Executive 'ignoring sectarian divisions'

Five Protestant clergy from north Belfast – one of the most divided parts of Northern Ireland – write of their disappointment at what they say is the failure of Stormont's Programme for Government to address sectarianism

The five of us work in what has been, and still is, a very troubled area of our city. We see community division every day as we drive through or past peace walls.

We help pastor a community with a devastating level of suicide. We see conflict worked out in a host of ways as the weeks and months pass. We look at other areas of the Province, and feel real empathy for what is happening there.

EXPERIENCE

Our experience tells us that some of the issues raised in the Executive's Draft Programme for Government and Draft Budget are of such importance that they merit some energetic and ongoing public discussion before they are finally settled. We wish to stimulate some of that wider debate, and do so from our best understanding of Christian and Biblical perspectives.

We feel this debate is all the more urgent because, to our dismay, the draft programme fails to address the scourges of sectarianism and separation across our Province.

We agree with many others on the central importance given by the Executive to growing the economy. Creating new resources within a society is key to ensuring that the weak and vulnerable can be properly helped, never mind the huge benefits that individuals and families reap from satisfying jobs. God created us to be productive, and when the opportunity to do that is either lacking or taken away, the whole of the community is weakened and affected.

GOAL

Yet in pursuing this highly desirable goal, the Executive seems to have been afflicted with collective amnesia. There is much emphasis on building a peaceful, fair and prosperous society, yet a flagship policy of recent years – A Shared Future – has disappeared without comment or explanation. Instead we are asked many times to march under another banner of 'Equality'. This too is highly desirable, but framed as it is primarily by law rather than by relationships, on its own it could well turn out to be a cold house for us all to inhabit. Equal in so many ways, yet still living in separate parallel universes.

The next few years are going to be troubling to us all - not least from the report of the Consultative group on the Past and the Ashdown report on parading, to say nothing of the enquiries resulting from Judge Peter Cory's report into unsolved murders.

On top of this we have poor inter-community relationships, effective apartheid in housing across our villages, towns and cities; community division (exemplified in, but not confined to the physical structures of peace walls); the slow pace of reconciliation; the sectarianism and fractured educational provision. We simply do not believe that all of these issues can be or will be swept away in an uncertain tide of economic activity.

ISSUES

Our real angst is that a suggested programme for government can almost totally fail to acknowledge that these profoundly difficult issues exist and that they matter. It is the burial of the concept of sharing our future alongside the rapid gestation of equality, defined largely in legalistic terms that are so weak on human and social relationships.

We are utterly convinced that we need to give a central place to public policies which build trust and cooperation rather than simply hope for the best as some of the worst emerges (which it undoubtedly will); and that these policies need to be every bit as prominent and well resourced as those designed to ensure equality.

Good government and a healthy society where relationships matter on the ground go together. Let's discuss.

The Rev Jack Drennan, Crumlin Road Presbyterian

The Rev Norman Hamilton, Ballysillan Presbyterian

The Rev Paul Holdsworth, Cliftonville Moravian

The Rev Ivan McElhinney, Joanmount Methodist

The Rev Canon Trevor Williams, Holy Trinity with Immanuel Church of Ireland