Mind the gap: Alliance and the community relations debate

David Ford
Image caption David Ford led Alliance withdrawal from the cross-party group on community relations.

Last Thursday, when Alliance walked out of the cross party Cohesion, Sharing and Integration working group, I broadcast a piece on BBC Newsline which compared and contrasted what the latest draft of the CSI document contained with David Ford's bottom lines on community relations.

The draft, which dates from early May, merits lengthier quotation than I had the time for on Thursday or during Tuesday morning's story related to flags.

One thing worth stressing is the document I've seen is a draft - it indicates the areas under debate, not what has been agreed. Just like the Good Friday agreement talks these discussions operate on the basis that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

On flags, Alliance demanded a framework to remove illegal flags and emblems. The draft says the Stormont parties "are committed to working with people across, and within, all sections of the community to achieve our objective of removing threatening and divisive symbols, such as flags, racist and sectarian graffiti and murals, where these are used or perceived as being used in an attempt to intimidate".


The document distinguishes between paramilitary flags and "the inappropriate misuse of national flags". It says when it comes to paramilitary flags there should be "zero tolerance. There must be no place in any normal society for the celebration of a culture of violence and intimidation".

The document deals with efforts by the authorities to remove paramilitary symbols through dialogue in detail. It says that the authorities may be tempted to engage in dialogue over paramilitary flags in order to minimise the potential for disorder.

However it points out that there are risks to this approach in relation to building up the status of "certain individuals" or "self appointed community gatekeepers" at the expense of others who have never been associated with violence.

The draft says that "the issue of the public display of flags or emblems associated with paramilitary activity in the recent conflict on main thoroughfares or in sensitive areas needs to be tackled as a priority".

After I broadcast the story about "self appointed community gatekeepers" on Good Morning Ulster, an Alliance source told me most of the flags section was their idea. But not all the text can have been provided by Alliance because on my copy the section on paramilitary flags on main thoroughfares has an Alliance note attached arguing that this falls short of the 2000 law which already bans such displays.


An Alliance spokesperson told me the party "believed that just setting targets on what is already the law is not enough and so proposed that the document went further by having a regulatory framework to ensure the respectful and non-intimidatory and time-bound display of national flags in order to allow cultural expression and to promote and protect all public space as shared space. This was another Alliance proposal that was rejected by the other parties and led to the Alliance's withdrawal from the working group."

On our school system, Alliance sought investment and targets for increased integrated education.

The Stormont draft contains no targets but does say that "creating more opportunities for shared and integrated education [with a view to achieving a full shared education system in Northern Ireland] is a crucial part of breaking the cycle of sectarianism".

Those square brackets could be crucial, as there's no consensus for making the single educational system a policy objective. I gather that the unionists parties and Alliance think such a commitment should be included, but both nationalist parties withheld their consent to what they view as a plan to end Catholic schools.

The draft claims that the Programme for Government reflects the Executive's commitment to building a more shared learning environment and goes on to argue that "it is vital that this process addresses sectarian divisions and results in a less segregated and more shared school system".

On housing, Alliance wanted a review of segregated housing and prioritisation of mixed housing. The draft document looks pretty close to this saying "mixed housing should be considered the norm" and it is "imperative that we prioritise the need to develop more shared housing and neighbourhood schemes". The draft also says "a landmark review of residential segregation and equality of housing provision" should be undertaken.

Hot topic

Housing near interfaces has become a particularly hot topic since the row developed over the redevelopment of the Girdwood site in North Belfast. The CSI document I have seen predates the Girdwood announcement. However it says that "housing should be only accessible to all and those making decisions on where to live should be able to do so free from the risk of intimidation or threat".

But it continues to point out that "in practice, however, segregation through fear in housing represents a significant barrier to creating a more united community and achieving our vision of a society where people can live, work and socialise together."

Finally concerns have been expressed by gay activists that their concerns won't be reflected in the CSI strategy. The draft I have seen does contains a specific reference to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and a target date of December 2012 for the publication of the Executive's Sexual Orientation strategy.

As with the flags it's not clear which ideas on housing, education and gay issues are agreed and which are contested. For that, we shall have to wait for the finished CSI policy.