Northern Ireland Peace Process: Discussion
Thursday, 13 October 2011 Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement Debate ..Dail Eireann. Comhchoiste um Fhorfheidhmiu Aoine an Cheasta...Chairman/Cathaoirleach Dominic Hannigan,TD/FD
Chairman: I am looking at the clock and there are arrangements for the room at 1 p.m. I call on the remaining speakers to be as concise and brief as possible. I know they will facilitate me in this regard.
Deputy Brendan Smith: I join the previous speakers in welcoming our visitors. Great progress has been made since April 2008 with the signing of the Good Friday agreement. The remarks by Mr. Murray and Mr. Newell in particular were rather chilling especially with regard to sectarianism. Mr. Murray remarked that sectarianism was rampant at the interface and he spoke about the post-Good Friday agreement and the post-ceasefire generation. I assumed he was referring to people in their late teens and early 20s considering that August 2004 is more than 17 years ago and these people were born since that time or were very young at the time.
I found the remarks of Mr. Newell concerning. He spoke about nine and ten year olds being involved in conveying a sectarian message. Children of that age involved in sectarian activities and chants are not simply picking it up on the streets; they must pick up some of it at home as well from an older generation or their parents and this is especially concerning. Today, the focus is on Belfast and I understand that. Is sectarianism prevalent in Derry and other urban centres throughout the Six Counties?
Mr. Murphy, MP touched on another issue. Mr. Murray stated that the education system has failed many people from disadvantaged and less-favoured communities. Education is the enabler for people to get employment in normal times. If people are not participating in it and acquiring skills or particular expertise then they have no hope of getting employment either in difficult days or good days. Has provision being made for second chance education opportunities for young people in these less-advantaged areas? Do colleges of further education, third level institutions and the universities have access programmes for people from these communities to go on and study? Are we making progress in that regard? We can talk until the cows come home about commemorations and so on but education and employment are the fundamental building blocks to all of us having the proper appreciation of each others views and traditions on the island.
Chairman: I call on one person from the group, perhaps Mr. Murray, to respond. We are keen to take a further four questions.
Mr. Sean Murray: They were relevant and pertinent questions on the type of work we are involved in and I will address them as best I can. Culture is important to every perspective but so is the way we manifest and display it. We must learn to empathise with each other to some extent and learn how what we do will impact in terms of the perception of the other community if we do A, B, C or D. Let us consider parading, for example. Parading is not the issue; it is how and where one parades that makes it contentious. The key is to consider how we devise ways and means of getting this across to respective communities. No one wishes to undermine anyone’s culture because it is important to them but it is how one manifests it and the impact of manifesting that culture which matters. We must see if we can make it inclusive as distinct from exclusive. That is the challenge for us in future. I fully agree with one of the speakers who made the point that it cannot be triumphalist because that raises the temperature and the tension. Other perspectives suggest that we must do something similar in response but this allows the extremes to play a more important role and that is the last thing we want or need at present.
The matter of the interfaces and the lack of development and investment there was raised. Invest Northern Ireland has failed abysmally in attracting investment to these areas. This is about turning a challenge into an opportunity. The area I come from has cross-community forums and we took the view that we should do something about it ourselves. We approached the city council for money for an economic appraisal and we put together a concept or plan in terms of investment for the old Mackie site, which has been a contentious parade crossing and where there have been nightly riots in the summer. Something that was supposed to be a positive turned into a negative. We have put forward plans and the council has come back and indicated it is willing to put money into it. We have approached others as well. This is an example of where the community can come together and identify issues of mutual benefit and, rather than deal with contentious issues, we are dealing with something positive and promoting a positive dialogue. I hope that as an outflow from this positive dialogue we can deal with some of the more contentious issues. That is some of the work ongoing in Belfast at present.
Deputy Ferris posed the question of how to break down sectarianism. I wish I knew how we could do it but it is a key challenge for us. We must provide leadership. If I hear it in my community I must challenge it and if Mr. McDonald or Mr. Newell hears it within their community, they must challenge it as well. However, challenging it by itself will not break it down; we must deal with the sources. As the Deputy Smith remarked, if children of nine and ten years of age are adopting sectarian attitudes, where are they getting them from? They did not come out of the sky. What is influencing these children to expound them and what promotes sectarianism? This is a challenge for all communities to address. We must question if we are doing anything to promote, fuel or provide an outlet for sectarian feelings and how to combat this and we must do it in a way that does not impact on or that is not seen as an attack by one community over another. This is why the initiative must come from within each community and it must not be a question of one community trying to claim victory over another. This is where leadership and self-reflection is required, especially with regard to historic anniversaries.
How do we mark these anniversaries in a way that is not antagonistic? We must learn to empathise with the other community and try to involve the other community in these commemorations. Let us consider the 1916 anniversary. I have held this discussion with members of the Orange Order. It was revealing that in a discussion about next time there was to be a contentious parade in a certain area they asked me not to let members of their community know that they had spoken to me. That was the context in which we held the conversation. We are keen to do a joint exhibition whereby one group brings in their republican exhibition on Easter 1916 and the other brings in its exhibition on the Somme anniversary. Some good dialogue is under way and this joint approach is the way to deal with it but we should not under estimate the challenges in terms of people believing they have been left behind and who suffer from alienation.
As Mr. Murphy, MP outlined, the education process is one of the key challenges and issues we are trying to get to terms with in the Assembly and local governance and so on. Our young people have been failed in many ways, make no mistake about it. I spoke of talking to some of the training providers who said they had to deal with basic numeracy and literacy problems. I do not condone it but if a child is starting off in life lacking these essential skills with no job opportunities, is it any wonder we are having problems at the coalface? I assure the committee that the PSNI has made many arrests, but the question is whether they are proportionate. If not, they will engender community conflict. The riots have to be viewed in an anti-community context. They do not help the community. People who live within communities have to pick up the pieces afterwards and suffer the consequences.
It is not the best advertisement in the world for investment. They are some of the issues we have to deal with. We need to identify the core issues which fuel sectarianism and how we can devise strategies to combat them. If children are educated separately and live in separate housing estates, it is no wonder they espouse sectarian attitudes.
Professor Wesley Hutchinson: Deputy Ó Ríordáin referred to the importance of integrated education. I am 100% behind integrated education in Northern Ireland. Mr McDonald was reticent about the issue and had doubts about whether it was a good idea. Something has to be borne in mind with regard to integrated education in the North, namely, that one can choose to create a school if one wants to and one can also choose to move a school from one status to another. To my knowledge no Catholic school has done that. All the schools which have chosen to move and become integrated were originally state run, and therefore predominantly Protestant, schools. It might explain the reticence because when one is operating within a strictly binary logic, that kind of experience and transfer is automatically registered as a loss.