Our past should not stop us planning for a united future

By Baroness May Blood, IEF Campaign Chair

A new year is a traditional time for a new beginning.   The media is full of features on new starts and resolutions.  Many of those resolutions will be abandoned by now, as we head into February, but it remains a good opportunity for reflection and planning on the way we move forward as a society.   And of course the start of 2016 is an especially good time to examine the prospects for Northern Ireland, opening as it does an election year for the Assembly.

Political parties should be grasping this opportunity to begin delivering real change for the better.  Change is certainly afoot in one sense, with a number of veteran politicians stepping aside for a new generation – including two new party leaders. So might we hope for a fresh approach to politics? An approach which might lead us into the society our citizens deserve?

We took the early steps towards a new society in 1998.  But since then it has been hard to identify any great strides forwards.  We have been told that we are moving towards a “shared future”, or a “united community”.  We are told the Stormont House Agreement has created a “fresh start”. But we need political leaders to make a resolution to increase the pace of change and deliver on their fine words.

Of course 2016 will also invite a contemplation of the past, as communities mark the centenaries of the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising.  Commemorations that will highlight our contested, diverse but shared history.  But there is a danger that, collectively, whilst looking backwards we lose focus on the future.

Whilst it’s right that young people learn about their history, it’s wrong to expect them to live with the politics of the past.  Recent research by the ARK project (run by Ulster and Queen’s Universities) found that when 16 year-olds were asked what words came to mind to describe Northern Ireland politics, the most common answer was “divided”.

Young people have inherited a culture of separation in housing and schools.  The past’s legacy is also evident in a residual mistrust of “the other” – displayed as often at the seat of government as on the streets of Northern Ireland.

The Integrated Education Fund engaged in a two-year project exploring the perceptions and experiences of young people relating to work, school and housing.  At a hustings event involving all main political parties as part of this project, it emerged that the majority of the audience of young voters thought the two main cultures in Northern Ireland had little respect for each other. One young woman stood up and challenged the platform party: how, she asked, could we expect anything else when leading politicians display discourtesy and sectarianism regularly at Stormont?

This year’s Assembly election offers a chance to move on from tribal politics to a campaign based on real issues. As budget pressures continue, parties need to present policies related to rectifying the structural divisions which affect the cost and delivery of public services such as education, regeneration and infrastructure. If the manifestos appearing this spring do not provide this, then our politicians will risk failing to engage the public.  Turnout for Assembly elections has declined since the heady days of 1998 – down from almost 70% to 56% in 2011.  If that figure slides lower this May then it will seriously undermine the credibility of the Assembly and Executive.  It is imperative for politicians to show voters that they are moving forward with us.