By Nick Acheson, a visiting research fellow at the Centre for Social Innovation at Trinity College Dublin
The Building Change Trust was created ten years ago at a time of perceived crisis in the identity and purpose of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland. Worries about the ways that the sector was being reshaped by a dramatic shift in government support from grants to contracts were compounded by uncertainty about the immediate future in the face of the financial and economic crisis.
I was one of a number of people commissioned to write “think pieces” for the Trust to help with its early deliberations. Those interested can download it at https://www.buildingchangetrust.org/download/files/IndependenceNICVS%2Epdf .
I made what I still believe are two important points. The first was a general one, based on evidence from around the world, of the importance of creating new collective narratives of identity and purpose that are up to the job in changed times and then owning them as a fundamental building block of retaining agency. My second point was that the ways that voluntary and community organisations are structured into Northern Ireland’s divided society and its politics of ethnic rivalry makes it extraordinarily difficult to do this effectively.
That piece was written in 2013 and the evidence since then is that it is hard to do this anywhere mostly because different voluntary and community organisations are structured into the broader welfare system in different ways depending on what they do and their particular histories. The idea of a single “sector” is perhaps a bit of a myth and tends to fall apart in the face of anti-austerity politics whether of the Left or Right.
A quick comparison with Ireland helps illustrate my point. The financial crisis of 2008/2009 there removed on average 35 percent of government support for voluntary and community organisations, with whole programmes being summarily ended and the complex web of partnership structures collapsed. The sense of “what do we do now” was very strong. What emerged from a response funded by Atlantic Philanthropies was a strong articulation of collective value or mission around the notion of social justice advocacy that the evidence suggests was widely shared and has helped shape the terms on which government departments engage with organisations on specific issues.
This story is much more complicated than that of course, but my point is to ask how likely is it that a similar shared narrative might have emerged from work funded by the Building Change Trust in Northern Ireland. It’s hard to imagine because of the way that politics would ensure any attempt at a collective identity around such a notion would fall at the first hurdle of ethno-religious whataboutery and threaten whatever fragile internal unity there is around a single sector identity.
The propensity of the sector in Northern Ireland to shy away from anything that could be interpreted as “too political” in this context is understandable, but it has consequences. One is that the extraordinary work done by many voluntary and community organisations is never scaled up into a broader articulation of political demands or even a statement of collective mission. Inevitably perhaps the Building Change Trust has substituted a narrative of modernisation around finance, innovation, impact and collaboration. It is not that these are unimportant and the work in these areas of considerable potential value.
But avoiding addressing questions about what it is all for, runs the risk that mission is reinterpreted as a form of organisation survival.
The Trust’s solution to this problem has been to push civic thinking into a separate strand of work, separated from interventions aimed at changing practices in voluntary and community organisations and where the focus is on imaginative ways of enabling direct civic democracy.
In the context of Northern Ireland this might yet be its major legacy.