Bringing all communities into the peace conversation13 September 2023 - by Anna Mercer
At the weekend I had the privilege of joining a panel on the Good Friday Agreement as part of Cushendun’s Culture Month. A well-rehearsed subject over the past six months, what was refreshing about this event was that it wasn’t based in Belfast or Derry, but in the Glens of Antrim, a rural community that largely escaped the worst of the Troubles.
As someone who grew up in this beautiful part of the world, it made me reflect on whether enough has been done to ensure that these important voices are involved in conversations about our past, present and political future.
Situated 15 miles from Scotland, the Glens have often felt like a bit of a place apart. A community steeped in GAA and in Irish culture, its socio-economic make-up presents a mixed picture and its challenges on housing, health and education are common features in villages on both sides of the divide. However when it comes to identity, it has little connection to anything we might associate with British or unionist culture.
That isn’t to say that it is hostile to other cultures; there are no painted kerbstones or flags beyond the beloved club colours of the local GAA clubs, no contentious parades or memorials; but it is geographically and culturally isolated from the other main identity block that a significant proportion of the population identify with.
This, for the main part, hasn’t been a bad thing; a haven away from the politically charged flashpoints, the Glens provided a safe place for those wanting to escape the disruption and depression that Belfast and other parts experienced over the years.
But in the refuge that places like Cushendun and Cushendall provided, there has been a lack of investment in time and effort to ensure that these communities are part of the conversation about what the Good Friday Agreement means to them, and what they want from their government in the long-term.
A more deliberate and purposeful approach is required to ensure that communities like this are brought to the table and are part of the conversation. This can be done not only through finding ways to engage people in forward-looking discussions about politics and identity but through government investment in connectivity, in economic development and tourism.
This requires a long-term, joined-up approach, and needs space for much broader consideration of how a post-conflict society can embed peace at the heart of its ambitions.
For too long, peace and reconciliation have been sidelined as “nice to do” projects rather than seeing this as central to the more fashionable concept of economic growth.
Business gets this: Ibec, the business representative group in the Republic, published a report For Peace and Prosperity to coincide with the Good Friday Agreement anniversary, making the point that political stability across the island is central to economic growth.
Local business representative bodies also get it, and have played a pivotal role in navigating complex and sensitive negotiations following the UK exit from the EU in the absence of an Executive.
With a major investment conference taking place in Belfast this week following a commitment from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to boost the economy, perhaps this is something that the UK Government could also reflect on.
Whilst events such as this are to be welcomed, it feels a bit disconnected from the current reality. At a time when we have no Executive or Assembly, and when ordinary people across the community are feeling the very real effects of a cost of living crisis and a health service on its knees, one might wonder why government isn’t investing the same energy in addressing these urgent issues.
Prosperity needs stability, and no amount of showpiece events will address the underlying problems that will continue to stand in the way if we don’t address them in the long-term.
This means acknowledging the divisions that persist in our society 25 years post Good Friday Agreement, and putting peace at the centre of economic and social aspirations.
This also means including people in our marginalised rural areas, young people, newcomer populations and all the lesser heard voices; investing in our small businesses and communities that ultimately play a key role in shaping the place we want this region to be, regardless of constitutional aspiration.
We need to create space for difficult but essential conversations about how we make the foundations of 1998 fit for purpose in a post-Brexit, post-conflict society. Only then can we realise our economic potential and ensure that it delivers for people across all communities in Northern Ireland.
This article first appeared in The Irish News on 13th September 2023