Wednesday 17 January 2018

Worries that North could go back to past as segregation still rife – report

Owen Paterson says 13 attacks against national security targets have been carried out in Northern Ireland since August
Owen Paterson says 13 attacks against national security targets have been carried out in Northern Ireland since August

Michael McHugh

NORTHERN Ireland remains deeply divided across society and politics and risks lurching back into the past, a report has said.

Separate political cultures have not been reconciled while housing and education has seen deepening segregation, a review for the Community Relations Council added.

Paramilitarism remains a threat, the policing deal is not secure with many Catholic recruits leaving early and there has been no strategy for reconciliation or dealing with the past, the document added.

"No new political party has emerged since the 1998 Agreement and the stability of Northern Ireland politics is to do with the equilibrium achieved between the two blocs rather than any reconciliation between the two political cultures," it said.

In the May election the Democratic Unionists attracted only 2pc of transfers from nationalist voters and Sinn Fein only received 2.2pc of transfers from unionists. Both parties emerged having outdistanced their rivals the Ulster Unionists and nationalist SDLP.

"Their parallel trajectories have left them defined less by their constitutional preferences and more by their ethnic bases," the Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring report added.

"To put it more simply, the gravitational pull towards a strong voice in each community suggests that in the future Northern Ireland politics will be defined by one large Catholic party and one large Protestant party."

Behind the voting results lies a swathe of indications that the level of division has increased. These include:

- The number of interface walls between Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods from communal strife increased to 48, although two have been taken down in recent times.

- There has been no decrease in the number of flags and emblems on display during the marching season and a dispute over the police`s removal of a Union flag in Ballyclare, Co Antrim, which led to violence, revealed the inadequacy of methods for regulating contested symbols.

- 90pc of social housing is segregated into single identity communities and 93.5pc of children attend separate Catholic and Protestant schools.

The draft for a document on cohesion, sharing and integration is still being considered by the Northern Ireland Executive but a protocol on handling the annual loyalist marches which regularly explode into violence was rejected by the Orange Order.

There have been calls for justice from a variety of victims, nationalist and unionist, for atrocities committed during the conflict, including most recently the Kingsmills and La Mon House IRA victims.

Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson has said no consensus exists on dealing with the past but First Minister Peter Robinson has suggested a "story-telling archive" could be established on the site of the former Maze/Long Kesh prison where the IRA hunger strikes took place.

Despite the disagreement, the report highlighted positive points. It noted community peace building activities and said the political institutions are secure with all five main parties prepared to work within an agreed political framework.

The number of shootings and bombings fell by over a quarter in 2011, from 171 to 124 and Northern Ireland is relatively peaceful. However new Catholic constable Ronan Kerr was killed by dissident republicans in Omagh, Co Tyrone, and there are signs of more Catholics than Protestants leaving the police within five years. The proportion of Catholics in the force is still lower than the general population.

Dissident republican paramilitaries still pose a threat and loyalist organisations have not found a post-conflict role which accommodates all their members.

Youth unemployment has reached almost a fifth and the recession has affected the equality agenda.

Paul Nolan, the report`s author, said: "At times Northern Ireland seems to be moving forward, at other times it seems in danger of lurching back into the past.

"Which is it to be? Are we leaving the Troubles behind or does the continuation of sectarian division mean that at some point in the future the underlying tensions could see a violent eruption?

"Is it possible that this period of peace might turn out to be only a generational truce?"

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