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Community Action: The Ideal Model For The Future?

Conference Report: on the launch of Voluntary Action and Community Relations in Northern Ireland 

11 November 2006

Gerry Fitzpatrick

The Northern Ireland Council on Voluntary Action (NICVA) is a well-established umbrella organisation, and has gone through a number of changes since it first inception in 1938. It can justly claim to be the real face of civic society in the North, in the past largely independent of direct state control and standing aside to a limited extent from the rampant sectarianism of surrounding social order. NICVA now comprises around 5000 organisations largely from the community and charity sector. Where once the majority of these organisations were funded by donations, now an increasing number of new organisations are receiving support from government funds.

These organisations have also benefited from funding supplied by National Lottery and Peace I-III. More importantly, since 1998 NICVA member organisations have been more closely involved in new government initiatives and increasing number of been involved in the huge increase in the number of government  ‘consultations ’ and consultation processes. This report: ‘Voluntary Action and Community Relations in Northern Ireland’, was commissioned by NICVA from the University of Ulster and was jointly written by Dr Nicholas Acheson, Professor Arthur Williamson (School for Voluntary Action Studies), Professor Ed Cairns and Professor Maurice Stringer (School of Psychology). The report was launched at the Wellington Park Hotel in November. 

The analysis it contains is significant as it can be seen as an ‘answer’ to the official ideology of the Good Friday Agreement and it’s reaction to the problem of sectarianism and ethnic division within Northern Ireland. 

A Refusal Of Laurels 

For it is clearly been the case that since the advent of the Good Friday Agreement the NIO and the Peace funders have promoted the idea that the activities of the community and voluntary sector were an example of ‘the way forward’ which would  ‘help heal’ the divisions within NI society. NICVA forming as it does, a collective leadership of the sector, wishes to refuse the placing of these laurel leaves on its head and this report gives the reasons why. 

First, apart from the very small number of organisations whose work was genuinely cross-community (2 cross community projects in Belfast and one in Derry) the survey of 500 organisations found that the majority denied that the problem of sectarianism had any relevance to them or their work. At the launch it was clearly indicated that this was not to be understood as a positive phenomenon as the majority of the respondents where in fact being ‘defensive’ and where ‘in denial’ about the nature of the society in which we live. That is how things stood at time of writing and the panel wished to indicate that conditions had since deteriorated due to recent political and ideological developments. 

The New Non-Sectarian, Sectarian Community Organisation

This recent sectarianization began after the Loyalist riots last year, and now being driven by the DUP and heavily backed by the British government. People now must be helped not because they lack something, but because they lack it as Protestants or as Peter Hain recently put it: ‘deprived loyalist communities’. The deprivation being the idea that some how the Good Friday Agreement process was depriving Loyalist areas of their identity as….deprived Loyalist areas.

At questions and during the discussion that took place afterwards it was made clear how these new political and ideological developments had given rise to what this reporter can only describe as the phenomenon of the non-sectarian sectarian community organisation. Where a prospective organisation begins by declaring very strongly publicity that it is ‘non-sectarian’ and then going on to base its funding applications to fit the newly defined government sectarian guidelines, thus updating and fine tuning the sectarian plundering of the past - turning prospective community organisations into sectarian prospectors. 

To the audience who had come to the launch of this report (the majority of whom worked in the community sector) this message of direct government sectarianization of the community sector was grim news. It remains to be seen if NICVA, now armed with this evidence, will oppose the continuing sectarianization of government funding and of public appointments. 

But it is significant that a group of community activists who, more most any other group would have been willing to accept and expect a non-sectarian future hinted at by the Good Friday Agreement, are asked to accept the reality of it’s outcome: the British government doing its level best to maintain the monstrosity of sectarianism as a matter of open and direct policy. 


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