The walkout by the Alliance party from the CSI committee reflected a growing sense of frustration and discontent across Northern Ireland at the lack of action when it comes to the idea of a “shared future.”
It seems to be a pattern from politicians – fine words about community cohesion but ultimately resorting to managing division rather than erasing it.
We need shared housing, shared public areas and genuine sharing of all services. The role of education – bringing young people to learn, play and grow together from the earliest years – cannot be underestimated. Overall the picture of political progress in dealing with the core issues of division and segregation in Northern Ireland is one of abandoned pledges and broken promises.
The Programme for Government contained a commitment to set up an advisory committee on sharing, by April this year. I have heard no more about it – is it meeting in secret and refusing outside submissions, or does it not yet exist? The latter seems more likely.
The only step towards a single education system – the Education and Skills Authority – has been set up but isn’t functioning; it is merely a money pit at a time of constrained budgets.
The area-based planning underway for education is still rooted in a segregated structure, with a mere glance at cross-sectoral sharing.
Yet politicians speak about cohesion and a shared future.
First Minister Peter Robinson has expressed his wish for a single education system. In autumn 2010 he said “We cannot hope to move beyond our present community divisions while our young people are educated separately…”
Indeed the DUP’s election pledges in 2011 included “establish schools as shared spaces” and “require school development proposals to demonstrate that options for sharing have been fully explored”.
The DUP’s manifesto wasn’t alone in this.
The SDLP were committed to “transforming society by ending segregation in housing and education”.
Meanwhile the UUP was advocating “organic collaboration, sharing of facilities and/or the merging of schools into Community Schools” and “promoting shared education as a contributing factor to a shared future”. More recently the party leader Mike Nesbitt said “We should recognise you learn more from those with whom you have differences”
Sinn Fein Education Minister John O’Dowd has said he can’t argue with the principal of children going to school together, and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness likes to remind us that “The first decision I took as minister of education was to establish two integrated schools in Belfast. I’m all for it.”
A report from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in 2008 concluded: “Those who live apart in segregated communities have, for the most part, also studied apart and now work apart…contact should be considered part of the solution.”
Four years on from that statement, around 21000 young people in Northern Ireland study together in integrated schools: successful contact is evidently possible. Those schools have been set up through grassroots campaigns and not through statutory action. Why are our elected leaders, sharing discussions and an Assembly on a cross-community basis, paralysed when it comes to delivering a shared future to the people who elected them?
The DUP pledged to establish a commission “harnessing international expertise to advise on a strategy for enhancing sharing and integration within our education system.”
Given the inertia in government, isn’t it time for just such a commission to step in?