Community Relations Week 2013 offers 'hope' during challenging period

Peace wall in Belfast Some sectarian interface areas in Belfast are still divided by 'peace walls'

More than 180 events aimed at improving relations between different communities are to take place across Northern Ireland over the course of this week.

Thousands are due to attend workshops, exhibitions, seminars, sporting activities and musical performances as part of Community Relations Week 2013.

The Community Relations Council said NI society was "still threatened at times by the shadow of violent conflict".

Chief executive Jacqueline Irwin said the week was a "statement of hope".

'Challenging period'

The theme of this year's programme of events, co-ordinated by the Community Relations Council, is Expressing Identity - Addressing Division.

Ms Irwin said the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 was "a very challenging period" for community relations in Northern Ireland.

The dates coincided with a controversial vote by Belfast City Council to limit the number of days the union flag is flown from the city hall.

The flag restriction angered many unionists and led to widespread street protests across Northern Ireland, some of which ended in serious rioting.

Ms Irwin said: "Community Relations Week highlights that all is certainly not lost and the overall direction of travel is towards building relationships and bridging division, with countless groups and people involved in this positive work."

Discussions on flags and emblems is just one issue included in the wide-ranging programme of events planned across all 26 council areas.

'Positive image'

The main conference is due to open in Londonderry on Monday, where delegates will be addressed by Phil Wood, a key adviser to the Council of Europe's Intercultural Cities programme.

More than 50 of the week's events are taking place in Derry, during its tenure as the UK City of Culture.

"This year of culture gives us an opportunity to show how we address in a positive way the challenges of creating a shared cultural space in a society that is still threatened at times by the shadow of violent conflict," Ms Irwin said.

Also on Monday, Stormont will host talks, live performances and an exhibition aimed at highlighting a "positive image" of Africa and Africans.

Earlier this month, a row broke out among Northern Ireland's main political parties after the first and deputy first minister launched a series of proposals to tackle sectarian division.

'Vulnerable'

The DUP and Sinn Fein outlined "shared future" plans that included a target to bring down all of Northern Ireland's peace walls by 2023, but they added that other more contentious issues such as flags and parading would need further discussions.

However, the UUP, SDLP and Alliance complained they had been kept in the dark over the proposals.

Ms Irwin said that without an agreed policy framework for community relations, Northern Ireland remained "vulnerable to the legacy of the past".

However, she added that in the absence of political agreement, community and voluntary organisations were continuing "to drive important work across Northern Ireland".

Highlights of the week include an art installation at a sectarian interface in north Belfast and an Understanding the Past centenaries event looking back at the turbulent period leading up to the partition of Ireland.

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