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Darby, John., and Knox, Colin. (2004) An Analysis of the Responses to the Shared Future Consulation

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Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh

The following page contains the Executive Summary from the report:
Darby, John., and Knox, Colin. (2004) 'A Shared Future': A Consultation Paper on Improving Relations in Northern Ireland, Final Report [An analysis of the responses to the Shared Future consulation], (21 January 2004), [PDF; 493KB]. Belfast: Community Relations Unit (CRU), Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).



A Shared Future
on Improving Community Relations in Northern Ireland

Executive Summary


The Consultation Document A Shared Future on Improving Community Relations in Northern Ireland was launched in January 2003 and sought:

  • To stimulate the widest possible debate on what the fundamental aims and objectives of a future policy should be, and the principles that should underpin that policy.
  • To obtain views on proposals for measures and actions that should be taken to achieve these aims and objectives.

The vision for future of Northern Ireland was expressed by the Government as the choice between two alternatives:

  • Accept that the existing patterns of segregation and division is likely to remain for some time, and focus our efforts on stabilising and managing the worst consequences of division, both between and within the two main communities.
  • Alternatively, we should try to promote rapid progress towards a more integrated and shared society.

The majority view concurred with the vision of a more shared and pluralist society, although many thought this was aspirational rather than achievable in the short term. There was an acknowledgement that due to the legacy of violence and continued political uncertainty, many could not endorse this aspiration. Although these views are legitimate (survey evidence suggests around 40% support existing segregation) and must be respected, they should not constrain those who strive for a more shared society. Some felt the two options were presented as alternative futures when they should in fact be "overlapping realities" or sequential.

Government was urged by contributors to deliver policies for good relations which will address the following (in rank order):

  • Eliminate sectarianism and racism and to enable individuals to live and work without fear or intimidation.
  • Reduce tension and conflict at interface areas.
  • Support the development of integrated/shared communities where people wish to learn, live, work and play together.

To attain the goals of an integrated and shared society there must a recognition that fear cements the status quo. "People's lives must change significantly if they are to feel the sense of safety/security necessary to enable them to engage with each other". Sectarianism and racism must be tackled to alleviate fear.

Although there was clear support for targeting interface areas because of the attendant violence and community tension, funding should not reward "the bad behaviour syndrome". There are many non-violent interfaces which deserve attention.

Integrated/shared communities is a middle class concept predicated on people having the resources to make choices to live in this way, in the absence of affordable mixed tenure housing. The business and trade union sectors have much to offer from their experience of creating neutral working environments.

There were recurring criticisms of Shared Future along the following lines:

  • The emphasis in the document is on community background as the major form of division which overlooks other forms of division e.g. ethnicity, social class, disability, or what was referred to as the bi-polar focus on community relations problems.
  • The document is based on a flawed analysis of the problem which sees its source as the breakdown in relationships between the two traditional communities and ignores the role of the state in both the initiation and perpetuation of sectarianism.
  • There cannot be good relations until there is equality of opportunity and outcome and the full protection for human rights for all in society - "the active promotion of equality can lead to good relations but not vice-versa". The document therefore considers good relations in a policy vacuum.

The principles espoused by Government to underpin future policies, strategies and actions were generally endorsed (viz: acknowledgement of the problem; leadership; the need for long-term, cross-Government and co-ordinated action; widespread ownership and engagement; importance of local action; targeting; and the broader perspective). Two attracted particular attention. The lack of leadership currently on offer from our politicians received much criticism: "political leaders are mainstreaming sectarianism and blocking democracy at the highest levels". The need for champions was highlighted "those who will stand up and be counted, those who will create models of best practice and those who will take risks for the furtherance of the strategy".

The implications for actions were discussed at three levels: local government and community; regional bodies; and Government. In terms of local government and the community, too many bodies were seen to contribute to the community relations function with little apparent co-ordination. The Equality Commission was applauded for raising legislative awareness of the multiple facets of the equality agenda (beyond community background) through its umbrella organisation but criticised for the perfunctory and mechanistic way it performed its role, particularly by the business sector. Local councils could play a greater role in the service delivery functions of good relations but with conditions applied before allocating additional resources to them. A more concerted approach is necessary amongst agencies (Housing Executive, Roads Service, District Councils) in dealing with flags, murals and graffiti to create a neutral living environment. The actual and potential role of the voluntary and community, business and trade union sectors in addressing good relations is currently undervalued and under-utilised. The voluntary and community sector, in particular, has much to offer in terms of community development, community relations and the 'new' agenda of good relations.

At regional level there was broad agreement on the need for an independent body to undertake functions outlined in Shared Future (viz: oversight of local councils; challenge function to Government; monitoring and implementation of policies; training and development, support and guidance; good practice guidance; public awareness; research; and funding organisations to provide community relations capacity and programmes). There was much uncertainty as to whether this independent body should be the existing Community Relations Council, with an enhanced role. Other options were outlined, to include its abolition and replacement by a Community Relations Board, a Good Relations Commission or amalgamation into the Community Relations Unit. The overwhelming opinion expressed was "the last thing we need in Northern Ireland is another (community relations) body".

Respondents to the document saw the Government's role as initiating new/stronger legislation, provision of financial support and promoting policy changes in the area of good relations. Perhaps, most tellingly, one contributor saw their most important role as "being there", an obvious reference to the absence of the Assembly. In general terms, Government was urged to take a cross-departmental approach which explicitly encouraged "sharing over separation" in delivering services. Specifically, three public policy areas attracted most attention: security/law and order; education; and housing.

Government was implored to tackle the worst excesses of sectarianism as a key element in promoting peace, allaying fear and encouraging the development of good relations. This included confronting paramilitaries through new/existing legislation and the police, removing the symbols of sectarianism from neutral public space, and "putting the crime barons out of commission". Education attracted an equal share of those in favour and against integrated education. The pro-integration lobby argued that mixed schooling would have a significant impact on good relations, and those against claimed that in a pluralist society diversity should be welcome. Evidence that segregated schools causes division, they suggested, is anecdotal. Shared Future received criticism that housing was not proposed as a means of reducing segregation and the facilitation of sharing. Housing agencies responded that "the imperative of promoting good relations is to create real choice and not to socially engineer communities".

There is an obvious need to monitor and evaluate the policy responses which result for this consultation. Some views were expressed that the document was too inward looking and could benefit from considering international models. Consultees to the document suggested a list of indicators broadly categorised under 3 headings: violence indicators; bridging indicators; and indicators of attitude change. Omnibus survey respondents when asked "what best indicates an improvement in relations between communities" noted: a decrease in sectarian incidents; an increase in integrated education; and an increase in cross-community contact and co-operation, respectively.

There were some unfavourable comparisons made with the Harbison Report including the comment that Shared Future was "a long way from reality and rather heady" whereas Harbison showed "a deeper understanding of the complex and different levels at which work on good relations needs to happen". The response to the consultation document has been hugely encouraging, capturing a breadth of views. The consultation process itself was seriously conceived and effectively executed. Crucially, however, consultees want to know that their views will influence policy developments and the fruits of their inputs communicated to them.


The authors of this report would like to acknowledge the significant help, guidance and constructive comments provided by Billy Gamble, Mary Bunting, Denis Ritchie, Dr. Stephen Donnelly, Stephen Hill, and Karen Jardine from Office of the First and Deputy First Minister. We would particularly like to thank Vincent Gribbin (OFMDFM) for his day-to-day co-operation in completing the project, his patient response to our numerous requests and efficiency in dealing with them. He also offered insightful comments on drafts of the texts. The response to the consultation document has been hugely impressive in both its quality and breadth. We therefore thank the many anonymous civil servants who have made this possible, independent bodies which assisted in facilitating the consultations and, most of all, those who responded. We have enjoyed reading the responses and attempted to capture the essence of over 500 submissions in an honest and balanced way. Any omissions, however, remain the responsibility of the authors.

John Darby (University of Notre Dame)

Colin Knox (University of Ulster)

January 2004


See also the full report:
Darby, John., and Knox, Colin. (2004) 'A Shared Future': A Consultation Paper on Improving Relations in Northern Ireland, Final Report [An analysis of the responses to the Shared Future consulation], (21 January 2004), [PDF; 493KB]. Belfast: Community Relations Unit (CRU), Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).


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CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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