Submission by Tony Canavan

CCRU home background on CCRU community relations equality and equity research

The Government's Community Relations Policy
Submission to the Northern Ireland Forum
by Mr Tony Canavan

The following is the text of the submission made by Mr Tony Canavan to the Northern Ireland Forum, on Friday 27 February 1998. Mr Canavan was at the Forum to describe the Government's community relations policy.

I am grateful for the invitation to describe the Government's community relations policy, which is based on the reality that Northern Ireland is a deeply divided society. The primary division is between the Protestant and Catholic sections of the community. This finds expression in many ways - political, cultural and social - with a high degree of segregation in terms of where people live and where they educate their children and with a socio-economic differential.

The Government recognises how communal divisions damage the cohesiveness of Northern Ireland's society, yet there are limits to what they can do to counter the divisions. They cannot be prescriptive in the area of relationships or of understanding, nor can they alone change attitudes, but they can try to provide a framework of law and order generally accepted across society. They can promote greater equality between the two communities, support and facilitate initiatives that might lead to increased cross-community contact, and encourage greater mutual understanding and acceptance of cultural diversity.

Community relations policy is only one of the ways in which the Government attempt to strengthen the bonds of civil society. Their policies on political development, security and the economy contribute to the same objectives. There were attempts to develop community-relations policies in the period that saw the final days of the Northern Ireland Parliament, the introduction of direct rule and the power-sharing executive. With the end of the Community Relations Commission and the Community Relations Department, responsibility for these policies passed to the Department of Education.

By the late 1980s there were several new factors which suggested that a reinvigorated Government approach to community relations was needed.

  • First, there was academic and statistical evidence that the period of violence beginning in 1969 had further polarised a traditionally divided society.
  • Secondly, there were signs - for instance, in the integrated education movement - that many people rejected communal segregation and wanted the option of making life choices which were not determined by their community background.
  • Thirdly, there was a series of grass-roots initiatives, sometimes in reaction to particular acts of violence, from which emerged local voluntary groups dedicated to peace-making and to maintaining contacts across the divided community. The objectives and approaches of these groups were diverse. They had to operate in conditions of great difficulty with very little in the way of official support. This was the basis of the voluntary community relations movement.

The Government's response to these developments was the creation in 1987 of the Central Community Relations Unit (CCRU) as a part of the Northern Ireland Civil Service's Central Secretariat. Lead responsibility at political level for community relations policy lies with the Minister responsible - currently Tony Worthington; previously Michael Ancram. The CCRU has lead administrative responsibility for community relations policy, but that is not the unit's only responsibility. The fundamental objectives of the CCRU are, first, to increase cross-community contact and co-operation; secondly, to encourage mutual respect, understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity; thirdly, to ensure that all sections of the community enjoy equality of opportunity and equity of treatment. The first two relate to community relations policy.

The next important institutional development was the establishment in 1990 of the Community Relations Council (CRC). This is not a public body; it is a registered charity and a limited company. However, it was established with Government encouragement, and it receives considerable Government financial assistance. Up to one third of its members are appointed by the Secretary of State. Its purpose is to provide support facilities and recognition for community organisations operating at local level and to counter the effects of communal division.

It perceives its objectives on several levels. As a grant-giving agency it supports voluntary and community groups in increasing cross-community contact and understanding and in challenging sectarianism. Secondly, it assists and advises other agencies and institutions, including public bodies and the commercial sector, in recognising and dealing with issues of sectarianism and community division as they impact upon their operations. Thirdly, it encourages the provision of resources, including training, research and publications, to aid community relations research. Fourthly , it works with other bodies to promote greater appreciation and acceptance of cultural diversity in Northern Ireland.

As part of the Government's overall community relations policy, the Department of Education has also, over the past decade, provided considerable support for cross-community contact and appreciation of cultural diversity within the school system. The Government have supported their community relations policy with increasing resources. The budget available to the CCRU increased from £1·2 million in 1988 to £9·1 million in the current financial year. This figure includes funding for the Department's own community relations initiatives. All Government expenditure programmes are currently subject to revision in the comprehensive spending review, but for planning purposes we do not anticipate any future substantial growth in the community relations budget.

Let me explain the main elements in expenditure programmes under the budget. The first is funding for the CRC. It has developed as the leading centre of expertise in community relations practice. It provides advice to local groups and supports their activities financially. The Government give the council annual grants to pursue these objectives - more than £2 million in the current financial year to enable it to fund projects (there were 478 of those in the last financial year) and a smaller number of core-funded smaller voluntary organisations.

To ensure that the CRC is providing value for the Government's financial input it is subject to a triennial independent evaluation. The recommendations of the most recent evaluation, which was completed in 1997, have been integrated into the council's new strategic plan. The Government look forward to continuing a close relationship with the council in the delivery of the community relations programme. Mr Glendinning will say more about the CRC, its functions and its future prospects.

The second main element under the umbrella of the community relations programme is the district council community relations programme. The CCRU recognised at an early stage that district councils had a particular role to play in supporting improved community relations in their areas. They were democratically accountable, had local knowledge and were responsive to community sensitivities. A grant scheme was developed whereby the Government would fund 75% of the costs of an approved district council community relations programme, provided that it had cross-political support within the council and employed at least one full-time community relations officer. Twenty-five councils are currently participating in the programme, and the twenty-sixth - Belfast City Council - is actively considering future participation. In the current financial year the Government are contributing £1·7 million to district council programmes. As a major element in community relations expenditure, this also is subject to triennial evaluation.

The second full-scale evaluation, which was completed in 1997, recommended continuation of the programme, and the Minister, Mr Worthington, recently agreed to a further three years, which will take it up to March 2001. The evaluation also considered a number of measures to give district council programmes better focus and to enhance the contribution of community relations officers. These are currently being implemented. The Government believe that district councils will continue to play a vital role in the overall community relations programme.

A third way in which the budget assists community relations is through capital projects. The CCRU provides financial support for community-based facilities that are accessible to all sections. Priority has been given to small towns where there has been evidence of communal tensions. The facilities are often small community halls. They respond to evidence of a high degree of segregation in grass-roots community activity and in leisure pursuits. Often the only existing local facilities are closely associated with a particular religion or a political outlook. Neutral venues - to use the technical term - offer the opportunity for local activities on a cross-community basis. The programme has assisted district councils and community associations across Northern Ireland to provide such facilities.

In the current financial year £750,000 has been made available for capital assistance. Before approval, all projects must pass a rigorous economic appraisal, and all facilities supported must have a cross-community management structure and be equally accessible to all sections of the community.

The next element under the umbrella of the programme is cultural traditions. Cultural differences are a symptom and sometimes a cause of communal division, yet cultural diversity can enrich a society (the prime example is probably the United States). A cultural-traditions policy has thus been developed in the context of the community relations programme. Its objective is to encourage greater mutual understanding of and respect for the different strands in Northern Ireland's cultural heritage and to show that differences do not have to lead to division. The CCRU, the CRC and the Department of Education all contribute to cultural-traditions objectives through the funding of organisations and projects. A total of £1·2 million is earmarked by the three funding organisations in the current financial year.

This is a sensitive area, as certain cultural traditions are often associated, sometimes unjustly, with particular political outlooks, and careful judgement needs to be exercised to ensure that support for cultural traditions does not reinforce division.

The next element under the umbrella is a research programme, which is supported in the context of the overall community relations programme. Part of its function is to carry out evaluations of funded organisations and projects to ensure that taxpayers' money is not being wasted. It also commissions specific research on community relations issues that are of direct relevance to the Government, and it responds to proposals from academics for research in this field. There is considerable value in close contact between the Government and academics specialising in communal divisions, and comparative studies of Northern Ireland and other conflict situations in the world may be particularly useful.

The next element I want to mention is education. The Department of Education has responsibility for the community relations programme as it affects the education system and young people generally. It endeavours to create conditions and opportunities which enable young people to come together and participate in joint activities. Education for mutual understanding - sometimes called EMU - and cultural heritage are cross-curricular themes in schools. The schools community relations programme, which is now the responsibility of the education and library boards, and the Youth Service support scheme encourage teachers and youth leaders to become more involved in the community relations process through voluntary contact. Nearly 700 schools and 520 youth groups are involved.

The Department's cultural-traditions programme also provides financial support for projects which enable young people to explore and understand more about their common cultural heritage and gain respect for cultural diversity. The Department also provides support, through its voluntary community reconciliation programme, for bodies which have an important role to play in promoting community reconciliation among young people. It is aware of the need not only for more professional training for those who work with young people towards improved community relations but also for the generation of greater commitment and an increased sense of ownership of community relations policies in individual schools and voluntary organisations. It is currently reviewing its policies, with the aim of addressing these issues. In the current financial year £3·5 million of the overall community relations budget is applied by the Department of Education to its schools and youth programmes.

In addition to the Government's direct financial support, other bodies have provided financial assistance in the past 10 years for community relations objectives. Some are independent trusts, such as Rowntree and the Ireland funds. These have made a valuable contribution. Also, the International Fund for Ireland has established a funding programme, called Community Bridges, for community relations projects in Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic.

The European Union has made a major contribution in this field. As part of its structural-funds support for Northern Ireland as an Objective 1 region it has included community relations measures in the Physical and Social Environment Programme (PSEP) for 1989-93 and in the Single Programme for 1994-99. The European Union's Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, which commenced in 1995, has an overall focus on issues that are relevant to the healing of community divisions. It also has a specific measure, called Pathways to Reconciliation, which focuses directly on community relations projects. This is administered directly by the CRC as an intermediary funding body.

The Government monitor attitudes to community relations through surveys, particularly the annual Northern Ireland Social Attitudes Survey (NISAS). Until 1995 these showed obvious signs of growing optimism about the future of community relations in both communities. There is no doubt, however, that community relations have suffered a setback in the past three years. In some ways people have become more open about what divides them and more eager to voice their divisions. This does not demonstrate failure on the part of the community relations programme and the community relations movement as a whole; rather, I think, it demonstrates the continuing need for them.

Policies and practical measures to ease community divisions are likely to enhance the prospect of political agreement, but they are also right in themselves. Whatever the long-term accommodation, functioning community relations in a cohesive society must be part of the solution.

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