With rioting - allegedly provoked by loyalist paramilitaries – in east Belfast last night, it was poignant to be speaking this morning to an audience of people who have been active in promoting understanding and collaboration in Northern Ireland. The fact that there have been so many worthy initiatives under the EU funded Peace III programme makes it if anything even more depressing that there has been no dent made in the levels of housing segregation and even while Peace III was working away more and higher ‘peace walls’ were being erected.
In the same Belfast Telegraph that reported the riots there was an inspiring story about children from primary schools in the Shankhill and Falls Road competing at the Gaelic sport of hurling. If you look at the photo of the kids playing you can see the Union Jacks and Loyalist flags draped from houses in the background.
The Telegraph also contained no less than 17 pages dedicated to Rory McIlroy, which enabled me to make the point I prefigured yesterday about the need for individual striving and ambition to be part of the story about combating tribalism. As well as community based development and political leadership (although that seems muted right now) I urged the audience to be innovative and risk taking, trying to find ways of challenging entrenched thinking which could become benign social viruses.
In this vein I want to make a commitment. I am determined to take up an idea I floated last time I went to Belfast. While loyalism and republicanism have great traditions and vernacular cultures, integration can seem a bit worthy and dull. This is why Northern Ireland needs the Annual Good Relations awards night. It will be glamorous, sexy and star studded. Celebrities will give the prizes in a plush hotel and stretch limos will drive into places like Shankhill to pick up award winners who have promoted integration in schools, sports, public services and employment.
Ever since I knew I was going back to Belfast this idea has been bugging me. In just the last few days I have found two potential partner organisations to work with RSA Ireland and this morning got a lead in the City Council (by the way it is inspiring to see how many young dynamic councillors there are in Belfast, including a 19 year old and 25 year old Lord Mayor).
The awards night will happen and by no later than next spring. Readers, my dears, hold me to it.
So, I feel inspired. Which is just as well as I had been worried that the conference this morning didn’t have quite the right mood. There wasn’t a sense of innovation and new ideas weren’t flowing. Just then I noticed the guy next to me had a piece of paper on which he was writing down the names of breeds of cow. ‘What are you doing?‘, I asked. ‘Well’, he said ‘I was hoping it might act as a cattle list’.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.