By Steven McCaffery
STORMONT’S political leaders have often been accused of turning the clock back – but this time it’s in a good cause.
After a year dominated by street violence over parades and flags, First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have sought to reboot the political process with a suite of policies aimed at tackling sectarian divisions.
Critics claim it is the same plan that has been on the Stormont shelf since before the outbreak of the bitter disputes over cultural identity, and point out that it delays the toughest decisions by announcing an all-party working group on flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.
That all reinforces the impression that the plan represents a rewinding of the last political year, to reclaim the potential lost during the chaotic months of mob violence.
But Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness claim their deal offers much more.
The First Minister said: "I believe that this is probably the most ambitious set of proposals that have ever been brought forward in terms of a shared future.
“I believe it really does take us into a new era in terms of how we move forward as a united society.”
The blueprint, which could unlock other additonal support including a €200million international aid package, proposes:
:: An all-party group led by an independent chair to seek agreement on the contested issues of parades, flags and dealing with the past. The cooperation of other political parties has to be fully agreed, as has a timeframe for any deal.
:: A ten year plan to reduce and potentially remove barriers at sectarian interface areas – so-called peace walls – with the agreement of residents.
:: Ten shared educational campuses will start within five years, providing for Protestant and Catholic students who are currently taught separately to share some facilities and begin to break down barriers.
:: There will be 100 cross-community summer schools or camps, plus four urban village projects to tackle deprivation, and ten new shared neighbourhood housing developments.
:: A ‘United Youth Programme’ creating 10,000 one year work placements, also aimed at tackling religious divisions, is to help the group of 46,000 young people that political leaders say have no job and are not in training.
Interest groups were highly critical of Stormont’s initial Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy on tackling sectartianism released in 2010, claiming it was a watered-down version of the ‘Shared Future’ blueprint tabled by Westminster politicians.
But the CSI document will be replaced within two weeks by a new strategy entitled ‘Together: Building A United Community’.
Mr McGuinness said the proposals were a decisive step in moving forward the process of securing greater integration and would be built upon by further announcements.
“We are in problem solving mode,” he said.
“We recognise the positions of leadership that we have been honoured to be charged with.
“It’s our job to lead. It’s about showing people that there is a better way forward.”
The deal is the first piece of a wider political jigsaw currently being put together – with further announcements due from Stormont, and new support packages to be unveiled by London and Dublin over the next month.
Britain is committed to unveiling new economic measures with the Stormont leaders in a bid to boost business.
The Irish government’s tenure in the EU presidency should see it oversee the announcement of a new €150million European peace fund.
It is anticipated that if the fund is agreed it will be topped-up by the British and then the Irish government, presenting the prospect of more than €200million to bolster existing projects linked to the peace process and finance new initiatives to help heal the wounds of the Troubles.
Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness are also involved in sensitive negotiations on the handling of welfare cuts being imposed by Westminster which could impact on vulnerable sections of the community in Northern Ireland.
The politicians declined to comment on what the coming weeks will bring, but it is clear there will be a series of positive announcements prior to the arrival of world leaders for the G8 summit in Co Fermanagh on June 17-18.
The announcements might also lift the mood ahead of the looming summer marching season.
Both Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness played down the significance of talks scheduled to be held in Wales between police, political parties and groups linked to parading – a surprise development, news of which broke just before the announcement of the Stormont projects.
In January the Alliance party unveiled its own plans on a shared future, as reported by The Detail here.
The Alliance party’s Chris Lyttle – accused by the DUP and Sinn Féin of walking out of earlier talks on a shared future – said the latest proposals were ‘back of an envelope’, a disappointing response to pressure from London, Dublin and Washington.
He added: “Any progress, however belated, has to be welcomed – and in terms of belatedness, the title of their anouncement, ‘Building a United Community’, was one that Alliance used for shared future proposals we set out as long ago as 2003.”
The Stormont leaders are not reaching back that far for ideas on the way forward and say they need support to deliver what they see as potentially transformative change.
But overcoming the cynicism built up over the recent months of political turmoil will be the first test for their new proposals.