A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic, and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.
- A. Philip Randolph


Peaceline Peace?
The glitzy bars and restaurants point to a more 'normalised' society ... however, the peaceline communities are still waiting for their share of an ill-divided cake

As violence again flares on the North Belfast interface, Dr Peter Shirlow, whose recent report reveals the increasing levels of segregation in Northern Ireland, argues that a fundamental problem in our society is victimhood
By Dr Peter Shirlow
Belfast Telegraph, 11 January 2002

WHERE is the peace dividend? It is an unfortunate feature of history that those who suffer most in conflicts rarely bask in the glow of post-conflict outcomes.

The glitzy bars and restaurants point to a more 'normalised' society. The haves and 'have yachts', who never really suffered that much, can clearly see benefits.

However, the peaceline communities are still waiting for their share of an ill divided cake.

It is worth noting that, in Belfast, 80% of those who were killed were within 500 metres of a peaceline. Segregation is the key factor in the stimulation of deprivation, sectarian attachment and fear.

In those communities which suffered most it is evident that the cycle of segregation is being reproduced in a way that threatens the whole edifice of political settlement.

In our work, based at the University of Ulster, we have recently analysed the nature of mobility between Catholic and Protestant peaceline communities. The results are harrowing and depressing.

Despite policy developments that push towards equity, it is evident that many people refuse to undertake activities which involve crossing into areas dominated by the 'other' religious group.

People will only cross the community divide if they feel safe.

We should not forget that conflict undermined any trust that existed between communities. In many ways the imperative to build positive alternatives is hindered by a set of policies that are not based upon the reality of fear, prejudice and intolerance.

It is as if policymakers have produced the music sheets but have forgotten to hand out the instruments on which to play the music.

Of course all policies, which promote stability, are redundant if they are not supported by politicians and by communities welcoming integration.

Employment legislation has produced more mixed workplaces. However, it is evident that employers based in segregated areas rarely draw workers from both sides of the community.

As a result, a mere 5% of the workforce in companies located in areas dominated by the Protestant community are Catholics. A mere 8% of the workforce in companies located in Catholic areas are Protestants. Mixing will occur but only in places that are viewed as being safe.

Around 80% of those we surveyed rarely enter territory dominated by the 'other' group. In the most depressing cases it was discovered that fear precludes the use of health facilities. Forgoing health care due to fear reminds us how sick this society actually is.

A mere 20% of those surveyed believed that community relations have improved since 1994. In many ways politics is still tied to disputations over territory and its control.

Without measuring the nature of how communities are separate we are caught in the web of anecdote and allegation.

Data such as ours makes us appreciate that sectarianism is a lived experience. Separation and the inability to move freely, as witnessed around the Holy Cross dispute, promotes the sense of injustice and exclusion.

Next year's census results will tell us about the extent of residential segregation but very little on what residential segregation actually means. As such a major investment into exploring interface issues is the only way to get beyond critical problems. As is joined-up government and the creation of a Ministry with conflict resolution as its core concern.

Our data highlights that each community is a victim of fear and exclusion. This is by far the most important conclusion of our work.

A fundamental problem in our society is that of victimhood. A common feature of our study was the argument, made by many, that they could not believe that the 'other' community was legitimately afraid of their community.

The fact that people do not see their community as a threat to others is a dismal truth. We are caught in a trap within which communities see themselves as victims of the 'other' community's violent and transgressive behaviour.

It is only when suffering is no longer an issue of political righteousness and sectarian ownership that we will shift towards a more agreed political system.

Political leaders need to convince their respective electorates that their political foes are fellow sufferers of fear, prejudice and exclusion.

It is a bitter pill to swallow but the only medicine that will cure this society.

Dr Peter Shirlow is a Senior Lecturer in geography at the University of Ulster. His work is dedicated to exploring interface areas, deprivation and political change.
This piece has been carried with the permission of the author.



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