‘Why Good Relations?’For more than thirty years, public life in Northern Ireland has been assailed by conflict and lack of trust forming the backdrop against which everything else in political, social and economic life is measured. People have easily become reduced to mono-cultural identities within the logic of the conflict. These so-called single-identities have limited our capacity to form meaningful relationships and networks which cross into ‘enemy’ territory.The logic of segregation has become the accepted ‘common sense’, implicitly underpinning many approaches to providing facilities and services or funding local organisations. This ‘common sense’ has been evidenced in both formal procedures and programmes underpinning a ‘logic of the ghetto’ or in informal ways of working that replicate and strengthen the ‘logic of silence’.Thus while workplaces have remained formally mixed, they have been regulated by the imposition of the ‘neutral working environment’ which automatically precludes all meaningful interaction on areas of conflict in the name of containing the worst possibilities of conflict. Some residential areas have remained statistically mixed, but usually on the basis of silence and polite interaction.Without doubt, there have been significant social and economic costs. Most importantly for the future, the possibilities for learning together have diminished and this has a long-term impact on resources, employment, knowledge, information and ultimately on this society’s capacity for innovation and the exploitation of new opportunities.Over the years, there have many initiatives aimed at alleviating this situation. The Agreement of 10 April 1998 was the culmination of efforts by many people and groups in political life and civil society. In this Agreement and the subsequent Programme for Government, the development of a culture of equality and the building of trust are recognised as central strands in generating a sustainable society.Yet aside from words, there is a yawning absence of any operational core to trust building in Northern Ireland. For many people and institutions in Northern Ireland, the only way to cope with the tensions and dangers of politics was and is to ruthlessly eliminate all trace of them in any intercommunity setting.Debates about identity and diversity have been overwhelmingly shaped as parallel claims for self assertion while debates on equality focused on narrowly quantitative measures which took no account of the costs of social apartheid. Measures aimed at fostering social relationships that were both desirable and sustainable in Northern Ireland have often run at cross-purposes to one another.Since then, the Northern Ireland Act, which translated into United Kingdom law the core elements of the Belfast Agreement, has formally begun to recognise the interconnection between equality and trust-building. Under section 75 of the Act, which established a new single Equality Commission, all public bodies have a duty to provide services paying due regard to the need to promote equality under nine different categories and having regard to the need to promote good relations among people of differing religious or racial background and among those of different political beliefs.In theory at least, the introduction of the good relations dimension into legislation, with regards to political and religious divisions, extended the focus of trust-building beyond traditional community relations work to the core of Northern Ireland society. It did so within a context where the persistent policy preference for addressing community relations at its most visible points of failure – urban ghettos, victims work, work with paramilitaries – or among constituencies accepted as important for the future – children and young people – had ensnared community relations work within a centre-periphery paradigm. Such limited approaches mistakenly presumed a broadly healthy core of society with marginal manifestations of sectarian violence. Such a paradigm suggests that the politically weakest groups in Northern Ireland should be the focus of policy concern. Mistrust and violence were not seen as proper areas of active concern in many areas of Northern Irish society. Indeed, the very ‘bracketing off’ of large areas of activity is held up as success, and has become habitual. Outside the points of greatest stress, tensions are largely contained by silence and legislative exclusion from the public domain.For organisations to commit to change, they need to be shown that improved relationships have a direct bearing on an improved quality of life and their own capacity to achieve key organisational goals. The result is a yawning gap between the expressed wish in many organisations to contribute to better relationships and the absence of any practical programmes to address this aspiration. Very little progress has been made in devising appropriate models of engagement for a wide range of organisations and sub-cultures across Northern Ireland, leaving legislators in the invidious position of imposing regard for an aspiration (good relations) which nobody has the slightest idea how to translate into practice. The REDI project in Newry and Mourne District Council grew out of precisely these considerations. While the development of a practical model of evolving good relations was not an expressed goal of the project, it was clear from the publication of the Northern Ireland Act that this was indeed what the project was about. Starting with an empty page, the task of the project was not to address specific issues but to develop a space in which all issues causing conflict and tension in the Council could be acknowledged and shaped into practical ways forward. Among the most important issues was the piloting of a new culture of learning in which the Council sought to move from a perceived partisan culture, a culture which polices neutrality, to one which fosters and protects diversity and promotes a more interdependent society.
|Number of pages||64|
|Publication status||Published (in print/issue) - 2003|
Bibliographical noteReference text: Bentley, T., Learning Beyond the Classroom, Routledge, 1998.
Eyben, Morrow and Wilson, A Worthwhile Venture? Practically Investing in Equity, Diversity and Interdependence in Northern Ireland, University of Ulster , 1997.
Morrow, Wilson, Eyben, Reconciliation and Social Inclusion in Rural Areas, Rural Community Network, Cookstown, 2000.
Senge, P., et al, The Dance of Change, Doubleday Publishing , pp., 16-18, 1999.
Senge, P., et al, Schools that Learn, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, p.412., 2000.
- Trust Building
- Public Institutions
- Good relations
- Conflict Resolution