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Editorial: Community relations slide

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The results of a survey on community relations in Northern Ireland carried out by the University of Ulster and published this week make for depressing reading. They reveal that 39 percent of Protestants surveyed say they are worse off now than they were in 1996. Only 25 percent of Protestants and 33 percent of Catholics believe community relations have improved since 1996. This registers a decline from 1996, when almost half of both Protestants and Catholics said they thought relations had improved.

Meanwhile, 21 percent of Protestants and 12 percent of Catholics would prefer to work with members of their own faith. In 1999, when they were last asked this questions, the figures were 12 and 6 percent, respectively.

The conclusion is counterintuitive but nonetheless inescapable: that the Northern Ireland peace process has actually led to a worsening of community relations.

One would have thought with the ending of major terrorist violence tensions between the two communities would have found an opportunity to wind down. Instead, they have been wound up, as the spate of riots, pipe bombings and clashes on fringe areas continues to demonstrate.

The reasons are really not hard to locate. In the Protestant community, there is a deep-seated feeling that Catholics have been making gains through the peace process at their expense, and resentment is the result. On the Catholic side, there is the feeling that Protestants are unable and unwilling to live with the new equality brought about by the peace process and that they will do everything in their power to bring it down.

The result has actually been a deepening of distrust, as reflected by the fact that more Catholics and Protestants want to live and work with members of their own community. Unionist politicians have not helped, of course, by their continual emphasize on what they see as the negative consequences for their community of the Good Friday agreement. They have done a poor job of selling it. Nor does suspicion of continued IRA activity, which only convinces Protestants that they are being taken for a ride. Nationalist politicians proclaiming that the agreement is a steppingstone to Irish unity only undermine further Protestant respect for what it has achieved and confirms their hostility toward it.

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During any period of change insecurity is inevitable. Members of Northern Ireland’s once dominant community has experienced a transformation of the world in which they grew up that has shaken them and soured their feelings toward their Catholic neighbors. It is not too late to repair some of the damage. More gestures such as Sinn Fein’s Somme wreath-laying ceremony last week would help demonstrate that generosity and tolerance will be part of the new dispensation.

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