Baroness May Blood: Stormont needs to embrace all cultures in a diverse society

Parliament Buildings, Stormont
Parliament Buildings, Stormont

Stormont’s new approach to building a programme for the future can be welcomed – setting targets which show that life is at least theoretically better for everyone and then showing how we will measure progress towards these targets.

However, though the plans are set out in a new way, is there anything new in the plans themselves?

Baroness May Blood

Baroness May Blood

The draft Programme for Government (PfG) has a clear mission statement: expressing a vision of “Improving wellbeing for all – by tackling disadvantage and driving economic growth”.

What is needed is a forward-looking vision of Northern Ireland, which values and builds on the best in communities and families but which is not still rooted in the worst aspects of our past.

But the text of the Programme for Government is, in places, couched in terms of a retrograde analysis of life which surely does not reflect the experience or environment of most people in 21 century Northern Ireland.

The document includes, for example, a pledge to bring about reconciliation:

“If our society is to be based on mutual respect, then everyone must feel that their own cultural identity is respected by the society in which they live.”

I would not argue with that view.

Through my contact with integrated schools I see a model of a diverse environment, where respect for all traditions, beliefs and backgrounds is promoted through discussion and awareness rather than through ignoring difference.

However the Executive’s sole suggested benchmark for increasing reconciliation is problematic.

It is based on research where the sample was asked if they felt their identity was respected.

The responses were divided into only three categories: Catholic, Protestant or, significantly, “No Religion”.

Not even the catch-all heading of “other or none” is used.

This is based on an idea that the population of Northern Ireland is defined only according to what branch of Christianity people follow.

Other religions, implicitly, count for nothing.

Whilst this may be a reflection, historically, of the divisions we have long worked to heal, we need to be planning for the future, not the past.

It is telling (but perhaps not surprising) that the demographic breakdown of responses to that research show that the third group – deemed not to have a religion if they are not Christian – were least likely to feel any respect for their identity.

Looking ahead, we need to embrace all cultures and communities as part of a diverse and thriving population.

The PfG aims to enhance Northern Ireland’s status on the world stage and thus help our economy to flourish.

Presenting our society as genuinely shared and happily diverse would contribute massively to this.

If our political leaders are still thinking in terms of old divisions then their first target should be developing their own perspective and acquiring a broader, more global outlook.

• Baroness May Blood MBE is the campaign chair of the Integrated Education Fund