The long term plan for peace in Northern Ireland must be carried out before the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, says the Chief Executive of Co-operation Ireland, Peter Sheridan.
Speaking to IrishCentral, Sheridan says that 2016 must not become an excuse for further division within Northern Ireland but an opportunity for reconciliation.
Co-operation Ireland is a non-political and non-denominational charity dedicated to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The charity works to bring together the two main communities in Northern Ireland, tackle sectarianism and break the cycle of violence through a range of grassroots programs and initiatives.
Sheridan has helmed Co-operation Ireland since 2009. Prior to this he was a police officer for 30 years, spending much of his service in the north west of Northern Ireland, where he was heavily involved in sensitive negotiations between the various parading organizations and the residents groups in Derry/Londonderry, which resulted in a series of peaceful parades in the city center.
For Sheridan, the big question going forward is “How do you normalize relationships with people who saw themselves as enemies in the past and now need to learn to live together as citizens?
“The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was a political deal between the existing government and institutions of government, the question for us now is how do we underpin that political deal by normalizing relationships between Britain and Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and then internally within Ireland, within the communities in Northern Ireland?”
Children born in Northern Ireland these days do not view the divide in the same way their parents did. Signed 17 years ago, the Good Friday Agreement is part of their country’s history but not a part of their own life history. However, Sheridan notes, “they are still living in a segregated environment, they are in their own communities and go to school within these communities and it’s only when they are required to mix outside of this that we have problems - 95% of Republican housing is still segregated”.
The divide runs throughout their education with fewer than 3% of children attending integrated (Catholic and Protestant) primary schools. Sheridan also places some blame on the peace walls erected throughout Belfast, or as he calls them “walls of division” that have become “locked gate barriers” to communication between different communities.
The peace lines or peace walls were first built in Belfast in 1969 and have been used to minimize sectarian violence between Nationalist and Unionist communities. The number of peace walls increased between the early 90s and today from 18 to 88.
In 2013, Peter Robinson (First Minister of Northern Ireland) and Martin McGuinness (deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland) set out a 10-year target (2023) for the dismantling all peace walls which would include the creation of 10,000 one year cross-community placements for young people from disaffected areas.
Despite this, a 2012 report by the University of Ulster showed that 69% of those living beside a peace wall can not imagine a time when they won’t be a necessary part of their community and a further four out of five people in the general Northern Ireland population say that community segregation is common even without the existence of a peace wall.
Despite this, Sheridan feels we can’t underestimate all that has been achieved.
“The success of the Irish Peace Process is still very relevant. Things were done well and things were done not so well, but they are still important.”
In recent years, Co-operation Ireland was heavily involved in the State visit of the Queen to Ireland as well as the Irish President, Michael D. Higgins’ travel to the UK. Adding to the list of achievements of the organization is their facilitation of the handshake between the Queen and former IRA commander, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, underlining how far Northern Ireland has come since the Troubles.
Peter Sheridan will speak at Moët Hennessy in New York on Friday about the work of Co-operation Ireland and the Youth Leadership program. Sheridan says that the generosity of Irish Americans is key to the Northern Ireland Peace Process and “it wouldn't have got here without the political and financial support of Irish Americans” and the “stickability” they showed in their continued support for peace.