Ian Parsley (North Down, Alliance): Senator Barack Obama made the inevitable reference to Northern Ireland during his speech in Berlin last week, saying that walls had “come down in Belfast, where Protestants and Catholics found a way to live together”.
These are delightful sentiments – but they do not tell the story. There are, in fact, more walls up separating communities in Belfast than at the time of the Agreement 10 years ago. In truth, it could better be argued, Protestants and Catholics have found away to live apart - and they have done so, primarily, for economic reasons.
Life is unmistakably better in Northern Ireland than it was 10 years ago. It is worth recalling that, even into the 1990s, people could not move freely without security check, unemployment was high, more people left than arrived, foreign visitors were almost unknown, holidays abroad were a luxury for the few, city and town centres were grim. Nowadays, free movement, low unemployment and immigration are taken for granted, with a range of holiday and retail options open to people in Northern Ireland to an extent that would be the envy of many other UK regions – the economic benefit of learning to live at least without violence.
However, society in Northern Ireland remains fundamentally divided. 95 per cent of people attend schools segregated by religious denomination, and leisure, sporting and political preferences often proceed along those same sectarian fault lines. On one occasion, Unionists and Nationalists in the Assembly even divided up on the issue of whether or not to wear jackets in the chamber on a hot day! Most obviously of all, peace walls are being constructed faster than they are being taken down – including one, within the past year, in the grounds of an integrated school.
This “secret sectarianism” does not just blight the communities where the walls are put up – separating them in many cases from their nearest health centre, job opportunity or leisure facility. It continues to hinder social progress, threaten the political settlement, and cost billions which could be better spent on frontline public services and reducing rates bills. Those “costs of division” alone are estimated to come to over £1 billion out of the Northern Ireland budget alone (for example, through maintenance required for extra leisure centres, additional capital and transport costs in the segregated education system, or higher policing costs to maintain the peace), before costs to local business.
It was welcome that Senator Obama mentioned Northern Ireland, and legitimate to mention the progress made. But he might have been better calling for “change we can believe in”. Indeed, given the economic benefit of peace but the ongoing costs of division, he might have used the last Democratic President’s famous line – “It’s the economy, stupid”.
Cllr Ian James Parsley is Policy Director of the Alliance Party, and currently serving as Deputy Mayor of North Down.
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