Thursday, 13 October 2011
Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement DebatePage of 3
Chairman: Apologies have been received from Ms Margaret Ritchie, MP; Lady Sylvia Hermon, MP; Mr. Mark Durkan, MP; and Dr. Alasdair McDonnell, MP. I welcome our colleague from Westminster, Mr. Conor Murphy, MP.
It is a great pleasure to welcome our guests, Dr. Ian Adamson, High Sheriff of Belfast; Mr. Jackie McDonald, Mr. Sean Murray, Mr. George Newell and Professor Wesley Hutchinson. In the next ten years we will see a significant number of centenaries of seminal events in the history of Ireland, North and South. They include the centenary of the Ulster Covenant, the First World War, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War, the partition of Ireland, among others. I am pleased to have the opportunity to meet representatives from different communities in Northern Ireland who have come together to take a lead in looking at the sensitive issues the next decade of commemorations might raise at the grassroots in their communities. It is also an opportunity for us to reflect on the effects of the peace process on communities, if the peace dividend has filtered down to local communities across the North and the key issues they face following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. I warmly welcome the opportunity this discussion gives us to raise awareness of these issues, in particular from a Northern Ireland perspective. Members of the committee have identified the way we commemorate our past as one of the priority areas for the committee. It will, therefore, be most useful for us to have this discussion and to listen to the views of our guests on the matter. I understand Dr. Adamson will introduce his colleagues.
Dr. Ian Adamson: I am the High Sheriff of Belfast, but I have not come to arrest anyone because it is outside my jurisdiction. We came together as an informal group under the auspices of Senator Martin McAleese who initiated the process. We represent people from across the divide, communities which were most hurt by the problems in Northern Ireland. My interest lies in the history and culture of the area, in particular that of Belfast. I am personal physician to Dr. Ian Paisley, now Lord Bannside, and his senior adviser on history and cultural matters. I am also honorary historian of the Ulster Unionist Party, but please do not let that put members off me.
I have been interested for some time in the issue of commemoration and the decade of centenaries we are entering. I have been a personal friend of President Mary McAleese and was partly responsible for her coming together with Dr. Paisley to the Somme Heritage Centre in north County Down. It was a wonderful meeting of two minds and had great reverberations throughout Ireland.
I am interested in the history and development of the two indigenous languages, the Gaelic or Irish language and the Ulster Scots language which I call Ullans. We brought together a formal group, the Ullans Group, to look at the promotion of both languages in tandem without conflict or rancour between either of the two groups which support them. That is part of the development of the cultural process following the Good Friday Agreement. As members may know, the Ulster-Scots Agency is part of the language body looking after these issues. We would like to see a more complete fulfilment, particularly as it affects the Irish language, throughout the entire community. Senator Martin McAleese brought us all together in the High Sheriff’s office. In a way, we are a sort of posse. Perhaps we will not get into that matter. The group represents a wide range of interests within the city of Belfast and Northern Ireland. All of us, including Senator McAleese, are Belfast people, with the exception of Professor Wesley Hutchinson who is from Ballymena. The Bible may ask, “Can any good come out of Ballymena?,” but we can state in the case of Professor Hutchinson that good has come out of it. He is the senior professor of Irish studies at the Sorbonne. We also have Dr. Éamon Phoenix who is from Belfast. As well as Mr. Jackie McDonald and Mr. Seán Murray, I am joined by Mr. George Newell, one of the greatest advocates of cultural development within the loyalist community in Belfast. I will ask Mr. Murray to start the proceedings by speaking about his experience in Belfast, as it has involved his own community.
Mr. Sean Murray: I thank the joint committee for affording us an opportunity to come here to address some of the issues of vital importance to our community. The lived experience of us all is to have come through the conflict of the past 40 years and entered into the peace process. It is interesting that we are addressing the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement because the Good Friday Agreement gave us governance arrangements that, for the first time ever, all communities could sign up to and have confidence in. The Agreement created an enhanced environment to facilitate discussions like those we are having and have been having for a few years and to address what are termed “sensitive issues” which are of vital importance to us.
I would like to set the context for this discussion before speaking about the issue of historical anniversaries. The peace process and the Good Friday Agreement have totally transformed the situation in the North. It is not an understatement to say it has had a positive impact on the quality of life of our communities. One can contrast or juxtapose what life was like during the conflict in the communities from which Mr. McDonald, Mr. Newell, Dr. Phoenix and I come with the total transformation that has been made. That is not a bland statement. We have lived through that experience. The Agreement has facilitated a better future for our children. We are getting to the age at which we have grandchildren also.
Unfortunately, some people from the younger generation do not appreciate the scenario out of which we have come. It is history for them - something they can read about in the history book. That brings challenges with it also. The peace process has not delivered for many of them. They were not part of the situation into which we had to face, or part of the conflict. Many of them feel left behind. There has been no development or no peace dividend in some of our communities, especially in interface areas.
I will give an example. I live in the Springfield Road area of east Belfast. We were promised a university and some £10 million was spent on research by an English firm. However, that was the end of the project, as the university pulled out. The only result from it was that developers saw an opportunity to buy up housing stock as accommodation for students. It was a negative result and we are suffering the consequences. We used to have a homogenous community, but there is now a private or transient community attached to it. This is having a negative impact on the community.
The same has happened on the loyalist side of the peace line. We live next to and along the peace line in west Belfast and those communities feel left behind. They have not seen the dividend, apart from the end of the conflict. There is still ongoing conflict in a minor form and much of it is not political. We are dealing with frustrated kids who are engaging in certain actions right across the peace line on a weekly basis. It is not reported on in the news, but it is still happening under the surface. There is a danger that at times of high tension, for example, during the parading season, something that is minor in nature can develop into something more serious.
The good management of sensitive issues by both communities is necessary to deal with such scenarios. Only for this, it could become very dangerous. It is important for everyone in this room to understand the peace process cannot be taken for granted. The last couple of nights have given us a prime example. There was a bomb in Derry last night. There have been sectarian attacks in east Belfast and Antrim in the past couple of nights. It is still bubbling along under the surface. One of the key challenges we face is the scourge of sectarianism which is rampant. It is widespread throughout the community, especially among young people.
I would like to refer back to the peace process, the success of which was based on certain key principles. It is important to apply these principles to the challenges ahead and the issue of historic anniversaries. The first principle I would like to mention is inclusivity. Exclusion is very dangerous. If one tries to exclude any community, or any section of the community, one is sowing the seeds of conflict. The next principle I would like to mention is transparency. We need to enable people to see and understand exactly what is going on in any agreement. The final principle I would like to mention - equality - should also be a bedrock of any attempt to reach agreement and consensus.
We have a focus on consolidating the process which we cannot take for granted. Negative voices in both communities want to take us back 40 years. I have given some examples. Some young people do not see the positive outflow from the peace process. There is a lack of opportunities for many of them, which I understand is not exclusive to Belfast or the North. The context in which they are living is creating one of the dangers we have to deal with.
We have come a long way in having an acceptable civic policing service. Communities and the police are in transition and major lessons were learned from both perspectives. It is an ongoing job of work. I will give an illustration to show where we are at in terms of the policing interaction between the communities. Mr. McDonald and I will speak at a policing conference in four weeks time to mark the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the PSNI. Police interests have stated they want to hear from representatives of the community, rather than just from a policing perspective. There has to be constant interaction between the police and local communities in terms of what is going on at local level and the enhancement of the policing service. Every society, irrespective of its ideological bent, needs a policing service which serves the needs and requirements of each community.
I mentioned sectarianism. I know Mr. McDonald and Mr. Newell share my concern about the level of sectarianism, especially among younger people and at times of high tension. It was brought home to me a number of years ago when I stood at an interface area during a contentious parade in Ardoyne, one of the major flashpoint areas for parades, particularly in July. Young people between the ages of ten and 14 years who were never part of the conflict were expounding sectarian viewpoints. They really wanted to get at each other, for want of a better term. If we do not deal with the scourge of sectarianism, we will sow the seeds of future conflict. One of the key challenges we face is how we deal with sectarianism which is pervasive among young people. It is not just a working class phenomenon; it is to be found in all classes. It might be more hidden in others, but it is still to be found and needs to be challenged. We need to come up with strategies to enable us to deal with such issues. It is obvious that one such strategy should involve economic regeneration. The areas from which we come have never had productive industrial bases. There has always been a lack of employment opportunities.
I am concerned about the employability of some young people. I have constant interaction with some of those who try to provide some training for young people in schools. They tell me that the education system has failed some young people. They have to concentrate on basic numeracy and literacy before they can adapt training processes for them. At the end of these processes, there are no meaningful jobs for young people. This can be soul-destroying for them.
One of the issues we are dealing with is trying to develop a mechanism to deal with the past. Every time we move forward, the issue of the past comes up again. We have to devise mechanisms that will allow us all to deal with that important issue. One of the aims of the dialogue in which we are involved is to develop a broad consensus about a shared future for the whole island. How do we move forward? How can we build that consensus? We still have our political allegiances and differences, but it is important that we have a constant dialogue and various processes to deal with the contentious issues outstanding. No one should fear any of these processes.
On the issue of rights, we are trying to develop a Bill of Rights in the North but have not yet achieved that objective. The development of a charter of rights for the whole island is another outstanding issue which needs to be addressed. That is the backdrop and these are the challenges ahead.
Dr. Adamson referred to one of the key challenges facing us, namely, the issue of anniversaries. The manner in which we celebrate or mark anniversaries can be highly contentious. Part of the dialogue we are having is to identify whether we can take a joint approach to these issues because the celebration or marking of anniversaries can be very divisive. If one side celebrates an anniversary in a way that is in the face of others, it can antagonise those who hold other perspectives. The question is whether we can, without diluting our individual perspectives, sit down and have a discussion about how we mark and celebrate anniversaries. Can we create a greater understanding? Mr. McDonald and Mr. Newell will view these issues from a loyalist perspective, whereas I take a Nationalist-republican perspective. If one mentions the 1916 Rising, it has different meanings for me and Mr. McDonald and Mr. Newell. The question, however, is whether we can share our perspectives on 1916 and look in a shared way at what it means to try to understand the dynamics of what made the Rising take place. What led people to take to the streets of Dublin in 1916? What led people to join the First World War effort and go over the top of trenches? What dynamics were at work? All of those involved were Irish people. What were the individual, political, social and cultural dynamics at work at the time and can we understand them without necessarily having to agree with their outcomes? It is vital that we attempt to understand these issues. That is where much of our work is centred.
How can we develop joint approaches to marking and celebrating some of the historical anniversaries? Rather than this becoming a fresh challenge, can we turn it into an opportunity to promote reconciliation, not only on a Six Counties basis but on a national basis, given that the conflict has not been exclusive to the Six Counties? We all know the history from which we have come. Can we truly develop a national perspective and national reconciliation to deal with some of the hurts of the past? This would involve having difficult conversations, as we have been doing for many years. Twenty years ago, for example, if anyone had said we would sit down in 20 years and have these conversations, he or she would have been asked if there was something wrong with his or her head. That is the position we are in.
We are not alone in society. There are negative voices which do not like the prospect of us sitting down and having joint discussions and the people in question will do everything possible to undermine these discussions. That is their problem and one with which they must come to terms. They will not stop us having discussions.
I am honoured to be part of the committee. We are trying to bring others in and focus on how we deal with the whole issue of historical anniversaries. We are seeking to develop a joint approach and a shared understanding of the dynamics at work in the past on this island of ours, although I accept this will not be possible in the case of every historical anniversary.
My perspective is that of a loyalist. I have listened to Mr. Murray and may pose more questions rather than giving answers. I come from the Shankill Road which is the other side of west Belfast. My area suffers from problems which need to be addressed. To many, the Belfast Agreement was about peace and reconciliation. This raises the question of how one can reconcile people who have never been on conciliatory terms. We have had diversity in our communities for hundreds of years. We now have a peace process with which we are coming to terms.
The analogy I would give to show where we are as regards the Belfast Agreement is that we were in a storm for 30 years of violent conflict and are now in the eye of the storm in which we have peaceful conflict. We still have massive conflict on the streets, depending on the time of the year and whether something kicks off at one of the various interfaces. We had guns on the streets of Belfast again not so long ago. The interfaces are an example of the problems we suffer. A debate has started about creating a new interface, not in an inner city area of Belfast or between the Falls Road and the Shankill Road but in Monkstown which is probably more rural than urban, situated as it is closer to Glengormley than to Belfast. There is a major problem between local communities in the area. This is a sign that even in rural areas on the outskirts of Belfast high levels of diversity continue.
We have problems with the Belfast Agreement. In 30 years of conflict what happened, more than anything, was that there was a hardening of Unionism and the establishment in my community of a sense of anti-Irishness. As Mr. Murray correctly noted, young people of nine, ten, 11 and 12 years who do not have any experience of what the conflict was about now espouse a pro-British and anti-Irish position. One of the reasons for this is simply that we put things in little boxes saying: “This is ours and that is theirs; we will keep this and you can keep that.” This is a problem with our young people which must be addressed by educating them about cultural diversity, not only between Protestants and Catholics but in a way that includes the ethnic minorities who live in Belfast.
Thirty years of conflict have hardened attitudes. What used to be the Unionist community has been divided into a community with three elements, namely, Protestantism with both a large P and small p, Unionism which covers a range of shades of opinion, and loyalism, a label mainly attached to working class people in Protestant areas of Northern Ireland. Loyalism suffers from problems because the media have attached certain labels to it. Most people regard loyalist paramilitaries as the representatives of loyalism. When one considers the position of loyalist paramilitaries coming out of the conflict, it is only through them that the peace process is still in place. They have put in hard work to ensure young people do not become involve in the same activities as we did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Loyalist paramilitaries have been labelled by the media as sectarian bigots and murdering scum, whereas republicans are referred to as patriots and freedom fighters. Loyalists find it very hard to cast off the labels attached to them and in some cases, the attitude is one of “If the label sticks, one might as well wear it”.
We are going through an education process, especially with our young people. Those who are old enough to remember the conflict do not want to return to it. A number of years ago Hugh Orde, the then Chief Constable of the PSNI, told Mr. Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, that he would deal with the loyalists if the Prime Minister dealt with the republicans. That attitude is being played out on the streets of Belfast and Northern Ireland. We are seeing an iron fist in a velvet glove. The historical enquiries team, HET, has investigated 72 cases involving loyalists compared to two cases involving republicans. We have a supergrass trial taking place in Belfast involving only loyalist paramilitaries. This is a major problem which must be addressed and we must be given assistance to do so. How will we be able to educate our young people in cultural diversity when they are being hit in the face every day?
I am aware of the time constraints and will make a few brief additional comments. As Mr. Murray spoke about the Belfast Agreement, I will not recite a litany of problems. Where we come from, especially in west Belfast, people want to talk about working class issues such as social and economic problems, low educational achievement, drug abuse, alcoholism, poor housing conditions and the lack of job opportunities. We need people to articulate these issues on our behalf and the place to do this - I am issuing a challenge to Sinn Féin in this regard - is at Westminster. Sinn Féin should take its seats there and give the people of west Belfast, including the loyalist community, a voice by articulating these problems. If it cannot do that, it should step aside and let someone who can articulate for us step in because we do have major problems. We believe that our own Unionist politicians simply want to keep us in that little box as well, so there is a major problem.
Perhaps I can give the committee a thought on which to ponder. A very famous peace activist, Mahatma Ghandi, once said that it is very hard to shake hands with your enemy if they are still holding a clenched fist. That is a problem that we also confront today.
Senator Martin McAleese: I echo the Chairman’s welcome to our guests. This is a very significant occasion because the people who are here today live in and represent some of the areas most hurt by the period of the conflict and the Troubles. This committee will benefit immensely from hearing first-hand the open and honest way those experiences were described today. Our guests are very welcome and what they have said is appreciated by everybody in this room.
I have a couple of short questions. The first relates to culture identity, the Irish language and the bill of rights which were mentioned briefly. They are provided for within the Good Friday Agreement, the Hillsborough Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement. Given that the implementation of those has not been progressing as fast as some people would wish, how important is the free expression of cultural identity and language and the availability of rights in their communities?
We still have issues with parading. This summer passed reasonably well. Past years have been much more difficult. How big a threat is the issue of parading to the proper joint celebrations around the centenaries that we face into over the next ten years?
Deputy Joe O’Reilly: I join with Senator McAleese in welcoming our guests. This is a very important day for the committee. It is great they are present and that we are having this dialogue. What occurs to me is that the historic commemorations and the manner in which they will take place during the next decade will represent a coming of age of the peace process. If we can approach them correctly and sensitively and on a community basis they will represent a huge coming of age of the peace process. It is important that we have commemoration rather than a triumphal celebration. That is the key. The nature of the events should not be triumphalistic but sensitive and implicit in them is a recognition of the validity of other traditions. Basically, we must all value each other’s heritage. If the celebrations are triumphalistic, sectarianism will feed on that.
Representing the different communities and the different heritages and cultural traditions on the committee, the challenge for our guests is to go to their own communities and ask them to accept the validity of the other tradition. The challenge for nationalism will be while celebrating 1916 to give recognition to the Ulster Covenant and to facilitate that commemoration and, indeed, the people who enlisted in the First World War. That is the challenge for each of them. The easy part is to agree consensually at the committee but the challenge is to go out to their own communities and all of us will have to do it in our own respective ways.
My question to the guests is whether they are up for that challenge and can deliver on it. Do they think they can get this down to the people? There will be national commemoration committees under the auspices of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, under his chairmanship, and my colleague Deputy Frank Feighan, who chairs the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. All of those will be working. Are the guests up for the challenge of gaining acceptance within their sphere of influence of the validity of the other people’s commemoration and can they take the triumphalism out of it and consequently not allow it feed into sectarianism? Nothing will feed sectarianism like triumphalistic celebrations that are disrespectful of other traditions.
Deputy Martin Ferris: I welcome our guests and thank them for their presentation. Many of us will find it very enlightening and helpful to help deal with the outstanding difficulties and problems. All of us are conscious of the enormous progress that has been made particularly during the past ten years and the very encouraging signs as people who were at both sides of the divide are working collectively together for the good of their communities and also to create a new arrangement.
In the presentation it was mentioned that most of the interface communities, in particular, lack the dividends or support towards areas needed to break down the psychological walls that have existed over many decades and, in particular, the transparency of dividends from the peace process such as jobs and a more progressive and integrated approach to education. Will the witnesses elaborate on the lack of the social and economic dividends for communities most affected and most deprived not during the conflict but pre-conflict? Do the witnesses have any suggestions or ideas to break down or help alleviate the sectarianism that continues to exist? From a personal point of view sectarianism is learned, also tolerance, and moving away from sectarianism has to be learned through an educational programme where children can see each other for what they are, people, not Protestant, Catholic or whatever. That issue needs to be examined. Perhaps the witnesses will advise the committee how it can help and how all of us together, through dialogue, can come to a greater understanding of how to resolve those issues that remain.
In respect of the commemorations and parades already mentioned, difficulties that continue around parades can only be resolved through people speaking together. Representatives of areas through which there are parades, where there are difficulties with them, and the organisers of those parades must speak together and the issue must be dealt with at that level. If people are not prepared to speak with each other in an open and fair way, there will be intransigence and progress will not be made.
From what we have seen in recent years probably the greatest threat to the peace process is contentious parades. Every effort should be made to find a way of alleviating that threat. People have a right to commemorate their heritage and their past, but an understanding and accommodation must be found to remove the pressure that contributes to distrust and divisions within communities. I would like to hear some comments on that.
Mr. Jackie McDonald: I thank the committee for the opportunity to come and talk to and listen to people. We have heard all these questions before and they are obvious questions. Mr. Murray, I and others have been working together for years and have visited places many in our communities have not agreed with. Some of them cannot accept that I trust Sinn Féin and some people in Mr. Murray’s community cannot understand why he would trust the likes of me. It is not a done deal between the two communities and we are still working on it.
I come from south Belfast, but we would say our constituency goes from Sandy Row down to Newry or the Border. The people in all these different areas have many different views and opinions. People from the Shankill or east or north Belfast cannot understand the criticism in any way. They are closer communities that live close together and socialise together and their views are mainly much the same. As one goes out from Sandy Row through Belfast, Lisburn, Dromore and Banbridge towards the Border, however, there are many different opinions. These people feel threatened in different ways and triumphalism will be a major problem as the centenaries approach. One of the main reasons for this is because the loyalist working class people I represent do not feel as if they have been included in the Good Friday Agreement and do not see the benefits of it because it is a middle class agreement. If one were to talk to anyone in any of these areas, they would ask what they have got out of it or what it has done for them - very little.
Integrated schools were mentioned. An old Protestant school near where I come from, near Dunmurray, is closing as we speak and there will no longer be a Protestant school between Belfast and Lisburn. The children will be forced to go to integrated schools. I am neither for nor against integrated schools. Some people swear by them and I have an open mind on them. It is not enough just to have children in an integrated school because when their school term is over, there is nothing for them. They go back into their areas and there is nothing for them only frustration and despair. We need something for them after school. There should be apprenticeships or some sort of job facility where they can continue the friendships they made in school during their late teens and early 20s. They should even be able to continue that friendship in later life, when they get married and have families. They should be able to share that experience. This moves the experience of integration on from 11 or 12 year olds to forever. It should not stop at 16 and just allow them continue doing as they are doing. There are many problems.
If the Good Friday Agreement is to reach people on the ground, it must happen soon before we start getting into centenaries. If people could appreciate each other’s perspective and feel some sort of equality, they could then agree that what was one group’s major event would be the other’s non-event. They need not necessarily share the experience but at least should not be annoyed by the other’s experience. In west Belfast, there is a small Protestant area, Suffolk, which I call “the animal”, where there used to be thousands of families but where there are now only approximately 260 families. This area is completely surrounded by Nationalist west Belfast. In the past five or six years, together with members of Sinn Féin and the PSNI, we have sat with local residents from both communities and negotiated an agreement. Now, Sinn Féin stewards 40 bands up the road into Suffolk. This causes some upheaval in the Nationalist community because traffic must be diverted and rerouted. It is also an added danger to children playing on the streets. However, we have managed to reach an accommodation with both communities. This event is now a given. People from the Nationalist community take it as a non-event and for the loyalist people of Suffolk it is a major event. It is like their 12 July, but takes place on the first Saturday in June every year. When it is over, it is a non-event.
What we are trying to do is to have other events the two communities can share, whether a fair, a street market or anything else. It should be something the two communities can share and to which they can come and go as they please. Other areas will feel threatened by this. People on the Shankill Road and on Sandy Row will feel threatened because they do not do the things we do. They do not mix. There is too much interface action and not enough interaction. We need to provide a facility where people can meet each other and understand that Paddy and Billy are both, if given the chance, the same sort of person. There is a lot of hard work to be done. Bringing the two communities together is a major problem, but getting the Good Friday agreement on the ground and appreciated by everyone could kick-start this.
Dr. Ian Adamson: A huge amount has already been done in terms of common heritage. I delineated the involvement of President McAleese and Senator Martin McAleese in the commemorations of the First World War. For many years, we have been trying to get local communities, especially from working class areas, to come together to look at cultural development. Mr. Newell has been very prominent in that area.
The main problem that persists is one of two narratives. There is a Protestant, loyalist narrative and a republican narrative. What we look at in terms of our Somme association and our Ullans group - one of which concentrates on the First World War and the other on language issues - is to create a grand narrative which includes both narratives equally and without rancour. Our Somme association is represented on the Unionist centenary committee that has been formed in Belfast. As far as it is concerned, however, the association has been a cross-community association since its inception. It has been partly involved with the development of the Messines project for which President McAleese and Senator Martin McAleese have been so responsible.
We also run the Ulster Tara Thiepval and it was described in the early days as something that was Protestant and Unionist and to do with the 36th Ulster Division. We broadened it, however, to include the 16th Irish Division which also fought at the Somme and had equal casualties at the Somme at Guillemont and Guinchy. This has been broadened to the extent that we now have a church that has been rededicated, through the Bishop of Amiens, as a memorial for that particular division and out of that, we have had a coming together of minds. We have been helped particularly with this through the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association here, the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs, without whose help we could not have proceeded. This has had its ramifications, even up to the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Islandbridge. That visit worked well in that she visited the republican area first and then Islandbridge.
The language issue is a fundamental issue which has not been addressed to the extent it should have been. Our Ullans group, which is a cross-community group with prominent Irish speakers on board, is looking at Ulster Gaelic. We do not speak “Dáilish” - the language of the Dáil. We speak proper Ulster Gaelic. We put a caveat on the development of “Dáilish”. That group to which I have just referred includes the Irish language in a major way. It is focused on Bangor as the centre of development of early Irish literature and culture. Bangor is now a Unionist area, but we cannot forget that it was there in the 5th and 6th centuries that the Irish language first evolved into its written form, when the Ulster sagas were written down and the most beautiful Gaelic poetry, including “The Voyage of Bran” and the Mongán cycles, were written down by the monks.
There is a festival to be held next week, the Blackbird Festival, which gets its name from the little poem about the blackbird which sung on the Belfast lough which was written down by an old monk in Bangor. He got fed up doing his Latin homework and wrote a lovely little poem in old Gaelic. It is the feast of St. Gallen or St. Gall. We are developing the festival under the auspices of our own group and the Forbairt Feirste in west Belfast. It is a coming together, in language terms, in our areas which has been unparalleled. We are particularly fortunate that we have two interested Ministers at Stormont dealing with education and the arts, culture and leisure issues. We look forward to working closely with them. It is only on the ground that we will be seen to be effective.
We thank Dáil Members for everything they have done so far, particularly in helping us through the Somme interventions and the development of our Ullans group. We are also organising a Feast of St. Columbanus event which will take in all of the community groups in Belfast on that feast day. We hope St. Columbanus will become the patron saint of Europe. We would like to be able to put forward this suggestion at the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin next year, when St. Columbanus will be included as one of the main saints. We were told a number of years ago, under the auspices of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, that St. Columbanus could not become the patron saint of Europe because St. Benedict already was its patron saint. However, the man who advised the Pope at the time was a chap called Ratzinger. Perhaps, with the passage of time, the same gentleman might feel more favourably disposed towards St. Columbanus. It would be great for Ireland and Europe as a whole if that were to happen. This has all come from ordinary people on the ground, loyalist and republican. That is a very important fact.
Professor Wesley Hutchinson: I thank members of the committee for inviting us. I feel like an interloper because the others present are directly involved with these issues on the ground. I hope I will be able to contribute something more concrete as the discussions develop.
Listening to what was being said, what struck me was the emphasis being placed on young people and the increasing distance of the peace process from young people. That is most worrying. On the other hand, many of those in this room were considered as being beyond the pale 20 or 30 years ago and are now very much on board. No one has used the word “dissident” in the discussion, but I am wondering if the pressure that will be exerted on commemoration by people who might be on the edges of the various groups is not something we will have to deal with directly. Channels were developed during the peace process and these channels have become increasingly strong. We have heard how strong they are in terms of loyalist parades being chaperoned by Sinn Féin in the North. That is concrete proof of how things can change. I wonder what channels we can open up towards the edges, towards the people who are today beyond the pale and whose radical reading of history could cause a lot of trouble.
The loyalist and broader Unionist communities will have a particular responsibility in the next few years, simply due to chronology, as 1912 fell before 1916. Therefore, there has to be a real effort made among the loyalist community and the broader Unionist community. I sincerely hope the Nationalist community and its republican element will help them in furthering that debate.
Chairman: Thank you, Professor. I suggest we take four questioners together because many members are offering. I will call Deputy Ó Ríordáin, Conor Murphy MP, Deputy Feighan and Deputy Smith in that order.
Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: I extend a welcome to our guests. It is great that they are here because I think this is the first time we have heard things from a Unionist perspective. We have been having meetings since the general election in February and there was a committee in the last Dáil, yet we never obtained such a perspective. Therefore, this is a very important day for us.
I will provide a Dublin perspective. My mother comes from the Border and my father from Dublin. He had absolutely no interest in anything to do with Northern Ireland. Whenever issues related to Northern Ireland were dealt with on television during the 1980s, it was turned off. There are many in the South who would not admit to this or think that is the reality and as such, we have to work on it.
I understand social exclusion, as I worked in Sheriff Street in Dublin’s north inner city for 11 years. I said at the previous meeting that much of the interface violence we saw on our television screens in places such as Portadown during the summer was something I recognised from where I worked. What we have are young people - generally young men - who are disengaged and disenchanted, who are looking for empowerment and something to get excited about. Where I work it is the drugs trade, anti-social behaviour, joyriding and so on that excites them. There is a level of convenience in the flag of sectarianism to which a young man could easily attach himself when he feels so disempowered because of his alienation from society. We were in the interface areas last week and it was interesting to see the two communities in the Tiger’s Bay area because there was so much that united them. They both have issues with housing, unemployment and anti-social behaviour, yet in one area it is green, white and orange on the kerb and red, white and blue in the other area. When we come to deal with commemorative issues, we should think about the social reality of what actually happened.
I had a granduncle who fought in the 1916 Rising. On one level, he is a family hero, but when we pick through his history, we find that he married a Northern Protestant and had to get married at 7 a.m. because effectively he lived in a sectarian 26 county state. There were no celebrations. He had two children, both of whom emigrated to England because there was no work to be found in this country. Whatever he had fought for in 1916 he felt was completely worthless at the end of his life. He believed all the pomp and ceremony associated with the rising amounted to a betrayal. Giving people a flag is not enough. They must have the dignity that comes with having a job, a home they can call their own, a family to love and an area of which they can be proud. Flags and emblems, therefore, can be very dangerous.
I am coming back to the issue of sectarianism because in ten years we will still have the underlying problems. We have a problem at the moment in the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland with religious influence in schools - the religious ethos and the fact that enrolment policies are Catholic-first. We had a meeting yesterday with some schools in Lucan, and it seems it is effectively the case, by design or otherwise, that one school has one racial identity while another school has a different racial identity. There is an African community whose children are graduating from one type of school and a white community whose children are graduating from another. What is the balance of rights? When does the right of a school to have a religious ethos supersede the right of a community to integrate properly? I have just come from a presentation given by the Integration Centre at which it was stated that school admission policies are a fundamental issue in our society. When Peter Robinson recently made a comment about admission policies in Catholic-ethos schools, which I fundamentally agree with, he was criticised by both Nationalist parties.
On the issue of social integration, there are some young men who apparently feel as though they missed out on the Troubles, looking at it as some kind of glorious past in which they wish they had been involved. This is an issue of disempowerment. With regard to the school system, I appreciate the comments of Mr. McDonald, who said he is not sure how he feels about integrated schooling. Could other people expand on the discussion on schooling and ethos and how this does not lend itself to a more integrated society?
Mr. Conor Murphy, MP, MLA: I thank the delegation for coming. I will first respond to Mr. Newell’s challenge in terms of representation. The issues that loyalist and working-class Protestant communities face - including social deprivation and educational under-attainment, which is a particular issue as it leads to decreased opportunities for employment and advancement - are all issues that can be addressed in the Assembly and are in fact the responsibility of the Assembly. I know from talking to some of my Belfast colleagues in Sinn Féin that people from the loyalist community are increasingly coming to our constituency centres on the Falls Road, and we are encouraged by this. I was told we had actually opened up a satellite office in the Sandy Row area, which is a novelty for Sinn Féin, because of the demand from people there for representation. I am glad to say we are making representations in the Assembly, where those issues are dealt with.
One of our greatest challenges in the Assembly is educational reform, and a central plank underpinning that is the need to deal with educational underachievement, particularly in working-class Unionist areas, which has been ignored for so long in the pursuit of academic excellence. The school in south Belfast to which Mr. McDonald referred was a major example of complete abandonment of a school system and educational underachievement, with no students graduating over the last number of years with the basic requirement of a minimum of five GCSEs or leaving certificate subjects. This is part of the educational reform we have been pursuing in the North, and we hope it will have a major impact.
With regard to the central point of the group’s visit, the initiative from the President and Senator Martin McAleese is terrific, because the next ten years will contain significant opportunities, as well as challenges and threats, in terms of commemoration. I got a tour of the city cemetery from Dr. Adamson’s old friend, my colleague Tom Hartley. I recommend the tour to anybody from this committee. It covers the history of Belfast as it was developed by the people who built Belfast. The central thesis advanced by Mr. Hartley, who is a councillor in Belfast, is that we had a much broader definition 100 years ago of who we were, both as Irish Nationalists and as Irish Unionists, and that the experience over the last 100 years - with some of the events we are about to commemorate, leading up to partition and then the conflict - has narrowed our definition significantly. There is a significant opportunity in approaching these commemorations for a re-examination of history and where it has led us over the last 100 years - those events themselves, what they mean to people, what we can learn from them and how, through that discussion and education, we can achieve reconciliation, which contributes to our current circumstances in the analysis of important events from 100 years ago.
The work being done by the delegation is important and has major potential, and it needs to be given recognition. This is a welcome initiative. Dr. Adamson said they had support from the Minister of Education and the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, who I know has a keen interest in these issues. However, the initiative needs to be mainstreamed into the work that the Taoiseach’s office is doing through the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, and through the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the North, which has responsibility for community relations, because if the work is successful - and I hope it is - the result will be seen not just in terms of educational or cultural events but also in terms of improved community relations, which is important in contributing to the development and cementing of the peace process. Similarly, with regard to the commemorations that are being talked about here, we should have a view to the ideas the delegation has come up with, and it should be mainstreamed into the Taoiseach’s office. Have they been knocking on those doors as well? This committee probably shares the view that the importance of this work means it needs to be recognised and supported at the highest levels both North and South.
Deputy Frank Feighan: I welcome the witnesses. We were in Belfast last week, along with Deputy Ó Ríordáin, and we went to the Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich in west Belfast, which was a revelation, showing how community enterprise can work. We also went to Duncairn Gardens and Alexandra Park and saw the groundwork that has been done. I am heartened at the leadership and sacrifice that people such as the witnesses have made over the years.
Deputy Ó Ríordáin is right in saying that we were in denial down here. My grandfather, who came from Crossmaglen, was in prison with Deputy Ó Ríordáin’s grandfather; I did not know that. My other grandfather, in Boyle, County Roscommon, was a Sinn Féin councillor; I did not know that until I got involved with the local council in 1999, because he went on to join the Garda. We lived in a kind of utopia and if we went to England or to the United States, Northern Ireland’s problems were nothing to do with us. However, Northern Ireland’s problems were in fact intertwined with Ireland, and it affected how we lived. The barracks of the Connaught Rangers were 100 yards from my house. We did not really understand the significance of the fact that hundreds of thousands of men from the west of Ireland fought in the Great War alongside the Ulster regiments. I have been part of the Connaught Rangers Association for the last 15 years. Over the years, we commemorated 11 November, although most people did not fully understand. We are working together to achieve these things because previously, we all lived in a bubble, thinking it was not our problem.
When de Valera set up this great country, he had a vision of maidens dancing at the crossroads. At all these crossroads now there are little housing estates, and there are people in those housing estates who do not represent the society to which we all aspire. In my own town last week, there was a fire-bombing in which a young girl died. These social problems are in every town and village, and if people had the excuse that those in the North had, I do not think we would be able to contain it or have the will to deal with it. We are now dealing with a society that is very different from the one that existed 20 or 30 years ago. The family unit and local ties have broken down. We have rights, but most of these young people do not have responsibilities. As a TD I could walk down the street and have young people abuse me, even in good times. I am simply saying that what the deputation is dealing with is significant. Last week I saw the work that has gone into it and this should be recognised. I was not surprised but it was wonderful to see people from both sides of the community putting a great sacrifice into the show and that will continue.
We had the Love Ulster campaign or march in Dublin and every fruitcake in the country jumped on the bandwagon to riot. It was heartening to see that one, two and three months later the Garda knocked on people’s doors and they had video evidence. People were charged and that softened their cough. Let us consider the riots in the Ardoyne or the Limestone Road. Is there an opportunity now for the PSNI to use that video evidence and charge whoever the perpetrators are on both sides of the community or is that simply not politically correct at the moment? We should face down the growing trend of using the excuse that they come from a broken home or an underprivileged background. We all came from that and if we all took that view no one would stand up and be strong as the deputation has done.
Deputy Frank Feighan: I believe we can work together given the links here today. There should be more groups from this committee, the Parliament and the country going up to visit both sides to see exactly what is taking place.
Chairman: I am looking at the clock and there are arrangements for the room at 1 p.m. I call on the remaining speakers to be as concise and brief as possible. I know they will facilitate me in this regard.
Deputy Brendan Smith: I join the previous speakers in welcoming our visitors. Great progress has been made since April 2008 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The remarks by Mr. Murray and Mr. Newell in particular were rather chilling especially with regard to sectarianism. Mr. Murray remarked that sectarianism was rampant at the interface and he spoke about the post-Good Friday Agreement and the post-ceasefire generation. I assumed he was referring to people in their late teens and early 20s considering that August 2004 is more than 17 years ago and these people were born since that time or were very young at the time.
I found the remarks of Mr. Newell concerning. He spoke about nine and ten year olds being involved in conveying a sectarian message. Children of that age involved in sectarian activities and chants are not simply picking it up on the streets; they must pick up some of it at home as well from an older generation or their parents and this is especially concerning. Today, the focus is on Belfast and I understand that. Is sectarianism prevalent in Derry and other urban centres throughout the Six Counties?
Mr. Murphy, MP touched on another issue. Mr. Murray stated that the education system has failed many people from disadvantaged and less-favoured communities. Education is the enabler for people to get employment in normal times. If people are not participating in it and acquiring skills or particular expertise then they have no hope of getting employment either in difficult days or good days. Has provision being made for second chance education opportunities for young people in these less-advantaged areas? Do colleges of further education, third level institutions and the universities have access programmes for people from these communities to go on and study? Are we making progress in that regard? We can talk until the cows come home about commemorations and so on but education and employment are the fundamental building blocks to all of us having the proper appreciation of each others views and traditions on the island.
Mr. Sean Murray: They were relevant and pertinent questions on the type of work we are involved in and I will address them as best I can. Culture is important to every perspective but so is the way we manifest and display it. We must learn to empathise with each other to some extent and learn how what we do will impact in terms of the perception of the other community if we do A, B, C or D. Let us consider parading, for example. Parading is not the issue; it is how and where one parades that makes it contentious. The key is to consider how we devise ways and means of getting this across to respective communities. No one wishes to undermine anyone’s culture because it is important to them but it is how one manifests it and the impact of manifesting that culture which matters. We must see if we can make it inclusive as distinct from exclusive. That is the challenge for us in future. I fully agree with one of the speakers who made the point that it cannot be triumphalist because that raises the temperature and the tension. Other perspectives suggest that we must do something similar in response but this allows the extremes to play a more important role and that is the last thing we want or need at present.
The matter of the interfaces and the lack of development and investment there was raised. Invest Northern Ireland has failed abysmally in attracting investment to these areas. This is about turning a challenge into an opportunity. The area I come from has cross-community forums and we took the view that we should do something about it ourselves. We approached the city council for money for an economic appraisal and we put together a concept or plan in terms of investment for the old Mackie site, which has been a contentious parade crossing and where there have been nightly riots in the summer. Something that was supposed to be a positive turned into a negative. We have put forward plans and the council has come back and indicated it is willing to put money into it. We have approached others as well. This is an example of where the community can come together and identify issues of mutual benefit and, rather than deal with contentious issues, we are dealing with something positive and promoting a positive dialogue. I hope that as an outflow from this positive dialogue we can deal with some of the more contentious issues. That is some of the work ongoing in Belfast at present.
Deputy Ferris posed the question of how to break down sectarianism. I wish I knew how we could do it but it is a key challenge for us. We must provide leadership. If I hear it in my community I must challenge it and if Mr. McDonald or Mr. Newell hears it within their community, they must challenge it as well. However, challenging it by itself will not break it down; we must deal with the sources. As the Deputy Smith remarked, if children of nine and ten years of age are adopting sectarian attitudes, where are they getting them from? They did not come out of the sky. What is influencing these children to expound them and what promotes sectarianism? This is a challenge for all communities to address. We must question if we are doing anything to promote, fuel or provide an outlet for sectarian feelings and how to combat this and we must do it in a way that does not impact on or that is not seen as an attack by one community over another. This is why the initiative must come from within each community and it must not be a question of one community trying to claim victory over another. This is where leadership and self-reflection is required, especially with regard to historic anniversaries.
How do we mark these anniversaries in a way that is not antagonistic? We must learn to empathise with the other community and try to involve the other community in these commemorations. Let us consider the 1916 anniversary. I have held this discussion with members of the Orange Order. It was revealing that in a discussion about next time there was to be a contentious parade in a certain area they asked me not to let members of their community know that they had spoken to me. That was the context in which we held the conversation. We are keen to do a joint exhibition whereby one group brings in their republican exhibition on Easter 1916 and the other brings in its exhibition on the Somme anniversary. Some good dialogue is under way and this joint approach is the way to deal with it but we should not under estimate the challenges in terms of people believing they have been left behind and who suffer from alienation.
As Mr. Murphy, MP outlined, the education process is one of the key challenges and issues we are trying to get to terms with in the Assembly and local governance and so on. Our young people have been failed in many ways, make no mistake about it. I spoke of talking to some of the training providers who said they had to deal with basic numeracy and literacy problems. I do not condone it but if a child is starting off in life lacking these essential skills with no job opportunities, is it any wonder we are having problems at the coalface? I assure the committee that the PSNI has made many arrests, but the question is whether they are proportionate. If not, they will engender community conflict. The riots have to be viewed in an anti-community context. They do not help the community. People who live within communities have to pick up the pieces afterwards and suffer the consequences.
It is not the best advertisement in the world for investment. They are some of the issues we have to deal with. We need to identify the core issues which fuel sectarianism and how we can devise strategies to combat them. If children are educated separately and live in separate housing estates, it is no wonder they espouse sectarian attitudes.
Professor Wesley Hutchinson: Deputy Ó Ríordáin referred to the importance of integrated education. I am 100% behind integrated education in Northern Ireland. Mr McDonald was reticent about the issue and had doubts about whether it was a good idea. Something has to be borne in mind with regard to integrated education in the North, namely, that one can choose to create a school if one wants to and one can also choose to move a school from one status to another. To my knowledge no Catholic school has done that. All the schools which have chosen to move and become integrated were originally state run, and therefore predominantly Protestant schools. It might explain the reticence because when one is operating within a strictly binary logic, that kind of experience and transfer is automatically registered as a loss.
Deputy Regina Doherty: I thank all the witnesses. It has been a real pleasure to hear the comments. I have been peripherally involved and have a keen interest in Northern Ireland, given the positive outcomes. One does not get to feel, sense and touch the emotion and sincerity the witnesses described when one watches the news on television or reads the newspapers. Real lives are affected by the changes and progress that have taken place over recent years. There are difficulties that need to be addressed.
Mr. Newell spoke very candidly about the difficulties he experienced in terms of people putting labels on him. It is not something I would have considered. Who was responsible for the labels? Was it people in the South, the North, his community or his adversaries? I do not mean to be disingenuous. The only label that those who have achieved peace over the past 20 years and more should be wearing is that of hero because we would not be in our current position otherwise. I understand there are still considerable difficulties to overcome but we would not be in our current position without all the people who have collectively come together to get us here. Each and every person on both sides of the divide are heroes to have brought us to our current position.
I share the same concerns as my colleague. If nine and ten year olds feel the way the witnesses think they do and make similar statements, they do not it pick up off the ground. Parents such as me inform the decisions and views of our children when they are at home with them. What is causing the problem? Parents of my age have children aged ten years and younger. Why are people so disillusioned that they feed such views to their children?
When the Good Friday Agreement was reached and enacted, the generation that made those decisions was not lost to the improvements made in Northern Ireland because of the agreement, but the next generation was going to see the benefits. If the next generation is still partitioned because of its educational choices, what else, if anything, is feeding into that? There may not be other choices, something on which the Minister for Education and Skills has to focus.
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: I thank the witnesses for coming. When we were in Alexandra Park last week there was a very moving picture of two young girls meeting and shaking hands. Children are not naturally sectarian. Our experience here with new communities coming from Africa and so on is that children are accidentally at the coalface of integration in our primary schools. They influence their parents.
Professor Hutchinson referred to Catholic schools. In the Republic the Catholic Church bought into multidenominational education. It became involved in community schools and, later on, in community colleges. The Church of Ireland has also been involved in them. The institutional church has a responsibility in terms of leadership.
On commemorations and history, Mr. Murray referred to people bringing their republican or Unionist history or their involvement in the British Army to the table. It is complicated because many of us have a background in different communities. My grandfather and great-grandfather served in the British army. Our history is complex and has to be part of commemorations. The divide between North and South is also complex. Growing up, I reacted against the promotion of the Irish language and felt alienated from it. We never heard Irish spoken in a Dublin accent and other dialects were taught which were alien to people in school in Dublin. A lot of work needs to be done on our identity to introduce complexity to celebrations. It is important we know and take on board all of our history.
We were shown the groundwork project. A lot of money seems to have been spent on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. There was an initial presentation by the secretariat. Witnesses referred to money not being spent locally. Is the money being spent properly or is there a need for change?
Deputy Seán Crowe: I welcome the witnesses. One of the things that is coming through is the lack of hope. Some communities in the South have similar problems. There was a debate in the Dáil yesterday on the community and voluntary sector and many groups referred to the lack of hope and change and the frustration and anger in some communities in terms of housing, a lack of jobs and so on. It is not something that can be transformed overnight.
It is helpful if someone listens. When no one is listening, especially those in power, frustration and anger develops. We have heard the phrase, “It passed off peacefully”, many times on television and radio, but it does not reflect the work done behind the scenes. It also does not mean that the inherent conflict is resolved. That is where the real work needs to take place. We talk about the conflict being endless but peace is still being built.
People feel let down. When there has been no investment and promises have not been delivered on, it is no wonder people feel angry, frustrated and let down. Is that where the seeds of future conflict lie, if people are not listening and there is no dialogue? If anything has come out of this meeting it is the fact that people at the coalface are talking. That is the important thing. Those with power and influence need to listen and respond to what is happening in the witnesses’ areas.
Deputy Robert Dowds: Cuirim fíor-fháilte roimh ár n-aíonna. I strongly welcome our guests. The work they are doing in bridging the boundaries between the two communities in Northern Ireland is very important. We should do everything we can to be supportive in that regard.
With regard to the commemorations that will take place on both sides of the Border in the next few years, whether we commemorate the events 1916 or 1912 or the start of the First World War, it is important we acknowledge each event with respect. As a Labour Party Deputy, I regard myself as a republican. I happen to be a southern Protestant and my family background is strongly Unionist. Two of my great-uncles, from Richhill in County Armagh, were killed in the Battle of the Somme. My great-aunt, who was my godmother, signed the Solemn League and Covenant as a very young woman. I do not agree with what she did but I respect the fact that she was doing what she thought was right. That is the sort of attitude that needs to inform all of us as we come to celebrate these events.
When I was a child in the Sunday school which was attached to our church, the teacher happened to be a Belfast Protestant. He was quite old when he was teaching me and was a veteran of the 1916 Rising. As a Northern Protestant he had fought in the GPO. I had great respect for him.
The respect issue is the really important one. Tá fíor-fháilte roimh ár n-aíonna anseo. Is breá liom a bheith ag caint Gaeilge, but I am very happy speaking English too. That is the sort of attitude that needs to inform all of us, from North and South.
Mr. George Newell: Our social ailments are no different from those of any working class area across the breadth of Ireland. The problem with our social ailments is that if we fall out with our neighbours in the next-door community, it could lead to guns and bombs coming out and people losing their lives. That is the major problem we have.
Enough credit has not been given to loyalist paramilitaries. They have been tagged with all sorts of names and labels, yet the level of social crime in our communities is nothing compared with that in other communities. It is very low. The PSNI, when dealing with loyalist paramilitaries, does not want to disclose that. It is a definite no-no. What we read in the Sunday tabloids about the names and things that have been attached to loyalist paramilitaries is all bad. There are bad apples in there. Like every community and organisation, there are bad apples. The greater majority want to achieve peace and to live in social happiness with their next-door neighbours.
One of the problems within Protestantism is the diversity that exists there. The Protestant, Unionist and loyalist community is so divided it is unbelievable. Everyone is wearing a hat. If you are a Protestant within the Protestant churches, you are divided by religion. There are a hundred different churches throughout Belfast. One of the latest churches to open in the Newtownards Road-Albertbridge Road area is the Upper Room Church. It got its name because it took over an old terraced house and because the ground floor could not be used, the church uses the upper floor. That is the problem we have within our churches. Within Unionism in general we take our political thoughts from the different political parties. Within loyalism there is the paramilitary angle.
The Shankill Road, where I come from, has a multitude of problems. There is not one Protestant high school in west Belfast. The closest is in the former Boys’ and Girls’ Model Schools in north Belfast. Thirty or 40 years ago, that was the closest thing to a grammar school. Now, because it is over-subscribed, academic achievement is almost nil. In east Belfast, Orangefield High School used to be one of best secondary schools in Belfast. It is less than 30 yards from a grammar school. Orangefield High School has been designated a special needs school because more than 50% of the young people attending the school are categorised as special needs. We have 16 to 18 year olds leaving school who can barely write their names. We also have men and women of 40, 50 and 60 who can barely write their names.
This problem is not exclusive to the Protestant community. I daresay it is across the community but it is a problem we suffer from. The existence of this problem and the fact that job opportunities are no longer being created in, for example, the shipyards, Mackies or Shorts means we have to deal with high levels of unemployment. That leads to forms of escapism. The only escape is to use alcohol or drugs or join paramilitaries. That is a major problem we suffer from. That is the level of life within our communities.
We hope that some form of education and job opportunities will be created, not only for the 30 and 40 year olds but also for the 14, 15 and 16 year olds who are leaving school. We need to give them hope, aspirations and job security. If they want to start a family, there must be opportunities to make a life for themselves and their children. I daresay this problem exists across the divide in republican or Nationalist west Belfast, across Belfast and across Ireland in general. We are fearful that when our community falls out, it does so with a bomb and a gun in the hand. We want to take that fear out of community politics. Otherwise, community situations can get out of hand.
Mr. Jackie McDonald: An important point needs to be made about nine and ten year olds. They are the children of children. Their parents are in their early twenties. Many of the parents are single parents who got together for the wrong reasons, perhaps through escapism or in a drink-induced relationship. In many cases the father has left, the mother is in a flat on her own and is finding it very difficult to cope. The children do not get the tender loving care, TLC, they are entitled to. That is a big problem for them. They are left to go out and learn the habits of the street. We need to look after young single parents. We need crèche facilities to allow mothers to go back to school or into employment and get some sort of identity in the community.
There are many dangers to the peace process. Parades is one of them, but the major problem for our peace process, and the biggest danger I see, is the young people. They are getting involved in riots and they think that is part of the conflict. I have criticised the PSNI openly and I have talked to them about this. A few months ago in east Belfast the PSNI sat in Land Rovers and let 14 year olds, with gloved fists and wearing training shoes, climb over armour-plated Land Rovers, punch and kick them and hit them with wheelie bins. The police sat there and did absolutely nothing. They have since made a few arrests and it will take a year to bring the cases to court. I have told the PSNI they need snatch squads. They have to get out and arrest rioters there and then so they know they cannot get away with it.
The police plead health and safety. If a 14 year old has climbed on a Land Rover, the police cannot move the Land Rover in case he falls off it. They are lined up like tins of beans. They should just leave the Land Rovers there, go and have their tea and then when they are finished, they can come back and take them away. As Sean Murray said, it is a matter for the people in the area, whether it is the Garvaghy Road or the Ormeau Road. It is not for the Orange Order to bring people from Belfast or from anywhere else to try to force the issue. The people in that area should be left to deal with the problem and let them sit down together to talk it through. The same applies to the issue of the peace wall. The only people who can sort out the peace walls are the people who live on either side of them. I was in Alexandra Park the other day and it was good to see so many people there. It was a very important moment and it shows the way forward. The walls cannot be taken down yet but gates could certainly be put in them so that communities on either side could become comfortable and familiar with each other.
There are so many problems and so many dangers to the peace process. The biggest issue must be to give our young people an identity. At the moment there is no consequence for doing wrong. They have plenty of opportunities to show how bad they can be and we need to give them the opportunities to show how good they can be.
Chairman: I thank all the delegates for their attendance today and for being so open and frank in their presentations. I also thank the members of the committee for the range of questions. We had a very wide-ranging debate and I think we have learned much about the issues being faced by people at the grassroots level. This committee can help to raise awareness about these issues. I suggest that a transcript of today’s proceedings be sent to the Taoiseach and he can pass it on to the commemoration committee which he is forming.
Senator Martin McAleese: I believe we should reflect on what is meant by the peace process. It is simply a process and not something we can say is finished today or will be finished tomorrow nor can one put a full stop at the end of it. This process will continue on into the future. We have achieved much and there are elements of completion which we will achieve over the next year to five years. However, there are other issues which may take generations to complete.
We have to ensure that the peace process is fully inclusive. We have heard today that it percolates right down to every individual and every community and it has a positive impact on the lives of everybody in every community. If we do not ensure this inclusivity, there is a danger of a drift towards it being a middle class peace process and some people would argue there are signs this is happening already. If this were to happen and if people were left outside of the process, we are simply sowing the seeds that will grow and develop and come back in the future to ambush us all out of the long grass.
There must be a building of a robust and strong relationship between republicanism and loyalism. I think we are seeing this in play today. Significant work has been done to develop that relationship and we should encourage it, resource it and ensure it happens. It is in all our interests to see a development of that strong relationship.
This leads to my final point regarding the centenary anniversaries which we have discussed. If we can get through these next ten years by adding value to the peace process, I think we can secure peace for generations and centuries but if we do not succeed, we run the risk of unravelling some of what we have managed to achieve. This would be a bad thing. If we do not do all we can to complete the peace process, the next generation, our children looking back at us, would rightly ask why we did not do that when we had the opportunity. They would ask why we left it to them to pick up the pieces again, the pieces that we could have prevented from falling apart. Those are the broad issues of the peace process.
I take the point made by Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin. The problems in an inner city area in any city, be it Belfast, Dublin, New York, London, are all the same. The socio-economic issues are exactly the same. The difference in Belfast is there has been a confusion or a further layering of sectarianism and a legacy of hatred, mistrust and suspicion. Speakers have alluded to the big question which is how to deal with sectarianism, how to decommission sectarianism. This is a very big challenge for all of us. In my view sectarianism can only be emasculated, so to speak, by building the relationships, showing respect, being inclusive and open to the sensitivities and dignity of others. This meeting is part of that process but it will be a long, slow, tortuous process because we are talking about changes in mindset. If this was easy, it would have been achieved a long time ago. There are no straight lines in this building of peace. However, we have a great responsibility because we have the opportunity now to deliver peace for those who are coming behind us.
I thank all the delegates for their attendance. I regard today’s meeting as a start of something. We should reflect on what has been expressed here today and I suggest a follow-up meeting. I am not sure how this could be organised but the transcript of this meeting will show we have identified ways of continuing this work.
I refer to the Unionist centenary committee, the committee set up by the Taoiseach and this committee and I agree that mainstreaming is critical. I am not so sure there is yet a willingness to mainstream and this may have to be determined. We cannot afford to allow five, six or seven independent groups to work in isolation when they are all addressing the same issue. This would be wrong, in my view. One of the challenges is to work out a way in which we can all work upwards towards a convergence so that all the work feeds into the same pot resulting in celebrating these next ten years in ways which are not divisive and which will be a means of adding value to the peace process.
Chairman: On behalf of the other members of the committee, I express our gratitude to Senator McAleese for helping to arrange today’s events. Like Senator McAleese, I hope we can have more such events in the future.
Dr. Ian Adamson: I wish to thank the committee members. I said go raibh maith agat at the beginning of the meeting but I would like to thank all the members, including our group, in Ulster Scots. There is a tradition in the North on New Year’s Day to bring a little piece of coal to one’s neighbour’s house and this will help him with his heating problems. There is an old Ulster Scots saying, “lang may yer lum reek wi’ither folks coal”, which means, long may your chimney smoke with other folks coal; may you have many friends. This committee has friends in us and we know the members are our friends.
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