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17 May 2012

CSI Northern Ireland

CSI Northern Ireland

In this small part of the world the letters CSI have a meaning far beyond the American crime drama. The Cohesion Sharing and Integration strategy is essentially the Executive’s long-awaited plan on how Northern Ireland moves forward post ‘the troubles’. To say that a forensic approach is being taken to the issue is an understatement, as well as a poor pun. In the last five years progress has certainly been made but we still await publication of the proposals. At the Community Relations Council Conference on 14 May, in between comments about golf clubs, were assurances from the junior ministers that there would be a publication within months.

The north of this island is a paradox of blood and beauty. In a similar way this strategy will speak into a political landscape that is on one level highly ordinary and yet highly contentious. The CSI strategy will eventually be applied to practical situations on the ground, issues like:-

Flags: Surveys have found that most people find flags and emblems to be intimidating on some level. Interestingly, in respect of flags, the Institute of Irish studies found that 85 per cent were identified as loyalist and are often to mark territory within communities by various paramilitary groups.

‘Peace Walls’: It’s 23 years from the fall of the Berlin wall and yet for Belfast it’s still a tale of two cities. Over 13 miles of ‘peace wall’ continue to divide Belfast today into protestant and catholic, unionist and nationalist and perhaps even more controversially rich and poor – there aren’t any peace walls on the more upmarket and mixed Upper Malone Road.

Parades: A harmless and traditional expression of heritage by one side is seen as a triumphant stirring of old prejudices by another. Policing of the London riots was put at £74 million, a significantly lower figure per head than the £6 million that it cost to police the marching season here last year.

Housing and education: Two examples of everyday but contentious issues. The extent of the ghetto culture that prevails in housing and education can be seen in the fact that 68 per cent of 16 to 25-year-olds in Belfast have never had a meaningful conversation with someone from the ‘other side’. Too many in Northern Ireland live and are educated apart.

A way to deal with the past: More than 3,700 people died in what we euphemistically call ‘the troubles’. More than 10 times that number were injured. Thousands of crime scene investigations over 40 years will take time to deal with: constitutionally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Strip back just one of the above issues and you will uncover strands of culture and religion and at the heart of it all is identity. Michael Wardlow, chief commissioner of the Equality Commission NI, commented at the recent conference that our identity changes. For example, he was born male and a son but now identifies himself as a husband, father, friend, colleague. Our identity is made up of a large number of layers and the CSI strategy needs to reflect that feelings of identity can change over time, people are not just identified by their political or nominal religious affiliation.

Dr Paul Nolan, research director at the Community Relations Council, recently commented that perhaps we should move away from the idea of being a ‘melting pot’ or ‘mosaic’. The implication of a melting pot is that all our identities are merged into one. A mosaic is made up of lots of small single and separated identities. Instead Dr Nolan put forward the idea of the Ulster-Scots word - ‘throughotherness.’ Martin McGuinness and Seamus Heaney are other famous users of this word. The idea is that we should live jumbled-up and mingled through one another. As anyone from here will know, the word also means a state of messiness and untidiness. Life and identity here are messy issues and maybe this word captures more truth than we dare to let on.

Finally for Christians, two things to remember: we are first and foremost found in Christ, above all the complex layers of our identity. Secondly, as his followers we are called to be in the world but not of it. Our challenge as Christians living here remains to be mingled and mixed through society and yet retain the separateness of a life lived for God in truth and love.