Belfast Telegraph
14 May 2012

History will judge politicians in Northern Ireland harshly if they cannot build on the ending of violence to tackle lasting divisions between Protestants and Catholics, a Stormont minister has warned.

Justice Minister David Ford was highly critical of DUP and Sinn Fein efforts to draw up a blueprint for developing policies to break down religious divisions.

His comments came after a leading community relations group said sectarianism remained deeply rooted in Northern Ireland, where most Protestant and Catholic children are taught separately, and where research into housing shows the two communities largely live apart.

Mr Ford told a conference on the issue, held in the Titanic Belfast venue under the banner “No More Them and Us”, that combating sectarianism had to be made a priority.

“For the first time in many generations we have an opportunity to address not only violence but to ensure that we address the underlying pattern of exclusion, discrimination and threat,” he said.

“History will not forgive us if we squander the opportunity presented by an end to violence to tackle the underlying divisions of this society. This must become a truly shared society where nowhere is out of bounds to anyone because of their creed, colour, gender or sexuality.”

And while other political leaders have pointed to the success in ending generations of large scale violence, Mr Ford said: “Above all we must move past preening ourselves for moving on from the disaster of the 1970s and face the challenge to act to make change.”

He said that if the drafting of new policies was left to the Stormont assembly’s largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, they may set some of the thorniest issues aside. Both parties have, however, pointed to their partnership in government as being a positive signal to the community, while leading figures have tried to reach across the divide.

First Minister Peter Robinson recently attended a Gaelic games event, despite its traditional association with the nationalist community, while deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness broke new ground for Sinn Fein by attending a match at the home of Northern Ireland football in Windsor Park.

But Mr Ford said: “Whatever the rhetoric and the spin and symbolism of recent months, what will make a real difference is substance – an effective strategy, policies and actions, combined with the funding and political leadership to make it happen.”