negotiations have continued between the DUP, Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

First Minister Peter Robinson has reported substantial progress on negotiating a new strategy.

But it is understood that agreement has not been reached on flags, on handling controversial parades, on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, plus other sensitive issues such as the use of diverse symbols and emblems, and language rights.

The protests over the Union flag and the related violence, has put the process under additional pressure.

The disturbances are making it more difficult to agree a deal on the most contentious issues, while releasing a report that fails to deal comprehensively with the key areas of dispute would also be wide open to criticism in the current climate.

Talks convened between party leaders at Stormont to agree a united response to the flags crisis have also stalled.

The Alliance party’s 72-page report entitled “For Everyone” makes detailed, timetabled proposals, including a 77 point action plan, which it says would put reconciliation at the heart of Stormont’s work, setting targets on promoting integration in schools, in housing and between communities.

The plan calls for publication of a refreshed Racial Equality Strategy and a Sexual Orientation Strategy and a Single Equality Act for Northern Ireland.

Critics will say the Alliance document is a `wish list’ which is no substitute for real political negotiation.

But the party says it is publishing its plan to provide interest groups, and crucially the public, with a set of options to kick-start a wider debate.

THE COST OF DIVISION

The Alliance document cites figures from the Treasury and economic experts Deloitte to claim:

:: The full cost of division is £1 billion to £1.5 billion a year – including money lost through the duplication of services, plus the wider economic impact, the estimates of lost opportunities, and the deprivation levels of a divided community – which it says accounts for up to 14% of Northern Ireland’s annual budget.

:: Examples provided include the direct costs of the security threat and its affect on policing, on prisons, and the courts, plus the financial cost of riots, civil disturbances and parades, when combined with the burden of government agencies repairing damage, are estimated at up to £500 million per year.

:: Northern Ireland pays a higher premium to attract investment and to account for its disadvantages. This cost could be as much as £144 million per year.

:: Segregated education is estimated to cost £300 million per year.

The party’s proposals include placing the promotion of reconciliation at the heart of government decision-making, and `reconciliation proofing’ all major policies to maximise positive impact.

More specific recommendations include urgently reviewing the Social Investment Fund to maximise a shared future vision.

Alliance wants the First and deputy First ministers to lead a ‘Shared Future Ministerial Panel’ incorporating all ministers, a range of statutory agencies and community partners, to coordinate action.

The Community Relations Council should, it says, be developed into a stronger Shared Future Council to help implement change.

EDUCATION

The document proposes measures in early years teaching, in youth work and with young people to promote understanding and reconciliation, plus:

:: actions to achieve a minimum target of 20% of children being educated in integrated schools and 40% in mixed schools by 2020.

:: Make the process for schools transforming to integrated status easier and for all new school builds to be integrated, other than in exceptional cases.

:: Introduce a Shared and Integrated Education Bill and continue to consider an integrated approach to teacher training.

HOUSING AND INTERFACES

The report notes that social housing is deeply segregated along religious lines. The 2001 Census showed 91% of all Belfast Housing Executive estates had more than 80% of residents drawn from one section of community.

Private housing is also segregated “to a considerable extent”, yet a 2010 survey showed 83% of people said they would prefer to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood.

The report calls for:

:: Commissioning an expert “Shared Housing Review” to make recommendations by 2014.

:: Actions over the next 25 years to encourage housing which is genuinely mixed.

On peace walls, while a leaked copy of the draft currently being negotiated at Stormont proposed removing all peace walls by 2022, Alliance seeks:

:: A 20% cut in peace walls over the next ten 10 years, with 30% removed within fifteen 15 years, plus an aspiration to remove all interface barriers over time, working with local communities.

:: No new barriers except where threat to life cannot be countered in any other manner.

FLAGS

In addition to flying the Union flag on designated days on government buildings, it wants to see uniform dates to apply to Stormont and the new 11 local councils.

The party also suggests:

:: A consultation on the possibility of developing shared symbols for Northern Ireland.

:: All flags/emblems on the public highway should be subject to clear regulation by statutory authorities, in a bid to protect neutral spaces.

:: Flags and “other celebratory material” may normally be displayed for two weeks around an event by making an application, including details of an accountable person and a bond to cover costs of enforced removal.

:: There should be a “zero tolerance” on paramilitary symbols, seeking agreement for their removal, with the threat of enforced removal. It says: “While it is not realistic to expect every paramilitary symbol to be removed at once, there is an expectation that paramilitary symbols will be tackled in a strategic manner, starting with defending neutral town centres and arterial routes.”

The decision to set down a marker on flags is one of the more definitive aspects of the Alliance document, which elsewhere tackles tough issues by proposing timetabled reviews to plot out an agreed way forward.

The party’s opponents will dismiss the publication of the plan as being no substitute for the tough task of carving out political agreement with others.

But the Alliance tactic has set down a template which will be closely measured against whatever is produced by the continuing talks at Stormont.

At the very least, Alliance hopes to fuel a debate on a key policy requirement.

Mr Ford says: “Across the world we have proclaimed that our peace process is a model for others to follow.

“And yet almost nineteen years after the ceasefires of 1994, fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, eight years after the publication of the first ‘Shared Future’ strategy under Direct Rule, a meaningful, strategic approach to tackling our pervasive divisions has yet to be developed under, and embedded into, our devolved political structures.”