Much consternation last week (again) about the long-delayed Cohesion, Sharing and Integration programme. On Wednesday, the First and Deputy First Ministers announced that they had made some unspecified progress on CSI and the Strategy working group would conclude the process in September. On Thursday, the UUP withdrew from the cross-party group, saying they were not consulted about the announcement. They followed Alliance, who withdrew in May. Which leaves the SDLP, the DUP and Sinn Féin still hanging in there.
Also on Thursday, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Patterson, criticised the lack of progress on CSI, an unusual move. I would have preferred him to have said more over the past few years about the lack of progress on local government reform, or to have intervened on the transfer test debacle. But anyway, on Friday the FM and DFM attacked this intervention and told him to go back to England and not bother his head about what was going on here, we’re doing grand without him.
It’s ironic but not surprising that a cross-party group tasked with progressing a community relations policy can’t keep its membership together. And it’s also not the slightest bit surprising that the final version of the strategy hasn’t yet appeared. Remember that in 2009 it was so difficult to agree on a consultation draft that the DUP and Sinn Féin issued separate versions, before finally agreeing on one document in 2010 – which was ripped to shreds in the consultation process. Anything that is released in September will not have all-party support and will have limited credibility with the public. That is, if anything appears at all.
It’s time to face the fact that CSI is dead. As the Labour Party said in response to consultation in 2010: ‘A political system based on communal division cannot provide the required leadership for a policy to abolish such division’. It’s just not in the interest of our ‘big four’ parties to be seen to agree on this issue.
So what to do next? How much difference has it made that we don’t have CSI? What’s missing without a central policy, strategy and action plan is the overview – the ability to identify gaps, avoid duplication, and monitor overall progress effectively. There’s a huge range of equalities and community relations activity going on in Executive departments, agencies, local councils and the voluntary and community sector. On the legal side, building on the s.75 provisions in the 1998 Northern Ireland Act and other equalities legislation, there is a convincing case for a Single Equality Act, in line with the rest of the UK. Perhaps the short term priorities should be to campaign for improvements in shared education and housing – most fundamentally, to ensure that the draft education area plans and the restructuring of the Housing Executive aren’t backward moves – and for a Single Equality Act.
Otherwise we may have to wait for the Northern Ireland Audit Office to tell us that millions of pounds have been wasted on ad hoc community relations schemes and policies, and that we need a regional framework. Then the whole charade can begin again.