Leading article: The lingering sectarian troubles of Northern Ireland

The province needs more than just a political settlement
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The Independent Online

Northern Ireland is rightly regarded as one of the world's more successful examples of conflict resolution. British troops have gone; the IRA has gone; the big dangerous loyalist groups also look to be on the way out. It is two years since Ian Paisley got together with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, after a lifetime of mutual enmity, and made a deal. Although it was said the government they formed would experience "a battle a day", loyalists and republicans have in fact worked together remarkably well.

Their administration has, naturally enough, seen quite a bit of internal competition and rivalry over resources, yet this has generally been conducted in a civilised way. While the IRA has decommissioned its weaponry Paisley's people have generally decommissioned their fiery rhetoric. The run-up to the Westminster election will doubtless bring a revival of more heated political discourse, but so far all has been surprisingly gentlemanly. Not so, however, on some of Northern Ireland's streets and country lanes.

The place is still afflicted by 1,500 sectarian incidents annually. Some of the backstreets continue to resound with the noise of bricks hurled through windows; some Orange halls and Catholic premises on country roads are being damaged by arsonists, or defaced by hooligans who scrawl primitive messages of hate on their walls.

So although the war is over the conflict is not. The more historically-minded can point out that sectarianism long pre-dated the last troubles, and that the recent decades of conflict have of course added to the reservoirs of historical grievance, hurt and bitterness. Sadly, scores of tall peacelines continue to criss-cross Belfast; more sadly still, many of those who live in their shadow are quite content they should stay in place, certainly for the moment. While few actually approve of these towering symbols of division they have at least settled many localised territorial disputes: the concrete and metal of the walls dictate who lives where.

But elsewhere territory, and the friction produced by proximity, are still live issues. Places such as Rasharkin in County Antrim remain bedevilled by disputes over which community controls what street, what country lane. Such arguments can generate the throwing of stones and damage to religious property, adding yet another layer of communal animosity. This is especially the case when loyalist marches take place in areas which are Catholic, or mixed, and where they are not wanted. The stones can fly as rancorous disagreements are aired about whether such parades should be permitted, and how they should be policed.

Marching season disputes used to be much more serious and on a far larger scale, on several occasions paralysing much of the country. Today almost all of these have been resolved, mostly through the elevation of a one particular principle: dialogue. Most of the marching problems faded when it was laid down that the right to march had to be balanced by the right to be consulted. In marching as in the political settlement, the key was compromise.

There is no magic way of eradicating those 1,500 sectarian incidents, but addressing the existing marching problems is vital. So too is giving a much greater priority to the issue of community relations, for to date politicians have concentrated most of their energies on bedding in the new settlement. But if that figure is to be reduced a new focus is needed, a new attempt to make Northern Ireland a less restless society

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