Bell: 'Peace walls will not be removed without consent'

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The removal of peace walls would not go ahead before the conditions were right, MLAs were told, on 22 May 2013.

"No peace walls will be removed without the consent and support of the communities that live beside them," Junior Minister Jonathan Bell told the OFMDFM Committee.

Mr Bell and his fellow junior minister, Jennifer McCann, were briefing the committee on the "Together: Building a United Community" policy document.

The strategy foresees the removal of all peace walls and other barriers by 2023.

The committee briefing followed an initial statement to the Assembly by First Minister Peter Robinson.

Mr Bell said the document represented "our vision of a united and shared community".

Ms McCann said there would be an initial set of seven strategic actions including 10,000 placements for young people not in employment, education or training, urban area regeneration projects, shared education campuses and cross-community sports.

Colum Eastwood of the SDLP was concerned at Mr Bell's suggestion that the 10 shared education campuses might be part-funded by monies set aside for the delayed A5 road project. He said people in the north west would like to see the money spent on improving the infrastructure of that area.

Mr Bell said it was an option and it was up to the Executive how it spent its funds.

Alliance party MLA Chris Lyttle wanted to know why there was no reference to integrated education in the document.

Mr Bell said he thought the 10 shared education campuses were significant "in bringing our young people together letting them live, be educated, and to socialise together".

Returning to the subject of peace walls, Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein said that if you asked people who lived next to a wall, they would say they wanted to have it removed, but if you asked them if they wanted it removed tomorrow they would say "no".

Committee chairman Mike Nesbitt of the UUP quoted a long series of criticisms of OFMDFM's previous document for the Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, published in 2010.

These criticisms, he said, were made by Joanne Wallace, a consultant who had been commissioned by OFMDFM.

Among her criticisms of the 2010 document had been that it was "disjointed, confusing and not user-friendly" and "did not reflect what the majority of people want", Mr Nesbitt said.

He wanted to know if the junior ministers were satisfied that the same criticisms could not be made of their 2013 document.

"Those are her views and she is perfectly entitled to her view," Mr Bell replied.

He said he could not pre-empt the new document as it had yet to go to the Executive.

"Will it be be criticised? Well, nearly everything we do will be criticised," the junior minister said.

He said he believed it was the best way forward.

The committee was also briefed on proposals to reform the office of the Northern Ireland Ombudsman.

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