National Conversation: Northern Ireland

Posted on 6 December 2011

Some years ago a Council of Europe expert visiting Belfast as part of a study on cultural diversity was struck by a meeting with representatives of the small Chinese, Indian and Pakistani communities. Not only did his interlocutors feel that the overwhelming focus in Northern Ireland on the divide between the two main cultural ‘traditions’ left their identities marginalised, but also those in attendance who were drawn from the Protestant and Catholic communities felt that a broader approach to cultural diversity would be welcome for its own sake and in helping to lower the political intensity of sectarian debates, writes Robin Wilson.

Unfortunately, that cosmopolitan insight — that we need to recognise that we are all complexe diverse individuals, not merely cyphers for different communities — has yet to secure a wider purchase in Northern Ireland. Indeed in 2009, very close to where I live in south Belfast, there were two horrendous incidents of naked xenophobia. In April that year, following violence involving some visiting Polish fans outside the Northern Ireland football stadium (in front of my apartment block), more than 100 local Poles who had nothing to do with the riot were expelled from the area by thugs. Three months later, more than 100 Roma from Romania, who had been renting accommodation in two streets in the neighbourhood, fled after sustained intimidation which the police failed to tackle.

While there were local circumstances behind these attacks — those responsible would appear to have been lumpenproletarian Protestants feeling left behind by the cosmopolitanisation of this part of the city — they betray a wider culture of intolerance in Northern Ireland, which its predominantly sectarian politicians appear neither to have the urgency nor capacity to address. An international study published in 2007 by a University of Ulster academic (of Indian extraction, as it happens) and a colleague in Australia was sobering in this regard.

Their report drew on survey evidence (1999-2000) from a range of democratic societies but, crucially — and no doubt because of Prof Vani Borooah’s involvement — used a statistically significant sample from Northern Ireland, as well as one from Great Britain, rather than these being lumped into a UK total. In each case, respondents were asked “Would you like to have persons from this group as your neighbour?”, the groups being people of another ‘race’, immigrants, Muslims, Jews or homosexuals. From these answers a composite ‘bigotry index’ was compiled. The average score for 18 countries plus Northern Ireland was 30.7. Great Britain was a little worse at 32.2, while Sweden (unsurprisingly) was best at 13.4. But Northern Ireland just pipped Greece for the league-topping position, at 44.0.

In 2005, under ‘direct rule’ from Westminster, two related policy frameworks were issued, A Shared Future (mainly focusing on sectarianism) and a Racial Equality Strategy, to meet this challenge of intolerance. When devolution was renewed in 2007, the small, liberal Alliance Party proposed that the former be endorsed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. But the Democratic Unionist Party blocked the initiative and over subsequent years it engaged in protracted negotiations with Sinn Féin on an alternative document, also to address issues of racism and to be called Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI).

In the summer of 2010, they finally produced an agreed version, but it appeared so fatalistically to accept continuing communal division — from which the DUP and SF particularly were political beneficiaries — that it was widely criticised by reconciliation practitioners, victims’ campaigners, independent experts and representatives of minority communities on the ground, and was subsequently withdrawn. The latest draft Programme for Government of the devolved administration pledges to ‘finalise’ CSI in 2012-13.

So Northern Ireland really is a warning against fixed and stereotyped notions of cultural identity. Zygmunt Bauman’s injunction is as applicable here as elsewhere: we should promote genuine ‘cultural variety’, not a mere ‘variety of cultures’.

By Robin Wilson

Robin Wilson is a policy analyst and former director of the Democratic Dialogue thinktank.