Wednesday, 9 April 2008
Northern Ireland Issues
I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter on the Adjournment. I ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs what efforts are being made to overcome bigotry and sectarianism in an all-Ireland context, given the recent television documentaries which have outlined the intensification of these activities post the Good Friday Agreement. I deliberately raise this issue in the week when we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. We celebrate the good and positive sides of the Agreement and the fact that things have moved on and we have political stability, of sorts, which is only right. However, the Good Friday Agreement was the result of a process and led to the creation of an Executive which took some time to bed down. This is a week when we celebrate ten years since the Agreement but it is not the end of the process. Rather, it is another stage in a process.
I have been appointed by the Council of Europe to write a report on how to teach history in areas of recent conflict. As a result of that, I have engaged in an even closer examination of the issues relating to Ireland, particularly the North of Ireland, although the report also relates to Bosnia, Cyprus and the South Caucasus.
On Monday night last, the BBC broadcast a "Panorama" programme entitled "Divide and Rule", which examined Northern Ireland ten years after the Good Friday Agreement. It outlined the position in Derry and the fact that during the conflict, people polarised to one or other side of the city of Derry. The Fountain area remained an exclusively Protestant enclave. The programme makers looked at that area, ten years on, after the conflict. The Fountain currently has 24-hour CCTV monitoring, most of the houses are abandoned and the current residents still feel under siege. Catholic teenagers are seen to be still antagonising their Protestant neighbours. Raw sectarianism has led to Catholic patrols of the area, which have resulted in a reduction in incidents of 61%. However, the residents feel that the place is still very volatile. Should a Protestant decide to wave a Union Jack, major trouble could flare up.
It must be said that there are many community workers in Northern Ireland. It is estimated that there are approximately 30,000 professional community workers and 70,000 voluntary community workers in the North's economy. It is important that we find some mechanism to reach the people at the grassroots to ensure that the sectarianism that appears to be alive and well — judging by the television programme — and is potentially lethal, is addressed.
We are not at the start of a process but we are not at the end of one either. We do not expect problems to disappear overnight and everything to be wonderful. However, the difficulty is that it is younger people who are involved in the current sectarianism. It is 12 years since I entered Parliament and 13 years since I taught in Derry. I still remember going through checkpoints in Derry but the people who were three years old then and who are 16 now do not remember that. They do not remember the bombs either, or the really difficult times.
The programme makers also examined Ballymena and drew attention to the fact that the local Catholic school is two miles away from the town. They also highlighted the fact that in 1996 it was the picketing of Harryville for two years that led to the sectarianism. One would have thought that 1996 should have been the start of the end of sectarianism. It was pointed out that Ballymena was a shopper's haven up until then but has now become a tribal area. A young Catholic teenager was murdered there in May 2006. As with the Derry example, there was much cross-community work which led to a 60% reduction of sectarian incidents. However, when the programme makers examined what was actually going on and spoke to people in their 20s in Ballymena, they found that the young people would not go to the leisure centre because it was perceived to be Catholic and would not go to Pizza Hut or down certain streets because they were not in their territory. It was made very clear that they were happy to be segregated in peace rather than living in harmony with their neighbours.
One of the points made very clearly in the programme was that if one was wearing the wrong coloured jersey in the wrong part of town, one was in trouble. That was seen recently in Belfast when a young man had his throat cut at random by a group of people who were allegedly returning from a football match. That was a sectarian incident.
I raise the issue tonight because the "Panorama" television programme made the point that within the political leadership people were fighting over their tea and coffee and where they had dinner while on the ground, people were still fighting with stones, knives, petrol bombs, paint bombs and nail bombs. Since the peace process started, 17 additional peace walls have either been built, extended or heightened. The physical barriers between the two communities are greater than was the case previously.
If one examines this in purely economic terms, the programme suggested that to duplicate the school buses cost £2.5 million. Segregated housing cost £24 million while the cost of policing, per person, was £478,000. Policing in Northern Ireland costs £2,000 more, per head of population, than in Britain.
The Good Friday Agreement has led to a management of sectarianism rather than its removal. In north Belfast, the programme makers filmed on the Crumlin Road, where there are different bus stops for Protestants and Catholics for the same bus service. If we are at the stage where this is still happening, while we are celebrating peace, we must recognise that while there is a political process at which we have arrived, much work remains to be done. Much of the work must start in the schools and we must recognise that understanding and respect for the other person is key. There have been curriculum changes in the Republic of Ireland and in the North that will help in that process. However, unless the process that has begun in schools and the separate process that is happening through cross-community activism are linked together, so that what the children are learning in schools and the parent are learning through cross-community activities are connected, we will not succeed. We must decide to move beyond a political settlement to a settlement where people get on and enjoy one another's company.
This morning I suggested that ten years on from the Good Friday Agreement, we examine the possibility of all of the people of Ireland enjoying a social day to mark the event, whether with an old-fashioned tea party, a concert or in some other fashion. We should organise a social event so that people who are on opposite extremes can get together and recognise how far we have come while also recognising that there is still some way to go.
It is important to acknowledge the enormous progress in building relationships on this island, both within Northern Ireland and between North and South, in the ten years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Compared to the long decades of the Troubles, we are truly in a new era of peace, prosperity and co-operation. An inclusive, power-sharing Executive headed by Dr. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness was probably unthinkable only a few years ago but it is now a reality. Such positive developments demonstrate it is possible to change attitudes, develop relationships and work together for the benefit of all. The parties to the Good Friday Agreement collectively gave a commitment to take further steps to actively promote and develop respect, reconciliation and mutual understanding between the different traditions on the island. These commitments are as relevant today as they were ten years ago. They form the foundation stones for the new era of peace, partnership and prosperity which is being progressively built in Northern Ireland, and across the island.
In this spirit of reconciliation and inclusivity and of reaching out to all the traditions on this island, the Government decided to develop a visitor centre at the Battle of the Boyne site. Arrangements are being made for the Taoiseach and Dr. Paisley to open this new centre in the coming weeks. All Members will recall the genuine appreciation expressed for this work by all shades of unionism when Dr Paisley visited the site last May at the invitation of the Taoiseach. We will continue to maintain and develop this site as an expression of our ongoing commitment to our shared history.
It is, however, undeniable that there is much still to be done. In parts of Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland, the number of so-called "peace walls" and "peace lines" has increased since the cease-fires of 1994. Such structures have been erected at the behest of local communities, both nationalist and unionist, which fear sectarian attacks and they are a sign of our collective failure to date to tackle sectarianism comprehensively. In this regard, I also refer to the attacks on Orange halls in the past few years, primarily in Northern Ireland, but there was also an attack on the Orange hall in Drumartin, County Cavan last autumn. In addition, there were attacks on GAA clubs in Fermanagh and Armagh last winter. I reiterate the Government's unreserved condemnation of such actions. These incidents have been rightly condemned across the community in Northern Ireland. They are cowardly attempts to intimidate and sow division. Those who perpetrate such acts are not representative of the wishes of the people of this island, North and South.
It is not all bad news on this front, with the overall number of reported sectarian attacks falling in recent years. However, it is clear that combating the scourge of sectarianism remains a key challenge in the months and years ahead. While leadership on promoting reconciliation and combating sectarianism must come primarily from the Northern Ireland Executive and the local communities involved, the Government also wants to play its part in dealing with these issues. In terms of specific action, the Good Friday Agreement included an undertaking "to positively examine the case for enhanced financial assistance for the work of reconciliation" by voluntary and community organisations. We have lived up to this commitment through the Department of Foreign Affairs reconciliation fund. Much of the work which promotes reconciliation is being carried out at a local level, by organisations that are small and that often have a relatively low capacity. We have long realised that even small grants offered to such organisations can have an immediate return, by building relationships and tackling issues head-on at a local level.
The positive example of these organisations is, unfortunately, juxtaposed with the reality that sectarianism is a continuing problem in many parts of Northern Ireland. The progress made at the political level is not always reflected in the experience of ordinary people and this was highlighted by the Senator. Thus, it was decided to include in the current programme for Government a commitment to prioritise the battle against sectarianism and, in pursuit of this objective, to establish a dedicated anti-sectarianism fund. This fund, launched by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in February is intended specifically to support projects designed to address the root causes of sectarianism. The projects availing of these awards illustrate the many ways through which we can challenge the scourge of sectarianism, assisting local communities to move forward.
For our part, we will continue to place reconciliation and the elimination of sectarianism, racism and other forms of hatred at the very centre of our policies. One of the projects funded by the reconciliation fund is Ballymena Learning Together which brings together the nine schools in the town in order that children from both communities can get to know each other. While at the political level much has been achieved, the true test lies at the community and grassroots level. Decades of division and mistrust cannot be dispelled in a few months. Reconciliation will be the work of a generation, perhaps more than one. Progress will be incremental but the goal of a better and shared future for the people of this island is one which, working together, we can and must achieve.
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply and I acknowledge the attendance of departmental officials for the debate, which is much appreciated. I would like information on the fund. A total of 200 students from six schools in Ballymena with varying backgrounds visited Leinster House in recent weeks, which was an important step forward. I also acknowledge the work of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission in introducing an education programme for the Oireachtas reaching out into schools. That is a positive way forward and this will be a long-term project. However, if the project were avoided, we would end up with difficulties sooner rather than later.