The famous words of the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jnr, and later used by ‘Ireland’s greatest’, John Hume, ‘we shall overcome’ are as much as a prophetic invocation for the present as they were a rallying cry in the past.

It would be incredible to look across our brilliant province and truly say ‘we have overcome’. But the poison of sectarianism, manifesting itself in the form of paramilitarism, keeps us on the road of ‘we shall overcome’, instead of ‘we have overcome’

Recent events in South Belfast act as a stark reminder that we have a long battle ahead of us if we are to ever achieve full reconciliation. The news that a number of families had to flee their homes in Cantrell Close, off the Ravenhill Road, after threats were issued against them is truly depressing. The housing development itself is a ‘shared space’ that was funded by the T:BUC initiative, ‘Together: Building a United Community’.

In Northern Ireland, the demographics of social housing are one of the many reminders that reconciliation is a path that is too seldom travelled, treated as an abstract idea when it should be that of a reality. Yet, where it has flourished, in places like Cantrell Close, self-appointed community bullyboys still have the power to pull it down.

How can we ‘overcome’ this?

Politicians must lead by example:

In June 2017, when loyalist flags were erected in the area, unionist politicians were slow to condemn. After going door-to-door to explicitly ask how residents felt about the paramilitary flags, the DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly deemed that residents ‘did not want to make a fuss’ about them, implicitly espousing that she and her party weren’t really bothered by the situation. Political unanimity against such acts of sectarianism is embarrassingly overdue.  

Shared housing must become the new norm:

Instances such as this will no doubt act as a case and point, for the few who find true reconciliation too much to bear for their bitter ways, as reasons to deride shared spaces in the future. That said, it should not stop us. Particularly given the acute need for social housing, we cannot continue to put further strain on waiting lists by forcing people to live separately. This archaic practice must end if we our to really push past the idea of Catholics and Protestants living together as ‘a risky one’.

We can never give up:

It is easy to get caught up in the ‘this place will never change’ narrative. But we cannot allow such behaviour to determine the course of our future, to derail the advances of our peace process and to scare us into a place of disillusionment.

The path less travelled is awkward and an uphill battle. But a day will come where Catholics and Protestants will be neighbours both tangibly and metaphorically. It will be our new norm. And we will be truly able to say ‘we have overcome’.