In 2005, Northern Ireland’s joint Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at Stormont published ‘A Shared Future’. The policy, an unashamedly irenic blueprint for a post-conflict society, included plans for addressing contentious issues such as flags and emblems and parading. Every government department would have to create action plans to ensure A Shared Future was fully implemented.
Eight years later, A Shared Future has been largely forgotten. In 2007, when Sinn Fein and the DUP finally agreed to share power, the policy was quietly shunted aside. Both parties offered a bowdlerised version, entitled Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI), for consultation. A draft of the CSI has still to be agreed upon — almost a decade and a half on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland has no official anti-sectarian strategy.
A shiny policy document would, of course, offer little practical protection against youths wielding bricks and petrol bombs – a dispiritingly familiar sight in East Belfast this week – but A Shared Future’s failure is a cautionary tale of the political reality of contemporary Northern Ireland.
In 1998, in the first elections after the Agreement, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists emerged as the largest parties. Last year, the DUP affirmed their political supremacy by again topping the Assembly polls. Sinn Fein finished a very clear second. The non-sectarian Alliance attracted fewer than 8 per cent of voters in 2011, up just over 1 per cent on 1998.
As their more moderate rivals wither on the vine, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have any real motivation for reaching out across the sectarian divide. Community relations have ossified to the point where a majority of Protestants cannot envisage a time when there are no peace walls and disenfranchised loyalists burn tricolours outside Belfast City Hall to express their angry, inchoate confusion.
Faced with a crisis they did much to create, Northern Unionists have plumped for unity over sharing. On Thursday, the new Unionist Forum set up by Democratic Unionist Party leader, and Northern Ireland first minister, Peter Robinson and his Ulster Unionist Party counterpart Mike Nesbitt met for the first time. Among the representatives in the room at Stormont, were members of the Ulster Political Research Group and the Progressive Unionist Party, the political wings of the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force respectively.
Senior UVF figures have been heavily involved in the violence in East Belfast, as Police Service of Northern Ireland chief Matt Baggott confirmed earlier this week. The UVF’s leader in the East of the city – dubbed ‘the Beast from the East’ – has orchestrated the unrest, as he did during the riots in East Belfast in 2011. Chief among their aims is that the Historical Enquires Team, which was set up to examine unsolved murders committed during the Troubles, cease its investigation of a number of high profile loyalists.
While the recent violence has won a place for loyalist paramilitaries at the table with the Northern Ireland first minister on Thursday, the Ulster People’s Forum (UPF), the new grouping that has emerged at the vanguard of the unrest, were conspicuous by their absence. Willie Frazer is a familiar face on the fringes of loyalism, but many of the UPF’s other leaders are relative novices politicised by the protests that started outside Belfast City Hall on December. Jamie Bryson, a young evangelical Christian who has been at the forefront of the new group, has said that they might join the Unionism Forum at some stage. There is a far-right presence among the protesters, too: former British National Party organiser Jim Dowson has been prominent in the regular demonstrations outside Belfast City Hall.
The bulk of the protestors are young men from working class neighbourhoods of Belfast where levels of educational attainment are as dismal as turnout at elections. They are among those worst hit by Northern Ireland’s continuing downturn. Unemployment has risen 170 per cent in the last five years. The number of youth claimants is 26 per cent higher than when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. One in four young people are out of work.
That the solution to the current unrest must be political is about the only thing the North’s political classes all agree on. Not all unionists, however, believe that unity is the answer. Liberal UUP MLA John McCallister has spent the last year trying to force through legislation that would see the Ulster Unionists form a formal Opposition at Stormont. The power-sharing set-up by the Good Friday Agreement has, he argues, created monolithic nationalist and unionist blocs that speak only to their bases and are not properly accountable. He has a point.
Almost fifteen years on from the signing of the Agreement, Stormont is arguably more divided than ever. That the political situation is replicated on the streets should be no surprise. A shared future can be built in Northern Ireland, but first the foundations have to be laid. A dedicated anti-sectarian strategy and a genuine Opposition would be a start.
This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post on 13 January 2013.