Time for new thinking

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In this article, Foyle SDLP MLA COLUM EASTWOOD argues for a fresh commitment to improving community relations to be embedded in every aspect of government in the North and not just empty policies and catchphrases.

George Orwell once said that the first sign of political decay could initially be identified in the decay of language.

The core of his perception was that the eventual consequence of language is utterly embedded in political action. In other words, the make-up, tone and depth of our language is a key dynamic in the political priorities a society ultimately seeks to pursue. Coming from a political arena like the North, there are few who would disagree.

I think there’s a danger that this society’s language around Community Relations is beginning to show signs of decay. It was Community Relations Week recently. There wasn’t major attention afforded to it. Many worthy events were organised through Derry City Council, but outside of the actual participants and observers there was relatively little coverage.

The media interest which was generated revolved around two of the Executive’s Junior Ministers suggesting that an element of sectarianism still festered in our golf clubs, that and their subsequent apologies for these remarks. There was also limited discussion surrounding the impact and status of our many peace walls. On balance though, I think it is fair to acknowledge that the debate and language has not resulted in a reawakening of the need to bridge the segregation and separation still defining our political landscape.

This is not to say that we as a community are unaware of the ongoing corrosion of sectarianism. I do not believe that is the case. It is instead a feeling that the language being used has shown signs of a creeping apathy. Words like ‘respect’, ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerance’ have silently suffered due to a combination of repetition and inaction. Progress towards more shared housing and education have stuttered and stalled.

In place of a real impetus towards a shared future in Ireland, this priority has been let slip. Its regressive transformation has resulted in it becoming a desirable, distant aspiration as opposed to a political priority. This has not been helped by the fact that at Stormont the concept of Community Relations has retreated into the odd symbolic gesture in the absence of a commitment to substance.

There is, I believe, a solution to this encroaching staleness. It lies in the essence of how we view community relations. Our realisation of peace and the political architecture now in place in the North was not simply about the maintaining a non-violent equilibrium. A true peace is much more than simply the absence of violence. Comfort in the stability of an under delivering status quo should not be an option.

A shared future should not be categorised in a silo, it should not just be another policy area. It should encompass much more.

A true effort towards a shared future and a meaningful community relations agenda should be re-orientated towards an analysis of our overall governance.

Community relations should come to understand that it is as much about the barriers which exist between citizens and our governance by the Executive in Stormont, as is about the barriers of ongoing bigotry and sectarianism in our communities.

The cause and solution to both these barriers are completely interlinked. This, I believe, is a fuller analysis of community relations’ place.

Our conflict was political. Its resolution was brought about politically.

The impediments to healing the remaining hatreds and hurts still festering in our society must be tackled politically. Stormont and its governance lie at the heart of this challenge.

Every Minister, department and policy has a place in this. After all the effectiveness of our shared government is the ultimate test for tangible hope in a shared future.

New life and language needs to be injected into our interpretation of community relations and its place. Good governance, delivering for the various needs of people, is central to this ambition.

The spirit and success of community relations week could act as a potent audit for the success of our devolved institutions.

This would be a much more radical and rational use of it. It is increasingly clear that the language and politics of community relations needs refreshed.

It would be unforgivable to allow more decay to set in.