Northern Ireland has made massive strides towards peace since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was signed 15 years ago.
The agreement is viewed globally as a positive model — particularly in the groundbreaking way that it guarantees nationality and identities, regardless of the status of Northern Ireland.
Politicians should be commended that, in spite of their different political aspirations, they have established the power-sharing institutions.
But in spite of this, those of us who study and practise conflict transformation would view the peace here as a negative peace. That is a context where political violence has decreased but the underlying issues that fuel conflict have not been addressed.
One of these issues is societal segregation. The signatories to the 1998 agreement recognised that societal integration was key to reconciliation, noting that “an essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing.” But only 7% of children attend integrated schools 15 years on and, in spite of some slight improvements in residential mixing, most people go home to largely single-identity communities.
On the whole, people lead separate social, educational, sporting, recreational and religious lives.
Clearly, the commitment in the agreement to integration has not been realised, suggesting that — drawing on the sentiment of the agreement — reconciliation here is incomplete.
However, as the agreement has unfolded, what has become apparent is that what reconciliation means to different parties is not clear.
The original commitment to promoting integration has also waned. Politicians’ inability to agree an overarching policy to promote integration is evidence of this.
One of the reasons why this policy has not been agreed is because there is no commonality on the vision of what society we are working towards.
Is the goal one of ‘thin’ integration or deeper social transformation? Are we going to settle for a society where the dominant communities are going to remain separate and, hopefully, equal, co-existing in negative peace? Or are we seeking more profound change, where all aspects of life are integrated?
Co-existing and sharing society might be an acceptable goal in the short term, given the history of conflict. But is it enough?
The Community Relations Council’s peace monitoring report, which was launched last week, observed that the continuing absence of any agreed strategy for flags, parades, or dealing with the past — among others — has left the political establishment vulnerable to the shocks from events. This was obvious in the flag protests.
Although there is an agreement in place, the actual root of the conflict — the constitutional question — has not been settled. This is yet another reason why we need to keep building social integration.
When a settlement comes, whatever it is, a robust social structure needs to be in place where communities are not polarised and living and being schooled in separate groups. Without this, peace will always remain fragile.
Integration and deep cultural and attitudinal change, of course, will not happen overnight. But, given that 15 years have now passed since the signing of the agreement, now is a good time to reaffirm the spirit of integration expressed in it.
This needs to be coupled with politicians robustly clarifying their commitment to working towards integration and showing decisive leadership on how to achieve this.
Settling for division, or limited social sharing, may feel comfortable in the short term, but in the long run it will continue to erode the achievements embodied in the agreement.
Copyright Brandon Hamber. Published in the Belfast Telegraph, 19 April 2013.