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12 July 2014
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Karin Eyben, a Research Officer with Future Ways, looks at how institutions in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom may have colluded in sectarian or racial division Karin Eyben

Institutional Ambivalence to Trust-Building

Many organisations in Northern Ireland, such as civil service departments, media, local businesses, churches, police and sporting and cultural institutions, have reflected and contributed to the fears, divisions and sectarianism that have shaped wider community relationships. Survival in the midst of this chaos was often dependent on developing cultures of blindness that effectively allowed organisations to function without reference to the conflict.

As a result, places where major social policy decisions are made, where services are planned and delivered, where the lives and identities of a vast number of citizens are shaped and directed, at best, made little or no contribution to building a more just and agreed society. At worst, they colluded with maintaining divisions. The easiest, most comfortable choice was to comply with separation and to place responsibility for societal change on those least able to achieve it; e.g.: interface areas, young people, victims and survivors.

A series of investigations over the last five years in Britain focusing on race relations highlighted the institutional nature of racism implicit in the routines and everyday practices of central agencies as the police, housing, local government and education. The Bradford Race Review, which led to the “Community Pride, Not Prejudice’ Report by Lord Herman Ouseley, highlighted how a segregated society can develop through the small, often unconscious decisions taken by those responsible for the public good. This was also a conclusion highlighted in the report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the Runnymede Trust’s ‘Bikhu Report’ on the future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. Without a commitment to a vision for an integrated, inclusive community, those responsible for public policies, employment and services will often inevitably act out the implicit racism that shapes British culture.

The Belfast Agreement sets out such a vision for a Northern Ireland:

A peaceful, cohesive, inclusive, prosperous, stable and fair society, firmly founded on the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust and the protection and vindication of human rights for all. (Programme for Government, Northern Ireland Executive, 2001)

The Agreement further recommends the government should "facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing" as an essential element in the process of reconciliation and the creation of "a culture of tolerance at every level of society". These are key challenges for the centre grown comfortable with silence. The Northern Ireland Act [1998], which translated into UK law core elements of the Belfast Agreement, has formally recognised the interconnection between equality and trust-building. Under section 75 of the Act, all public bodies have a duty to provide services paying due regard to the need to promote equality under nine different categories and with regard to the need to promote good relations among people of differing religious or racial background and among those of different political beliefs.

However, really paying regard to the need to promote good relations means reversing the core adaptive pattern of learning in Northern Ireland: denial and avoidance. If trust is to be taken seriously, there must be a move away from the centre-periphery paradigm towards a model which expects change to be led by those with the greatest capacity to model change - i.e. those at the heart of political, social and economic life.


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