Sectarian politics, Brexit uncertainty, COVID-19 and economic worries dominated the discussions that the Talk/Together project held in Northern Ireland. While anxiety about the future and mistrust of politicians characterised the public mood, we also felt energised by meeting civil society leaders working to bring people together and learned a lot about their work.
Northern Ireland’s divisions are well documented. The last years of the 20th century saw a conflict that killed more than 3,500 people. The Good Friday Agreement brought an end to violence, but social divisions still remain. Education is divided by tradition: most children attend either Roman Catholic or ‘Controlled’ Schools. There are also high levels of residential segregation, which is most marked in public housing, where so-called peace walls still demarcate and divide communities.
People’s background usually determines the way the cast their votes in elections. A constant theme in all the discussions was of a broken political system. There was very little trust in politicians, and a universal view that opportunism and rhetoric stoked division. Reliance on a sectarian vote meant there was little political accountability which had led to a leadership vacuum and failing services.
“People don’t vote for who they really want to vote for here. They vote to keep out the opposition…If you can rely on the pull of identity to secure your votes, you don’t have to deliver.”
Brexit was a very salient issue in all the discussions, with people fearful about its economic impact and that the Irish border might become a flashpoint for violence. We also spent some time discussing how politics might change for the better in Northern Ireland. Here there was a mix of views. Some people felt very pessimistic: that political divides were so entrenched that they would never change. Higher levels of emigration among graduates, young people who have attended integrated schools and the children of mixed marriages meant those who could push for better politics had often left Northern Ireland. Other people were more optimistic. They felt that there was social contact across community divides both in the workplace and in a much bigger higher education sector. Many people also felt that the next generation of young people wanted a “normal future” and would eventually vote out those who exploited identity divides to stay in power.
“Younger people have other things on their minds. They’re not thinking about politics, they’re just thinking about getting on with their life. With COVID, people are losing their jobs and politics is the last thing on their minds.”
The week we were holding these discussions coincided with increased levels of lockdown in Northern Ireland and the impact of COVID-19 was also a dominant issue in the discussions. Many people felt that the Spring lockdown had brought people together. They pointed to relief efforts that crossed community divides. We were told about foodbanks that made sure they were helping both sides, as well as efforts from members of the public to look out for elderly neighbours from a different tradition to themselves.
But as time had gone on, COVID-19 had started to divide people. As elsewhere, people were concerned about the mental health impacts of COVID-19 and growing economic inequality. The view that some groups of people were not following public health guidance was just as prevalent in Northern Ireland as it was in previous discussions in London and Yorkshire. In one discussion there was a heated debate about herd immunity. Many people were concerned about the reach of divisive conspiracy theories. There was also a view that some politicians were now exploiting the crisis for their own ends.
“People are finding more issues to be divided about. They jump straight to the Orange and Green much more.”
Northern Ireland’s divisions have meant that there has been considerable investment in peace-building and community development, much of it led by civil society organisations, but also involving councils, trade unions and the business community. We met many organisations that have carried out innovative work to bring communities together to find solutions to shared problems. Many of the younger participants in the discussions had taken part in initiatives to increase social contact across community divides, including residential weeks or arts and sports projects. It was felt that these made a difference to attitudes and in some cases the friendships that were made had endured.
In all the discussions we are holding, we are asking what changes would help bridge divides and enable people from different background to live well together. In Northern Ireland, three themes dominated. First, people felt that sectarian politics needed to be fixed. Second, most people wanted to find ways to disagree better. They felt that social media had amplified divisions. Differences of political opinion are the currency of a healthy democracy, but people had to find ways of having a civil debate.
Third, there was a plea for a more integrated education system that did not separate children from a very young age. One participant told us that as a teenager he was beaten up by a gang of school children because his school uniform identified him as “belonging to the other side.” He suggested that all Northern Ireland’s school children should wear the same uniform to avoid such visible labels of difference. Others talked about taking long detours on their walk home from school to avoid passing through certain areas. At present, just 7% of Northern Ireland’s school children attended integrated schools. There was a view that more of these schools were needed, alongside other opportunities to bring young people together across the divides.
“The only way to sort this country out is to have a look at the education system. We need integrated education, more integrated education in this country. No more Protestant state schools or Catholic schools. We need people from both communities mixing at a very young age.”
In all, it was a week of interesting discussions which gave us much food for thought. Although the Northern Ireland context is different, there are some themes that are shared with England, Scotland and Wales. All parts of the UK are riven by identity-based politics in different ways, where social identities, and not policies, determine which way people cast their votes. And in all four of our nations it is social contact, across divides, that helps us develop empathy and reduces prejudice and mistrust of others.
Talk/together is the UK’s biggest-ever conversation about what divides and unites us, and what could bring our society together in these difficult times. Please share your views by completing our short online survey at www.together.org.uk