Not just good relations

Duncan Morrow Relations between the two communities have improved but sectarianism remains ingrained in Northern Ireland, the Community Relations Council’s Duncan Morrow tells Ryan Jennings.

Naivety, he has been accused of. But naive he is not. Duncan Morrow has heard it all before; that he is just looking for people to be nice to each other and that the economy should be the number one priority. He doesn’t dispute the latter, but sees a different route needed to get to there.

The organisation he heads, the Community Relations Council, exists very simply to counter sectarianism and racism. Its work, he says, is threefold: working with large organisations, funding voluntary and community organisations, and lobbying.

“Getting policy on the agenda is the priority, he says, but “an awful lot of this can’t be done on small budgets.” So working with local councils and the Housing Executive is a must, along with the police, the GAA, the Sports Council and the Arts Council.

“Sectarianism and racism isn’t just an attitude. It’s actually built into everything in some sense or other. How it manifests itself is that people can’t live freely, go where they want, live where they want, work where they want,” Morrow states.

It remains “a massive infringement in people’s quality of life”. That conclusion, he states, is one which can be arrived at only if you have worked with communities in the inner city area where residents do not have a real choice as to where to live or work.

“We want to argue that we have to reduce all of that intimidation and all of that threat. And it has eaten into the geography. Small things like 65,000 school children everyday have to take a journey [to school] which isn’t the direct route,” he comments, before adding matter of factly “to avoid having the bus stoned.”

More than one

Duplication of services has had a lasting legacy here. Facilities such as libraries, leisure centres and transport to town centres “are all governed by what people can get to.”

He adds: “If you find yourself in a minority in the wrong place then you can’t actually access these facilities.

“Carrickhill people can’t go to the Shankill Leisure Centre. Everyone thinks that’s normal; it’s not. There are consequences for their quality of life in that they don’t have a swimming pool.” Indeed by extension, mileage then adds up as buses are laid on to take residents to the Falls Road; this is also an economic “threat” to the Shankill facility itself.

Indeed in February Environment Minister Edwin Poots said that the disparity between councils’ rates suggested that “a number of them should be seeking to deliver high quality services more efficiently.”

The cost of duplication, he contends, cannot be estimated in spite of both Deloitte and Alliance trying. The £1.5 billion quoted by the consultants came in the large part from the deterrent effect of economics, but the council estimates it to be much higher.

To Morrow, the biggest deterrent to potential investors here is likely to be the spectre of instability. Quite what the wider corporate world thinks of Northern Ireland is important and for Morrow it speaks volumes that the most publicity Northern Ireland has had in the past year has been that 100 Roma had been forced out of their homes, and the increased terrorist activity.

Those problems, Morrow believes, are not just short-term ones, “especially now when there’s a huge choice of where short international capital is going to be invested.”

For example, in his own view, if we were starting afresh the Royal Victoria Hospital would not be built on the Falls Road as it is not a shared space. Added to that is the difficulty of getting investment into unstable areas which also generally lose its most qualified people. Morrow says that there has emerged a spiral “where the spectre of division and deprivation feed each other”.


Even tourism, an area Northern Ireland is keen to promote, is still held back by segregation: “If you have in the middle of your summer period, permanent instability around parades … nobody comes. So the occupancy rates of hotels in July and August are low when in fact they should be high.”

“So when I talk about sectarianism, people think I’m talking about people being nice to each other. It eats down to the very fabric of people’s lives – where you can live, feel safe to work, whether employment will come here.”

The council’s job, he says, is to “make clear you cannot tackle the economic problems without also tackling the legacy of sectarianism.” But the people and parties who can do that, he believes, are only now coming round to that way of thinking.Remaining barriers: peace wall alongside the Westlink, in Belfast

Historically, though, he says the opposite was true. “High fences make good neighbours,” Morrow believes was the default: “The assumption is that safety means keeping people out, but trade means getting people in.”

The age-old idea of community relations constituting simple meetings, likely in middle class areas, he says, has gone. The people who stand to benefit from a change most are not from the middle classes but rather those who live in the most deprived and divided areas.

Likewise, the party which has been the strongest advocate of the community relations line is Alliance and the paradox, Morrow points out, is that “the big beneficiaries of this would not be in Alliance-voting areas. The beneficiaries of this would be in the areas which are most split, in the Sinn Féin-DUP areas.”

Ironically “most of the levers of this society belong with the people who are out of it paradoxically”, but the barrier is that “those people see it as a step backwards, back to some dark distant past”.

“In a sense you can buy your way out of this,” he says. The middle classes are more likely to work in a shared workplace and are more likely to have a car, which allows them to travel in and out of an area, while they also have a greater choice in where they can live.

The danger now, then, is that there is not just the historic split between Catholic and Protestant but also between the have and have nots.

On the right road

While the Executive has, in Morrow’s view rightly, set the economy at the centre of the Programme for Government he is conscious that he has been seen as a nay-sayer: “We’re not saying the goals are wrong, we’re saying you can’t reach those goals unless you actually look at what is obstructing them.”

Speaking to agendaNi a day before the justice powers motion was passed by the Assembly, Morrow was convinced it will only be beneficial for community relations. “To get from a position where the policing and justice system was at the core of the conflict to a position where it’s actually one of the institutions bought into most by everybody,” he says. But, not for the first time, there’s a paradox in that: “There is cross-community support on that ministry but not in any other.”

Putting oneself out of business might not sound like the most popular ultimate goal but that is what the council is looking towards. If there is a point sometime in the future when sectarianism and racism are no longer real threats to people then, by his own admission, he won’t be needed. But there’s still a very long way to go.

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