I enjoyed my trip to Belfast as a guest of the Northern Ireland Chartered Institute of Housing and RSA Ireland. Belfast city centre felt lively and interesting with its mix of modern shops, historic buildings, atmospheric bars plus an international market and big wheel. As an inner Londoner I envy people who live in cities - like Belfast, Edinburgh or Brighton - close to striking countryside.
My analysis of social segregation in Northern Ireland seemed to go down OK. It certainly spurred an interesting conversation in an audience made up of Fellows and other people working in various ways to tackle the problem.
There was general agreement that integration is best advanced though an incremental and multi-faceted strategy. This should involve exploring how religiously affiliated groups could be supported to be champions of change, how to encourage not just more mixed housing but also other integrated public, social and commercial spaces and how to back the pro-integration message of SDLP Minister for Social Development Margaret Ritchie as she tries to garner support among Executive colleagues in other parties.
An incremental model requires steady pressure to make a difference over time. Lots of good practice has already emerged in Northern Ireland. The question is how to knit this together into a strategy and campaign that can achieve irreversible change. With this in mind, two related ideas emerged in our discussions.
First, the integrationist cause could be aided by a high profile annual review of progress towards community cohesion. This ‘one community’ report would be jointly authored and supported by a range of organisations. It would collate and examine key statistics on levels of segregation. It would provide case studies of successful integration and celebrate those who had taken a lead. And, of course, the report would also identify areas of concern and priorities for state and civic action.
Then, linked to the report, a number of existing, relatively low profile awards for good practice on community cohesion could be brought together in a single annual gala dinner. This star-studded event would give out ‘one community Oscars’ to politicians, community leaders, employers, sporting and cultural figures who had gone the extra mile to promote understanding and integration. Imagine, for example, the Celtic and Rangers football captains jointly giving out the award for the best use of sport to promote community relations. As well as being a huge annual celebration of progress towards integration (after all, why should the sectarians have the best tunes?) the dinner would aim to generate money to provide seed corn funding for new initiatives.
Of course, the RSA cannot itself do either of these things, but with the backing of RSA Trustee Lord Richard Best (who is chairing the CIH inquiry into housing in Northern Ireland), I said on Friday that if a group of Fellows commit to bringing together various organisations to develop these ideas then we will see how RSA HQ might provide some small scale funding or admin support in the development stage. To start the ball rolling I will earmark the CIH fee for my speech for this project.
To overcome segregation will take a generation, after all 98% of social housing tenants in Belfast now live in neighbourhoods dominated by people of one religious tradition. As people in Northern Ireland who have been working heroically on this issue for years know, there is no easy answer. Indeed – as I argued on Friday – to push too hard on one lever could even be counter-productive.
It may be the annual report and gala dinner are already happening or that they aren’t great ideas, but one way or another I hope we will be able to support our Fellows in contributing to the vital goal of greater social integration.
As well as posting any views here, RSA Fellows in Ireland have also been having a discussion on segregation and other issues - again readers are very welcome to join in.