NORTHERN IRELAND: Filling the vacuum

Mathew Little

In the absence of the power-sharing Assembly, the sector in Northern Ireland has had to take on more of a political remit. Mathew Little reports on the voluntary sector's role.

Stroll through the streets of central Belfast and you could almost be in any city in the UK. But a 10-minute taxi ride in virtually any direction reveals a very different world. Decades of ethnic and political conflict are displayed in a welter of Union Jacks and Irish Tricolours, murals depicting balaclava-clad paramilitaries, and police stations hidden behind 20-foot steel walls. Burnt-out and boarded-up houses mark the so-called 'interfaces' - the points at which loyalist and nationalist areas meet.

The Northern Ireland voluntary sector, to British eyes, reflects this conjunction between the familiar and utterly foreign. The household names - the RNIB, Oxfam, Save the Children - are here. But they are outnumbered by a huge hinterland of indigenous community organisations. Only 15 per cent of voluntary organisations are controlled from outside Northern Ireland.

And the sector itself has taken on a very different social role than its counterparts on the mainland.

In November last year, the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action published a policy manifesto in the run-up to the country's Assembly elections. The manifesto was the result of an exhaustive process of discovering the real concerns of Nicva's 1,000 members. Working groups were set up to contribute to a draft that was sent out to every member organisation.

Finally a conference was held where groups could add amendments.

The result was a long list of demands. Under the banner of calling for "a fair and equal society", Nicva sought an increase in the minimum wage, an end to selective education, improvements to public transport, free personal care for the elderly, action against child poverty, a bill of rights and a more informed debate on the Euro. It was venturing unabashed onto ground that sister organisations in Britain such as the NCVO or the SCVO, with their brief limited to charity law and regulation, would consider foreign territory.

"We have developed a holistic view of things," says Nicva director Seamus McAleavey. "Our attitude tends to be that voluntary and community organisations have an interest in almost everything that affects the lives of people here."

In Britain, politics has long been the activity that dare not speak its name for charities. But it is second nature to the sector in Northern Ireland, which has developed into a surrogate political movement, playing a role in the peace process and, through the Women's Coalition, getting elected to the Assembly.

The reason for this, explains Dr Nick Acheson, research fellow at the Centre for Voluntary Action Studies at the University of Ulster, lies in the "dysfunctional" nature of Northern Irish politics. "Political parties here do not work in the same way as in Britain and other functioning democracies," he says. "They are about ethnic identity, not about social programmes.

"In this situation, what has tended to happen is that voluntary and community organisations have been pulled into all those kinds of social and educational issues, one of the functions that political parties normally fulfil," says Acheson. "There is a very different lobbying system as a result.

It has enabled Nicva to develop, with its membership, an almost political programme. But it comes from the rather peculiar nature of politics here and 30 years of direct rule - one of the consequences of which is that everybody is part of the opposition, critiquing government policy from the outside."

In a strange reversal of roles, Nicva says the aim of its policy manifesto was to encourage political parties to become genuinely political, to go beyond their narrow focus of whether the country should be in union with Britain or the Irish Republic. "This was our a la carte list of demands that we thought people needed to address," says McAleavey. But he concedes that there is still a long way to go. "I've had a senior figure in a political party look at the manifesto and say, 'very interesting Seamus, these are all important issues but we'll not get elected on any of them'. Meaning that the sectarian head count was still there. But the guy was sympathetic in that he realised that there is a need to move to a more normal politics."

Nevertheless, the sector has enjoyed significant success as a political lobbyist. Last month's decision by Westminster-appointed education minister Jane Kennedy to abolish the 11-plus fulfilled a key demand of Nicva's manifesto. The creation of a children's commissioner and the anticipated anti-poverty strategy can also be put down to the sector. And Northern Ireland's ground-breaking equality legislation (see page 22), introduced in 1998, which requires all public authorities to promote equality across nine areas, including race and sexual orientation, was a major victory for minority rights groups.

But the resolution of many issues remains frustratingly out of reach.

Since the suspension of the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive in October 2002 and the reimposition of direct rule from London, government has been in limbo. The impasse was reinforced by November's election which resulted in a deadlock between Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, demanding a renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement, and Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party, demanding its full implementation.

"The sector by and large believes that devolution is a good thing, that local ministers have a bigger stake in getting the decisions right," says McAleavey. "They can't simply go home if they make a mess of it and it to have no impact on them. People are by and large favourable to devolution, but they also feel they need a stable political environment. People bemoan the fact that it's quite often stop-go, and there is a drag to the implementation of policy that can go on for years."

One crucial issue for the sector, which seems to be on the backburner, is charity law reform. Northern Ireland has the most lightly regulated charity sector of all the four countries of the UK. There is no register of charities. Organisations can receive the tax benefits of charitable status by applying to the Inland Revenue in England, which follows the definition of charity laid down by the Charity Commission. Reconciliation, for example, an aim of many organisations in Northern Ireland, is not recognised as a charitable purpose.

McAleavey laments the scarcity of regulation, and its effect on public confidence. "In Northern Ireland, organisations aren't charities as they are in England and Wales. Two people work in the department responsible for charity law, but they can't regulate the sector. If a member of the public went to them with a complaint, it would be difficult for them to deal with it. Sometimes they refer people to us but it's certainly not our job to regulate the sector."

Scotland has been rocked by charity scandals which many have blamed on 'soft touch' regulation. But Northern Ireland has seen only one major scandal in recent years. The Northern Ireland Hospice was racked by internecine warfare after chief executive Tom Hill was sacked by the trustee board, only to be reinstated by supporters at the organisation's AGM in 2001.

In the end the Department of Health appointed its own management team to sort out the organisation which had amassed a £1m deficit. Some argue that better regulation would have nipped the problems in the bud.

Professor Ronald Goldstock, the head of the New York Organised Crime Taskforce, who has investigated organised crime in Northern Ireland, has also said that bogus charities could be being used as fronts to raise money for paramilitaries.

Could there be other scandals lurking in the country's charity sector waiting to be exposed? "There could be," says McAleavey. "But no-one is shining a light."

Nicva has called for a public benefit test for all charities and a mechanism for investigation of fraud or mismanagement of charity assets. McAleavey has been invited by the Department of Social Development's Voluntary Activity Unit (the equivalent of the Active Communities Directorate) to join a taskforce, reviewing Northern Ireland charity law during 2004. But he is not hopeful of seeing change anytime soon.

"Everybody recognises that regulation needs to be better and there needs to be something done to give greater public confidence, but if you go down the route of a Charity Commission it becomes very costly," he says.

"Government would have to employ a fairly substantial resource to be able to answer simple questions from the public such as, 'is this a bona fide charity, is it using its money reasonably?'"

And as the political situation in Northern Ireland remains in stalemate, polarisation between the two communities is increasing. Political violence may be thankfully at a 30-year low, but there is evidence that progress toward physical integration between Catholics and Protestants is being reversed. Mixed housing areas are feeling the heat. "We have a political vacuum at the moment because of the absence of a working government, and that is putting people back into their camps again," says Liam Maskey, director of cross-community organisation Intercomm, which operates in North Belfast. "That's sad and dangerous. There was a euphoria about peace, but now the fear has started and the gulf is getting bigger."

In 1998, leading figures from the voluntary sector, including then Nicva director Quentin Oliver, played an integral role in the campaign for a 'Yes' vote in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. The civil society campaign, launched independently of the country's political parties, was widely credited with convincing Protestants to vote for the Agreement.

So can the Northern Ireland voluntary sector, which played a vital role in the rebirth of devolved government in the country, now rescue the peace process from deadlock? Acheson, a former director at Disability Action, believes the sector may have found its limitations. He argues that the sector, invaluable as it is in creating a neutral civic space for people from opposing ethnic identities, cannot actually break down those identities.

"The problem is that the sector is not a political actor when it comes down to it. It doesn't actually influence people's voting behaviour or ethnic attitudes. Voluntary organisations have made no dent on them whatsoever. People can go into organisations and talk about pre-school play provision. One half of the room will go out and vote DUP, the other Sinn Fein. It won't change their voting behaviour because people see it as two different businesses. They aren't making the leap.

"Voluntary organisations have to go back to what they can do in terms of ameliorating some of the social and economic problems and making up some of the deficits of the political process by continuing to keep those issues on the agenda. The sector's got its place but it's not the place to look for political solutions."

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