Paramilitaries are not the reason why a shared society is still so far away

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Cantrell Close – the ‘shared’ housing development from which four Catholic families fled last week – is part of the Stormont Executive’s ‘Together Building United Communities’ (TBUC) programme: the purpose of which is to improve community relations and build a united and shared society.

One of the residents who moved out with his family a few days ago told Radio Ulster’s Talkback: “We’ve been living there for just over a year and never had a problem with no-one. Talked away to the neighbours, every one was really nice; and then this just came out of nowhere.”

Well, in one very particular sense, this didn’t come out of nowhere. A few months ago UVF flags were erected at Cantrell Close. South Belfast MP Emma Little Pengelly said, at the time, “most residents didn’t want a public fuss about the flags”. In a Twitter exchange with Naomi Long on Thursday, Emma wrote: “I offered residents to personally remove them if that’s what the shared community wanted, but no-one thought that was the best option.”

That struck me as a strange response from the residents: no-one in a supposedly shared community thought that it made sense to remove the very flags that challenged – indeed, made a mockery of – the shared community bedrock of TBUC.

I can understand the residents would have been fearful of brutal reprisals had they asked for the flags to be removed: the UVF is not an organisation you want to cross. But leaving those flags in place was a daily reminder to the residents of Cantrell Close – and across Northern Ireland – that a ‘shared community’ was never going to be regarded as normal by those who depend on us-and-them division for their self-imagined role and relevance.

That said, Emma should have followed up her offer to remove the flags by way of a public debate with the UVF, and others, about why they feel the need to fly those flags anywhere in south Belfast.

A tweet on my timeline a few days ago asked a very important question: ‘Is defeating paramilitarism the key to building a united community and how do we go about doing that’? The answer to the question is simple: No. The reason we aren’t a united community is because we remain divided on the constitutional issue. We don’t have a common identity. We don’t have a common citizenship. We don’t have a common political purpose.

If people – all these people we keep being told want a ‘normal’ Northern Ireland – have no problem with shared housing, integrated schools and a political party representing everyone, then they don’t require TBUC schemes, legislation or a new generation to pave the way.

They can do it themselves. Yet, 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, less than 10% live in ‘shared’ areas, integrated schooling remains a minority interest and the self-styled electoral middle-ground accounts for not much more than 12% of voters.

That’s got nothing to do with paramilitarism – loyalist or republican. It’s a decision people are making for themselves. And no-one should be surprised; because when everyday politics is dominated by unfinished business and serial crises, then it’s unlikely that most people will be prepared to move towards the sort of social/political integration that defines a ‘normal’ political society.

Long-term stability and taken-for-granted certainties are required for integration. None of this means that we hate each other: it just means that we haven’t reached the point at which we are prepared to fully trust each other.

I’ve written before about the subjects still avoided at dinner tables with mixed company. Protestants, Catholics, atheists can eat and talk. Straight and LGBT can eat and talk. Professional and trade can eat and talk. But, generally speaking, we all avoid the subject of the constitution: because there is no room for nuance or ambiguity on that issue.

And once we know the person across the table – someone we’ve never met before, probably – is a unionist or nationalist, it inevitably changes the tone and content of the conversation.

We’re not quite as comfortable or uninhibited as we would be when we’re talking to ‘one of our own’.

As someone put it to me following a dinner about 20 years ago: “I really liked them, but it would be a bit awkward if we lived next door to each other.” The ‘them’ in question were Sinn Fein voters (from a professional, well-heeled background) and the person telling me was professional, similarly well-heeled and unionist.

They would be able to agree to differ on every thing else; but they probably both knew that there would always be a nagging distrust between them on that one issue. And given the nature of local politics and elections it wasn’t the sort of issue they could’ve just ignored forever; particularly when it came to the sort of family/friend introductions that are part and parcel of having neighbours.

There is a great deal of pious tut-tutting when a story like Cantrell Close dominates the headlines: “Oh dear, isn’t it awful that those dreadful paramilitaries won’t allow us to live in a normal, shared society together? How can we ever hope to make progress here?”

Look closer to home, folks. Look at your own lives. Look at your neighbours and friends. Look at where you live and how you engage with the ‘other side’. Putting it bluntly: in what way does your own life embrace the values and evidence of a shared society?