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Sectarianism still casts dark shadow

One of the great hopes associated with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was that over a period of time it would help to ease sectarian tensions and significantly improve cross-community relations

Unfortunately, while enormous political progress was plainly made in subsequent years, and in many ways life was transformed for ordinary citizens, we are still very much facing the reality of a divided society.

It would be unfair to claim that our power-sharing structures, which of necessity included a range of checks and balances, were responsible for in some way institutionalising sectarianism, but it cannot be disputed that understandings between the two largest parties steadily deteriorated before the eventual suspension of 2017.

If the institutions are to be revived in a sustainable form, it is essential that key figures are able to work positively on addressing the suspicion and indeed antagonism which frequently surfaces between elements in both main traditions.

There are few early indications that the present Stormont talks are capable of producing a breakthrough but any subsequent discussions on a possible programme for government need to carefully examine the Ulster University report `Sectarianism in Northern Ireland : A Review' which was published yesterday.

The document is the result of detailed research and specifically points out there is now a measurable trend towards a Catholic majority which is going to present challenges for both nationalists and unionists.

It includes more than 50 recommendations, some of which have considerable merit and might well be implemented even before any return of the Assembly.

They include an initiative supported by the main churches which would encourage respect for other faiths, a plan for a shared education curriculum across schools from different sectors and a business-backed fund to facilitate anti-sectarian projects.

The idea that the voting age could be lowered to 16 is an intriguing one which probably needs to be analysed in further detail, while the suggestion that a new anthem might be composed for use at sporting events across all codes will probably instigate little more than a colourful but inconclusive debate on the available options.

By some distance the most ambitious proposal in the report is that an entirely new Stormont department should be created to tackle the problems associated with sectarianism.

It will immediately be noted that although dealing with such questions was supposed to be among the responsibilities of the outgoing Executive Office, few advances proved possible.

There is a strong argument for concentrating on the wider restoration of devolution and establishing whether a consensus can be reached among the parties over the viability at least some of the more straightforward measures included in yesterday's report.

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