The true cost of deprivation and division
The Good Friday Agreement marked a significant milestone, allowing for the conditions under which peace could be established and armed conflict brought to an end.
However it did not, in itself, do anything to ameliorate the conditions under which violence thrived for example the physical separation of communities and the desperate poverty that remains a characteristic of the areas most scarred by violence.
Nor did it provide a solution to the many “legacy” issues that haunt so many families to this day.
Younger people who did not live through the conflict were given a stark reminder by the dark and powerful TV documentary series Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland which was broadcast on the BBC recently.
It was a horrific, messy, brutal and dirty affair which involved the infliction of a lot of suffering.
Victims need some means of providing closure to their loss. To date we’ve been unable to negotiate one. The biggest stumbling blocks have been an inability to agree on how victims are defined and the British government’s reluctance to have its own record examined, especially regarding collusion with armed gangs and the withholding of intelligence which might have saved lives.
Unless and until we find a way of resolving this we face a serious obstacle to reconciliation and this will not be possible until such time as the British government admits that it is very much a part of the problem. Pretending otherwise fools no-one and blocks progress.
The think tank Pivotal has done much important work since it was founded in 2019 and its latest paper is especially welcome in that it recognises and analyses the lack of progress in addressing poverty and sectarian division in building peace.
It is unfortunate that it does not make the link between the failure to address legacy issues and the consequent impact on stuttering progress on reconciliation but this is the first of three papers on the topic and there is scope for addressing the gap.
The report concludes that deprivation and a lack of societal integration have contributed significantly to an absence of reconciliation.
It adds: “the absence of violence alone does not match up with the hopes of 1998 of a more positive reconciliation and a more united community.”
It highlights that wards in Derry/Londonderry, Strabane, and north and west Belfast are simultaneously the most materially disadvantaged parts of Northern Ireland, and have to live most directly at the sharp end of the complex legacies of the conflict.
It emphasises that the cost of living crisis coupled with the deep spending cuts planned by government will exacerbate these problems.
The report quotes interface community worker who sums up the impact of poverty on peace-building: “I don’t know if there’s anybody who would say that the actual quality of life is massively different from 1998 economically,” adding: “Peace is about prosperity. Peace is about jobs, about hope, about collaboration, about investment. It has to be better. It can’t just be the same without the violence.”
And it makes the obvious point that the current funding cuts will have serious consequences down the line – removing capacity for example in voluntary and youth sectors. It injects a note of realism too arguing: “With extensive pressures on budgets likely to be the reality across most Executive departments, the better use of resources, including a reduction in the duplication of public and voluntary services, has never been more urgent. There is also a need for sections of the voluntary sector to explore other revenues streams, either through social enterprise models or collaboration with business.”
However by doing so it does rather let successive British governments off the hook.
The analysis tends to ignore the fact that the government was a party to the conflict and that it enabled the policies that reinforced segregation. The 1971 Taylor Report became a blueprint for the planning of Belfast. It was partly compiled by the British Army and argued that future planning in Belfast should provide “the maximum natural separation between the opposing areas through “some sort of cordon sanitaire.” By this it meant building factories and warehouses between conflicting areas, with high walls to “form natural barriers” and specifically states that the number of access roads between the Falls and Shankill should be “substantially reduced.”
Also it cited the Westlink as a means of creating a 100 yard wide cleared belt between communities and called for planners to create “natural” divisions between difficult areas by building new roads.
So the ultimate solution as it admitted was in “increasing, rather than discouraging segregation through the creation of natural barriers.”
So the British government was at least partially responsible for increasing and consolidating the separation of communities and has a consequent responsibility for playing its part in resolving problems it helped to create.
Unlike parties at Stormont it has the ability – to do much more to alleviate poverty in areas still scarred by the violence. Unfortunately it has not delivered. The present regime has overseen a period where social mobility has become much harder and that in itself is an obstacle to progress.
It is right for the report to emphasise that we need to plan on the basis of constricting funds. However, not all the problems we face are generated by ourselves.
And if we are to really take stock of progress since the Good Friday Agreement that cannot just be a process of self-criticism – there were other parties to the conflict and not all of them have discharged their own responsibilities since 1998.
The report states: “86% of those living within 400 metres of any peace-wall in Belfast are in the lowest 20% of the city’s population as measured by the Multiple Deprivation Index. For many deprivation is experienced through stark local sectarian divisions, divided infrastructure, and diminishing resources often allocated along ‘us-and-them’ lines.”
This links poverty and division and dealing with division has proved incredibly difficult. While most people are strongly supportive of greater integration in schools and more mixed housing, what has been achieved in practice has been very limited.
The report concludes: “New momentum is required to share more public resources, integrate aspects of life across old divides, build stronger cross-community relationships and understandings, and offer new opportunities for the next generation.”
However it quotes one contributer as saying: ““we need to tackle deprivation before we can even approach reconciliation here.”
Whichever way you look at it we need a government not just patient and committed enough to have negotiated a peace, but one prepared to invest to entrench it as well.
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