By Steven McCaffery
STORMONT’S political leaders have finally released their long-awaited blueprint for building a shared future for Northern Ireland.
The document will raise a lot of questions.
Why are they effectively closing the existing anti-sectarianism watchdog, the Community Relations Council?
Why go for shared education projects instead of the full integration of Protestant and Catholic children in the same schools?
And can their Christmas deadline for a deal on flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles really be met?
But here’s an alternative question about the strategy unveiled by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, maybe even an unexpected one – what if it works?
There is ample reason for scepticism, even cynicism.
The DUP and Sinn Féin are the parties who, according to their enemies, did more than anyone else to foster and feed-off division during the decades of conflict – can they now lead this kind of change?
More importantly perhaps, where will the money come from? It will cost hundreds of millions, though a final price tag isn’t even available yet.
There is the likelihood of a €150million windfall from Europe, with more cash from London – though this is the same British government that Sinn Féin says welshed on an €18billion pledge for infrastructural projects.
And chief among the list of cavernous gaps, is this DUP/Sinn Féin administration’s San Andreas Fault – the catalogue of stalled plans, broken pledges and interminable internal rows.
One month ago the two parties were attacking each other in public.
The next day came “clear the air” talks between Robinson and McGuinness.
And now we have a deal.
The document entitled `Together: Building a United Community’ contains many of the proposals unveiled on May 9 by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, as previously reported here.
But the plan sets their top priorities in the context of a wider strategic framework.
The document includes:
:: Plans to strip most of the functions of the Community Relations Council (CRC), formed in 1990 to foster better relations between Protestants and Catholics. These will be merged with the existing Equality Commission to form a new Equality and Good Relations Commission which it is claimed will place community relations on a statutory footing.
:: The report details the plan to secure community agreement to reduce or remove peace walls at interfaces between Protestant and Catholic communities which, despite offering a degree of protection to homes, seem to the outside world to be at odds with the wider successes of the peace process.
:: Ten shared education projects, such as the one at Lisanelly in Omagh, will be developed. These are multi-million pound schemes which will see Protestant and Catholic students continue to attend their own schools, but on shared campuses, or with some shared facilities, to ensure that the children at least get to know one another. Critics claim this falls far short of an integrated school system, but the document aspires to “achieving a full shared education system”.
:: There are a string of other schemes including shared housing projects, youth summer camps and 10,000 training projects for unemployed young people, all of which include a cross-community dimension. A further announcement is for “buddy schemes” for publicly run nurseries and primary schools to bridge divisions.
:: The hardest issues to secure agreement on are flags, parades and dealing with the past, all of which have been left to an all-party working group. But while this aspect of the plan was already in the public domain, the Stormont leaders have now said they are edging towards all-party agreement on an independent chair for the talks, which, crucially, they want to see concluded by December.
In a message to critics, Mr Robinson said: “One of the, and only one of the, frustrations of being in political leadership is where you know what needs to be done, but you know that it can’t all be done instantly, because in some cases it would be a matter of finance.
“In others it will be bringing the community along with you.
“One of the elements of leadership that is always important is to know just how far ahead of the pack that you should be.
“And it is alright having great ideas and great wisdom on these matters but you have to be able to bring people along with you.
“But at the same time you cannot afford to wait until the last person is ready to go.
“And it is that balance that can leave you open to criticism from both sides of that argument.”
Mr McGuinness added: “This is all about trying to meet the needs of communities in a way that brings people ever closer together.
“I think it deserves a chance. The time to criticise us, is if we don’t do it.”
The smaller Assembly parties have already clashed with the DUP and Sinn Féin over the headline proposals and will now react to the overarching strategy.
While much of the debate is likely to focus on the future of the CRC, the success of the all-party group on flags, parades and the past is of fundamental importance to the fortunes of the wider strategy.
Mr McGuinness says there should be agreement within weeks on an independent chairman to push the talks towards a Christmas deadline.
The deputy First Minister said: “I suppose we are looking for somebody who has the same qualities as Senator George Mitchell – but we’re not looking for George Mitchell, we think we put him through enough.
“It’s that sort of a person we are looking for, somebody who has the ability to have the confidence of all of the parties.”
He said progress on flags and parades is possible, but sounded less sure of progress on dealing with the past.
While he did not refer to it, perhaps his party’s shift on securing a “truth and reconciliation” commission is one factor to watch, as reported here.
Failure to secure agreement on contentious issues like flags and parades risks future crises and street violence that could undo any good work rolling from the new blueprint. Northern Ireland saw months of rioting over the decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall.
Those of a suspicious mind, however, wonder if all this political activity has anything to do with the fact that the G8 summit is coming to Northern Ireland in June, and as a result Stormont wants to be seen to be putting its best foot forward ahead of the arrival of the world leaders.
There are likely to be further announcements from the First Minister and deputy First Minister, plus confirmation of further financial support from London and Dublin, ahead of the G8.
There is no doubt that the G8 is serving as a deadline, but Stormont insiders claim other factors are driving the current activity.
One informed source said: “The flags issue was a wake-up call to the risk that events can undo a lot of good work.”
Another said: “It is clear now that there is no point travelling the world to attract jobs, only to come home and find your own backyard on fire.
“The G8 will come and the G8 will go, but this is about showing that the political work here is continuing.”
They also point out that the plans unveiled by the First Minister and deputy First Minister have been worked on over the last two years.
It is possible many of the proposals would have been announced long ago had it not been for the flags crisis.
But even among the loyalist community at the centre of the flags dispute, there is evidence of an appetite for political action on divisive issues of cultural identity, as reported by The Detail here.
Above all, the signal from the public is that they want to see their politicians deliver.
Mr Robinson said of the plan: “I think there will be widespread support out there for the kind of moves we are suggesting.”
Mr McGuinness said: “We believe that the programme can make a massive impact but the key to all of this is people providing leadership.”
These are two parties whose political relationship in government is often characterised as being one of `containment’, as they seek to frustrate each other’s mutually exclusive ambitions of strengthening or weakening the Union with Britain.
When you factor in the competing agendas of the Assembly’s smaller parties, the potential for political tensions to override other considerations is high.
Events on the streets also risk unsettling politicians as we stare into what could be a difficult marching season this summer.
The plans unveiled today may not be as ambitious as others might have liked.
And it is entirely possible that the prime objective of the exercise is to deflect criticism and satisfy political and media demands for action on the shared future front.
Alternatively, what if at least a start was made to breaking down sectarian barriers in education and in communities?
What if the flashpoint issues of flags and parades could be dampened down?
What if the plan worked?
Or, for a society with such deep divisions, maybe the question should be, what if it doesn’t?