Owen Polley: It is hard now to see where support for the shared society envisaged in 1998 will come from

There's nothing in the Belfast Agreement about hard borders, EU single market or football eligibility but it pledges to 'encourage' integration. Yet self-style progressives are more likely to pander to those who want to assert their identity and are more likely to misrepresent the agreement to support their point of view
There's nothing in the Belfast Agreement about hard borders, EU single market or football eligibility but it pledges to 'encourage' integration. Yet self-style progressives are more likely to pander to those who want to assert their identity and are more likely to misrepresent the agreement to support their point of view

Lately, so many claims have been made of the 1998Belfast Agreement, that you’d think this slim document must run to hundreds of pages.

Of course, if you bother to read the text, there’s nothing in it about hard borders, the European Union single market or football eligibility.

The agreement is interpreted fancifully to support all these unrelated arguments, but we hear much less about its actual provisions, including the pledge to “facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing”.

Arguably, these are the core requirements for building a harmonious society, yet throughout all the recent crises at Stormont, integration and a ‘shared future’ have scarcely been mentioned.

Sinn Fein peacocks about, using terms like ‘rights’ and ‘equality’ and portraying itself as ‘progressive’.

However, it doesn’t maintain even a flimsy pretext that it cares about integrating Northern Ireland’s society and the DUP isn’t much more convincing.

These two parties see themselves as champions of their respective communities.

They fight for the greatest share of money, services and resources that they can funnel off to areas and organisations that they consider to lie within their political territories.

Sinn Fein opposes mixed housing initiatives regularly, usually on the pretext that the need for new homes is higher in the nationalist community.

Both parties became embroiled in an ugly dispute last year, when the DUP MP, Emma Little-Pengelly, refused to call for the removal of UVF flags in a mixed estate.

Rather than trying to integrate Northern Ireland’s education system, Sinn Fein champions the Irish language micro-sector, which gives it a perfect excuse to preach about rights, while encouraging more young people to learn apart, in an atmosphere where republican politics can flourish.

Meanwhile, the DUP uses pedantic games around the difference between ‘shared’ and ‘integrated’ education, to avoid supporting special legal backing for the existing sector of integrated schools.

These attitudes shouldn’t be terribly surprising, because the political interests of Sinn Fein and the DUP are bound up with preserving segregation in Northern Ireland.

That said, the so-called ‘middle ground’ parties haven’t exactly done much to create a ‘shared future’ either.

Occasionally, Ulster Unionists or the SDLP talk about cohesion, but it’s without much commitment and usually it’s a way to attack their larger rivals.

Alliance, which was once vocal about its commitment to integration, now seems far more energised by the latest liberal fads, whether it’s supporting votes at sixteen or promoting the idea that gender can be changed at a whim.

The party has imported the worst aspects of identity politics to Northern Ireland, encouraging people to interact with society, not as individuals, but as members of groups, that then push for special rights and entitlements.

Alongside nationalist parties, Alliance is now using Brexit to create constitutional uncertainty, rather than encouraging people to work within the status that we already have.

When the party did have some leverage to make progress on ‘shared future’, after taking the policing and justice ministry on precisely that basis, it instead propped up a sectarian carve-up of devolved government that stalled and then watered down existing plans for integration.

The result was a succession of toothless documents and committees that used worthy language, but achieved next to nothing.

Now, you’re more likely to hear Alliance supporting divisive plans for an Irish language act or shrieking about a councillor who makes an off colour joke, than critiquing progress on the so-called Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy.

As advocated by its most articulate proponents, integration was never supposed to be a wishy-washy plan for holding hands and staging inclusive dinner parties.

It was supposed to tackle the colossal waste involved in having segregated social housing, segregated schools and segregated public services, in a relatively small community.

Unfortunately, in a drastically changed political landscape, it’s now difficult to see where meaningful support for the ideal of creating a shared society might come from.

It was that goal that underpinned the Belfast Agreement, yet self-styled progressives are now more likely to pander to those who want to assert their identity as conspicuously and publicly as possible.

And they’re more than likely to misrepresent the accord, in order to support their point of view.