OPINION: It’s time to think and act beyond the sectarian divide to achieve peace

Lilian Seenoi-Barr, Director of Programmes with the North West Migrants Forum, who is also former chair of SDLP Derry & Strabane on the recent violence witnessed across NI and the need to think, act and use language differently to achieve a peaceful, inclusive future for all.

Saturday, 17th April 2021, 11:42 am
Lilian Seenoi-Barr, NWMF director of programmes. DER2030GS - 018
Lilian Seenoi-Barr, NWMF director of programmes. DER2030GS - 018

Twenty-three years ago, the Good Friday Agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed by all the people of the island of Ireland. Like many I am still learning to make sense of The Troubles, and what the long journey to peace meant, and still means. One of the things I have learned is that the vision and commitment of people who engaged in nonviolence and who had the courage for difficult political processes made the peace real. The GFA was achieved through dialogue and it provided the beginnings of a society based on peace, justice, and equality.

Sadly, in recent days, we have witnessed some of the worst violence in the last two decades. Riots are not uncommon in Northern Ireland, nevertheless I watched in despair a video of a bus driver forced out and the bus set on fire. People as young as 10 throwing petrol bombs at police officers and adults cheering them on. And even though most people understand that Northern Ireland is a complicated place with a difficult history it is the young people who will both suffer and get blamed for this cycle of violence and destruction.

But why since the GFA have the promises of equality, justice, respect for difference, and genuine investment in integrated education, housing, and jobs not been met? What has happened to the “peace dividend?”

In this respect, the promise of the GFA failed since poverty and deprivation threaten peace and reconciliation. It has failed because identity has been frozen in terms of US vs THEM rather than as something fluid and multiple that genuinely embraces and celebrates cultural diversity and difference. A politics based on Us vs Them exacerbates segregation. Paying people not to set fire on their neighbours is no substitute for genuine investment in peace and reconciliation and just maintains the status quo.

I don’t claim to fully understand the politics of Northern Ireland. I know that depending on who I speak to the terms North of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Derry or Londonderry will be read into by people looking for offense. I have lived in Derry for the last decade and have witnessed real damage to community relations and the peace process by inflammatory rhetoric from politicians and ‘sinister elements’ that can order young people on and off the street when it suits them.

I have also seen that tensions between two traditions spills over to minoritised communities. Particularly in the last few years where prejudice, racist hate crimes and inequalities have been enabled by BREXIT, heightened by covid-19 pandemic and exposed by Black Lives Matter. I have also experienced the political vacuum of a collapsed Executive which left the North of Ireland in limbo for three consecutive years.

Instead of holding politicians accountable, we reward them by responding to their dangerous rhetoric. Sectarianism is a gift that keeps on giving. It suits too many people - especially political parties - for divisions to be maintained. Sectarian violence distracts from the real failures of political leadership to deliver for all people.

In 1998, the people chose hope over hate. A new chapter was written of courage that should inspire us all. People stood shoulder to shoulder and defied appeals to violence. A commitment was made to transform society and to guarantee “equal treatment and esteem of both traditions.”

The lack of investment in public services, the failure to tackle poverty and deprivation, the lack of respect for diversity and the selective and segregated way peace and reconciliation resources are distributed continue to move the goal post further away from the promise of a shared, peaceful, just, and equal society.

To transform Northern Ireland, we need to look beyond the GFA for a shift in leadership. Transformational leadership is essential to allow all of us to engage in meaningful political dialogue – without gatekeeping.

We must hold politicians who choose to play politics with people’s lives accountable. It is time that we move on from the politics of division.

To quote John Hume: “There can be a new dawn in politics on this island. We can agree a comprehensive settlement which allows all traditions to work together -the interests of nationalist, unionist traditions, and others, can be safeguarded and cherished”.

We must find political leaders who can deliver for everyone - regardless of their backgrounds or traditions. We all care about housing, health and education: what is important to nationalist communities should be important to unionists and to me and the many who identify as neither.

We can only achieve positive peace and unity if we think and act beyond sectarian divide.

While good leadership can represent, great leadership unites.