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ireland, irish, ulster, belfast, northern ireland, british, loyalist, nationalist, republican, unionist

Embracing our cultural diversity

(Michael McGimpsey, Irelandclick.com)

Northern Ireland is a multi-cultural society. That is a fact. We may not always perceive ourselves to be so, although the evidence is all around us if we care to look. We may not be a great metropolis in the manner of London or New York, but we are – on a much smaller scale – a society of varying cultures.

I know, because as culture minister I got to meet people from all over the world who have made their home here and people who are proud to say that their home has always been here. We are not rootless.

Our society may be dominated by the two 'traditions' – although that phrase is guilty by omission – yet we are able to recognise a number of cultural, racial and linguistic allegiances which are vibrant and enormously enriching for all of us.

We do not all come from the same mould with the same outlook and experience. That is clearly not the case – and how could it be?

But we have far more in common than we have points of difference.

The key to managing such a wide spectrum, of course, is tolerance. We practice tolerance so that others will tolerate us. That is only common sense, self-interest if nothing else.

But when political allegiance and cultural tradition are entwined, become as one, then we are liable to become adrift in a jet stream of opposing philosophies constantly fighting and seeking to destroy one another.

And, of course, when there are those in society who believe that is the case, who are prepared to feed fears of such a scenario, then the business of politics becomes the business of managing extremes.

For example, during the period of devolved government, some of the parties had to be carried. They knew it and it suited them.

At the one extreme was the DUP who exercised power without responsibility, who worked the system and wanted to work it. With no other alternative, they were happy to claim the credit when things went well and eager to deny all responsibility when things went badly. And, of course, to promote the lie that it had all been forced upon them against their will.

At the other extreme was Sinn Féin, who also wanted to work the system and prove that they were "democrats" at heart, prepared to settle differences peacefully. Aware that this was not the answer that they had promised their supporters for years, for which so much had been endured and so much cruelty inflicted, they promoted the lie that this was merely a stepping stone on an inevitable journey.

Unfortunately devolution was incapable of managing these extremes and eventually collapsed and now looks incapable of being resurrected, at least in the short term. The danger now, in the absence of a political settlement, is the development of separate and different communities – a sort of cultural apartheid. On the one hand, Sinn Féin can look after Catholics and pander only to their demands and, on the other, the DUP can be concerned exclusively with Protestants, with other groups left to look out for themselves.

Thus, a fundamental extremism remains beneath the veneer of mainstream politics: a desire to deny, to diminish, to promote discord.

The dangers of allowing this situation to prosper are best illustrated by our recent past, which contrasts strongly with those things which should form a cornerstone of our society. The tradition of generosity towards others, acceptance of others' beliefs and the confidence to allow everyone to celebrate their own culture in a spirit that sees tolerance as a strength rather than a weakness, and an understanding that cultural diversity is something which can enrich us all.

July 18, 2005

This article appeared first on the Irelandclick.com web site on July 15, 2005.