Stormont needs to take a leaf out of Scotland's book to eradicate sectarianism

From Irish Times comment pages, November 16.

OPINION: SCOTLAND’S “SECRET shame” is anything but a clandestine affair these days. Between Uefa’s clampdown on repugnant chanting at Rangers and Celtic’s European nights and First Minister Alex Salmond’s pledge to “eradicate” bigotry, sectarianism in Scotland has never received so much attention.

Speaking at the Scottish National Party’s conference in Inverness last month, justice minister Kenny MacAskill was unequivocal. “These are songs of hate and there is no place for them in a modern Scotland . . . It’s not about the Boyne in 1690 or Dublin in Easter 1916. It’s about dragging a small minority of folk in our country into the 21st century.”

Scottish sectarianism is, thankfully, no longer structural – in 2004, for example, just four cases that appeared before employment tribunals in Scotland had any sectarian connotations – but it lives on as bigotry, particularly inside Old Firm stadiums. A controversial Bill to outlaw sectarian singing at football matches is currently progressing through the Holyrood parliament.

Since 2006, Scotland is the only place on the planet that possesses both a sizeable Irish Catholic and Protestant population and an anti-sectarian strategy. The contrast with the situation across the Irish Sea could not be starker.

Northern Ireland’s devolved government has no anti-sectarianism policy. More than 13 years since the signing of the Belfast Agreement and the ending of a conflict that cost more than 3,000 lives, Stormont has yet to agree a formal strategy to address the sectarian division.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Under the 1998 Northern Ireland Act the Executive must formulate a policy for encouraging “good relations”. This requirement led, in the early years of the last decade, to A Shared Future, essentially a blueprint for a post-sectarian society based on reciprocity and reconciliation.

Unfortunately, the document was published in 2005 into a political vacuum. When Stormont was finally reinstated two years later, the policy, which cost millions to formulate but was tainted by association with direct rule ministers, was shelved by the DUP and Sinn Féin, and a draft of a new strategy, Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, offered in its place. Silence followed.

Finally put out for public consultation last year as a condition for the devolution of policing and justice powers, the document is lightweight, insubstantial and implausible. Responses, which can be accessed on the web, are almost universally critical, accusing the strategy of relying on an unhelpful, static view of identity, failing to build on existing work and lacking a clear vision for moving beyond sectarianism.

Forget cordite, the whiff coming off the Stormont administration smells more like bromide. Time and again First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness reiterate their commitment to working together to improve Northern Ireland’s lot, but the results belie the rhetoric.

There is still no agreed programme for government and little indication of how a public sector-dependent economy will weather Westminster-enforced austerity, which saw £500 million lopped off Stormont’s block grant this year. Meanwhile, the Executive has established an all-party working group to advise on revising the strategy. An action plan is due by Christmas – but so far the working group has met just three times.

The cost of the North’s failure to address sectarianism is colossal. According to Alastair Adair of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, duplication of services, particularly segregation in education and housing, costs about £1.5 billion.

But the financial implications pale into insignificance compared to the social damage caused by tribal division. As Robin Wilson pointed out recently, violence declined from 2002 to 2007 but has risen since the reinstatement of the Assembly. The annual Northern Ireland Life and Times survey attests to deteriorating public optimism about community relations, and the sectarian “Other”, since 2007.

Despite the peace process successes, the possibility of resectarianisation remains. Belfast is still by far the most residentially segregated city in Europe. This legacy of division won’t disappear of its own accord.

The Executive needs to take a leaf out of Scotland’s anti-sectarian book. Tackling Northern Ireland’s shame requires a robust, thought-out policy with coherent objectives and political will.