It has been a while since I put fingers to keyboard. My inspiration returned after the NI Community Relations Council’s annual conference.
Let me start by saying that one of my dreams is for a prosperous, stable, confident, creative, mature, diverse and successful society in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland must be a place where peoples’ backgrounds have no bearing on how others perceive them, on what job they fulfil, or on where they live, go to school, or spend their leisure time. This can be achieved when people in Northern Ireland not only wish but work for this to happen.
I’m tired of hearing about a shared society in Northern Ireland. I want more than a shared society. I want us to be more ambitious. I want a visionary, creative and successful society. So I’m not going to settle for a shared society. Nowhere else in the Western world would settle for a shared society. Equally, I understand where the desire for a shared society comes from. I just don’t want to settle for it or for mediocrity.
As part of the conference we were asked a series of questions, and the audiences’ responses were partially analysed afterwards. Soft questions, predictable answers and woolly analysis assured my frustration.
One question asked about the role and voice of young people in the peace process. A more critical question in my mind would be to ask young people what they think of the peace process. Cue blank stares wondering why this ‘old’ guy with greying hair is asking them about dinosaurs. Young people do not have a place in the peace process because the peace process is over. It was over years ago and no matter how many circular conversations are had amongst people of a certain age, it now needs to be put to rest. We need to move beyond thinking about the peace process to thinking about how we make Northern Ireland a successful, creative society based on our visions of the future. It must not be about cementing the divisions of the past. Someone once said to me that anyone over 35 feels like they missed out on ‘normality’ because of the Troubles and they need their turn to try and fix ‘it’ for younger generations. You can’t fix something by clinging to a flawed vision though.
Another question asked whether or not a deadline should be set for taking down the peace walls – 20-odd foot walls dotted around Belfast to keep Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods separated and built at the request of communities. Initially surprised that the majority of people said no, I quickly realised that self-interest did not have to be declared through anonymous answers. Then to Jean, who offered her analysis of why she had voted no. Jean was adamant that no deadline should be set because her community of 700 Protestant people in Suffolk was surrounded by tens of thousands of Catholics in west Belfast and needed the peace wall to ensure they felt safe in their homes. In one line Jean blew apart the shared society.
Jean assured us that most of us had never lived in an interface area (the term used for the dividing lines between Catholic and Protestant areas) and that we could not know what it was like for people who do. Jean assured us that there was a lot of positive community dialogue between the Suffolk and Lenadoon communities. Jean assured us that one day she wanted to see the peace wall come down but not until the Suffolk community was ready. I predict that if a shared society remains the height of our ambition in Northern Ireland, that peace wall between Suffolk and Lenadoon will never come down.
Later, I was asked on Twitter if, on the basis of having no time for the shared society concept, I wanted “a divided, sectarian, racist society” instead. Having tweeted that the Millenial generation in Northern Ireland wants an “ambitious, prosperous, creative society” more, my response was something along the lines of “Oh please.” Of course I want a shared society, just not as it has been defined as the ultimate goal for Northern Ireland.
My earlier frustrations from the day were reinforced at the second Kennedy Memorial Lecture in Belfast, delivered by Professor Robert Dallek. Within seconds of hearing some of JFK’s famous quotes, it struck me that Jack Kennedy would never have settled for a shared society. It would have been much too small for him. He asked Americans what they were going to do for their country. He challenged them to see that the path they were on was not going to deliver what they wanted.
A “shared society”, as the peak of our ambition, feeds the status quo. It fails to challenge the notion that there are only two communities in Northern Ireland. It fails to acknowledge that a shared society is held together by a plaster and that the spoils have to be shared around in equal measure. It fails to acknowledge that outside of this tiny region, no one cares about our divisions and if we want to attract investment and talent to Northern Ireland then we have to grow up and become a shared society in the way that ‘normal’ societies have.
In his opening remarks, Tony Kennedy of the Community Relations Council referenced Richard Florida and his work on successful places being those places that respect diversity. To my mind, Tony should have gone the step further in Florida’s thesis that the hallmarks of a successful city are tolerance of strangers and intolerance of mediocrity. A successful society is premised on the idea that to move beyond our divisions, we need a bigger vision for the future. It argues that a different Northern Ireland will only come when we combine our talents, ideas and creativity and recognise that a shared society just is not enough. And Jean, tear down that wall.