Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster
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Community Relations and Local Government
by Colin Knox, Joanne Hughes, Derek Birrell and Sam McCready
Out of Print
Community Relations and Local Government
by Colin Knox, Joanne Hughes, Derek Birrell and Sam McCready
Centre for the Study of Conflict
The Centre for the Study of Conflict is a research centre based in the University of Ulster. Its main work is the promotion and encouragement of research on the community conflict and to this end it concentrates on practical issues to do with institutional and community structures and change. It publishes papers and books arising out of this work including: a series of research papers particularly designed to make available research data and reports; a series of Majority-Minority reports; and a series of occasional papers by distinguished academics in the field of conflict. It has recently published a Register of Research on Northern Ireland which has been widely praised, and a termly newsletter on current research called Research Briefing.
This new series of six research reports and papers on aspects of the Northern Ireland conflict represents the results of recent work as well as a reprint of an earlier work still much in demand.
It includes the extensive evaluation work of Colin Knox and his colleagues on the Community Relations and Local Government initiative, a major experiment in the promotion and encouragement of inter-community activity through the medium of district councils; a ground-breaking report by Valerie Morgan and Grace Fraser (carried out in association with the Centre for Research on Women) called The Company We Keep: Women, Community and Organisations, on the role and influence and cross-community activities of women in small towns and rural communities; the first in a new series of reports on the concept and experience of alienation, called Protestant Alienation in Northern Ireland; the most recent Majority-Minority report (joining earlier reports on education and on employment/unemployment) this one by Martin Melaugh on Housing and Religion in Northern Ireland; a paper by Ed Cairns on Psychology and the Northern Ireland Conflict, one in the series of occasional papers written by distinguished scholars. Finally, a reprint of the much discussed report by Duncan Morrow and his colleagues on The Churches and Intercommunity Relationships first published in 1991.
Section 1: Introduction and background to the programme
The report begins by setting the district council community relations programme within the more comprehensive package of measures (targeting social need, education reforms, fair employment legislation) designed by Government to achieve greater equality and equity in Northern Ireland. The specifics of the programme are then described in some detail. The Central Community Relations Unit (CCRU) invited councils in 1989 to submit proposals, which had to be agreed on a cross-party basis, for a community relations programme with the following objectives:
CCRU offered 75% grant aid to councils for the employment of community relations officers and the provision of such programmes. By 1993, twenty-five of the twenty-six councils had joined the initiative with a budget of £1.3m (1992/93).
This report is an evaluation of the district council community relations programme which:
a. provides an overview of the work undertaken by community relations officers in implementing the initiative;
b. assesses the effectiveness of the various types of community relations projects within local authorities;
c. examines awareness levels of the programme within councils, and attitudes to community relations amongst the wider community;
d. makes policy recommendations arising from the formative or process evaluation of the programme.
Section 2: The policy evaluation
Policy evaluation is a 'critical but detached look at a programme's objectives and how they are being met' (H.M. Treasury, 1988, p.1). This is a deceptively simple explanation for a process which is quite difficult particularly when evaluating social programmes whose aims tend to be broad-based, as in the case of the community relations programme, and not therefore easily amenable to quantitative measures of performance.
Recognising that the programme is still in its formative stages the report is a process evaluation which assesses 'how a policy is put into practice, what happens on the ground, and relates this to how the policy is meant to work' (Department of the Environment, 1992, p.6).
Section 3: The research design and methodology
The balance of the evaluation design reflects the process orientation of the study with a major emphasis on in-depth qualitative work within local councils. This is supplemented by quantitative survey data gathered as the basis for comparison between councils participating and those not participating in the initiative.
Six councils were selected using a three stage procedure for in-depth qualitative work. Firstly, councils which were involved in the initiative for less than one year were excluded from the selection. Secondly, those remaining were stratified by their political orientation and the number of councils from each grouping calculated in proportion to size of the grouping. The final stage of selection reflected variables such as per capita spending on community relations, the Catholic-Protestant split, the number of community relations officers employed and whether or not the council had a community services function.
The quantitative work involved a 2,000 sample postal questionnaire, adapted from the 1989 British Social Attitudes questionnaire (Northern Ireland community relations module) administered throughout nine council areas - the six councils selected above and three councils which (at that stage) had not yet joined the initiative.
The study also involved a support element for those councils not directly involved in the in-depth studies. Although not part of the formal evaluation this was seen as an important starting point for sharing and recording good practice work in community relations.
Section 4: Implementation of the community relations programme - officers' views
1. Community relations officers
The role of the community relations officer is self-directive and will depend upon support at political and official levels within councils and the extent to which they can link into a network of established community groups.
Accessing Protestants has been problematic for community relations officers. There is a degree of suspicion on the part of Protestants that community relations involves a hidden agenda and making political concessions. Cross-community projects are sometimes difficult to organise in the absence of neutral venues. Some community relations officers have been able to generate confidence and trust within cross-community groups which break down barriers preventing the use of venues normally associated with the other community.
Community relations officers expressed a mixed reaction to training received to date. Trainers, in turn, have to deal with officers from a variety of backgrounds working in councils which have joined the initiative in a staggered way. The community relation forum (a network of community relations officers) provides support to officers and has the potential to contribute in the wider debate on the future of community relations as a council function.
The opportunity to use community relations money to fund existing council projects is diminishing as community relations officers gain experience and insist on an agenda which meets the objectives of their programme. Some confusion exists over the funding role of other agencies such as the Community Relations Council (CRC), the Central Community Relations Unit (CCRU) and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland (DENI) and the potential for overlap and duplication.
There is a recognition by community relations officers that the community relations programme is a long-term commitment to changing attitudes and behaviour. Short-term monitoring, particularly using estimates of numbers and religious make-up of those involved in projects, may provide a narrow interpretation of activity in the short-term, but obfuscates the incremental progress towards change in the long-term.
2. Chief executives and chief officers
The introduction of the community relations initiative into councils had been supported by the majority of councillors with only a small group expressing opposition or hostility.
Community relations issues are best dealt with in sub-committees which are conducive to informal debate rather than at full council meetings.
The role of the Central Community Relations Unit in training and advice in community relations was seen as supportive, although direct links between community relations officers and CCRU personnel could detract from a corporate council ownership of the function.
Funding of the initiative was, in general, adequate although there was criticism of the Central Community Relations Unit over final approval dates and the consequences for council budgeting. Chief executives repudiated the idea that substitute funding took place.
Community relations officers had to fulfil four main roles:
There needs to be some check to ensure agencies (councils, Community Relations Council, Central Community Relations Unit) were not duplicating funding, and co-operation between other community relations providers (Education and Library Boards, the Youth Service, Belfast Action Teams, Workers' Educational Association, Corrymeela and Northern Ireland Childrens Holiday Scheme).
Most councillors were completely convinced of the merits of the scheme by the efforts of community relations officers who had increased their credibility and gained the respect of members.
Problems identified with the scheme were:
Comments on the future development of the programme included:
Section 5: Projects, strategies and selected examples - a typology
Participant observation in the six councils was used to examine the process of implementing community relations projects and assessing their relative merits. The projects were classified in a 5 part typology as follows:
Several key issues emerged from the in-depth examination of the various community relations projects:
a. Projects are more effective if part of a community relations strategy. This is unlikely to be the case in projects undertaken with schools or youth groups which tend to be one-off and ad hoc in nature.
b. Good community relations work can emerge from, and contribute to an on-going community development process which addresses common concerns. Focusing upon what binds communities as opposed to what divides them, provides a platform for collaborative community development work which is intrinsically good for community relations. There are considerable merits in a twin-track approach.
c. There is a trade-off between high profile work, which generates good publicity for councils, and more effective focused projects which have the potential to alienate or offend councillors and officials. The programme must therefore operate at two levels. On the one hand it should ameliorate the fears, misconceptions and apprehensions of councillors and officials and on the other patiently pursue the more effective if somewhat high risk and controversial focused work.
d. Training is crucial for community relations officers particularly as they move more towards an enabling role in councils where networking, advising and facilitating groups to undertake community relations are the norm. Information sharing through case studies of good practice is an essential part of the training process.
e. Monitoring statistics collated for CCRU are seen by the community relations officers as synonymous with impact assessment. Large numbers of participants therefore equate to effective performance. Compliance with this erroneous assertion may detract from working with smaller more effective groups.
f. Targeting sectors of the community is important given the budget limitations. In this regard there is little reason for funding work in the school and youth sectors where other organisations (DENI education boards) have community relations responsibilities.
Some points of good practice emerged from the above key issues.
Section 6: Support element of the evaluation
The support element of the evaluation was undertaken as a discrete part of the project to provide practical support for those councils not involved in the policy evaluation. Community relations officers discussed their role within the council structure/system and its implications for their work in practice. The scope and nature of community relations projects, under the banner of cultural traditions work, was examined. Training and support for community relations officers were considered and some direction given on the future mode of training. Four elements in the support process were examined:
- Community relations officers were reluctant to request supervision from line managers as they were busy people, but their work would be enhanced by regular formal supervision from an appropriate informed and interested in-house manager.
- There was a strong endorsement and recognition of the need for a forum from the community relations officers, although it is not as effective and supportive a mechanism as it has been in the past. This has been acted upon by the creation of regional sub-groups.
- There is a perception amongst community relations officers that CCRU has become too 'distant' from the district council programme as a result of changes in personnel at both official and political levels.
- External independent support is an essential way to enhance their practice.
Several examples of project work were cited and ideas on good practice shared between community relations officers.
Section 7: Knowledge and perceptions of community relations in the wider community
This section reports on the empirical evidence emerging from the survey work within the nine council areas. The evidence suggests:
a. Awareness levels are high amongst the community about the role of councils in community relations in spite of its relative newness as a function. This is particularly the case in those areas where there is a combined community development/community relations approach.
b. There is a high level of support in the community for councils spending money on community relations as a functional activity.
c. Data gathered from the nine councils confirm the trend of improving perceptions of community relations and a degree of optimism about the future of relationships between the two communities.
d. There is evidence of more positive community relations attitudes amongst the community in councils participating in the CCRU funded initiative. Although a causal link cannot be ascribed, given the research design limitations, there is sufficient complimentary qualitative evidence to substantiate the real contribution made by the council programme.
Objectives of the programme
This evaluation has been designed as a process/formative (as opposed to an outcome/summative) evaluation, and hence the focus has necessarily been on how the programme is being implemented in practice and the extent to which its implementation is effective in achieving the objectives of the scheme. The three objectives of the programme are:
Given the relatively short period of the scheme's operation and the staggered involvement of councils in the programme, councils have focused on the first of these objectives. This objective is short-term, activity based and quantifiable through monitoring returns. The second and third objectives are concerned with long-term changes in attitudes and behaviour. The evaluation found very real achievements in attaining the first objective within district councils.
Because the objectives are not mutually exclusive the extent to which the remaining objectives are attained will depend upon how effective and sustainable contact and cooperation are. The second and third objectives are, therefore, influenced by the type of projects undertaken by community relations officers. This is discussed in finding two.
2. Community relations projects
The evaluation identified five broad types of projects undertaken by the community relations officers:
a. High profile community relations - one-off projects aimed at attracting large numbers from across the communities and useful in promoting the community relations banner;
b. Inter/intra community development - projects which build upon community development issues both within and between communities, focusing on what binds communities rather than separates them;
c. Cultural traditions - bringing groups together on the basis of shared interest in similar cultural traditions (sport, music, dancing) as a means of improving awareness and understanding of the diversity of those traditions;
d. Focused community relations - small group workshops, aimed at community activists/leaders, which confront sectarian attitudes and prejudices in the community;
e. Substitute funding - projects in place before the initiative commenced which are now within the brief of the community relations officer but have limited potential for community relations work.
The evaluation found that inter/intra community development, cultural traditions and focused community relations were the most effective in pursuing the long-term objectives of 'promoting greater mutual understanding and increasing respect for cultural traditions'.
3. Community development and community relations
A rather false division appears to have emerged between community development and community relations work, compounded by arguments that the latter is now flavour of the month and is given preference in funding terms.
The evaluation found that some of the most effective community relations work emerged through community development issues. Those councils with an established community services department and access to a network of local groups have benefited to a greater extent from the new community relations function. Collaboration between community development and community relations produces sustainable cross-community benefits through a twin-track approach.
4. The role of the community relations officer
The role of the community relations officer is a changing one and can be described in four ways:
a. developmental: initiate contact, investigation and appraisal work usually related to existing groups;
b. promotional: increase public awareness through the supply of information to organisations and groups, advice, guidance and encouragement;
c. provider: actively involved in the actual organisation and delivery of programmes;
d. enabler: enable groups to generate projects themselves and take on ownership of them, leaving community relations officers to concentrate on network building, co-ordination, funding, training and disseminating models of good practice.
The evaluation found that, given the constraints on resources (most councils have one community relations officer), the most effective role for the community relations officer was that of enabler. It is recognised however that there will always be a need to develop, promote and provide community relations but their future orientation should be to facilitate and enable other individuals, groups and organisations to become involved in the delivery of community relations.
The support element of the evaluation stressed the importance of a link person within CCRU to liaise with community relations officers and the possibility of external support to develop dialogue on good practice. This would clearly assist community relations officers in the transition to an enabling role.
5. Issues arising from the evaluation
In the course of the evaluation a number of issues emerged which have a bearing on both the short and long-term implementation of the programme:
a. Target groups - it would seem sensible for community relations officers to target their limited resources at sectors within the community. There must, therefore, be some doubt over community relations officers working with school children and the youth sector, given the responsibility of other Government agencies for community relations work in this sector.
b. Grant scheme - there is some confusion over the roles of the Central Community Relations Unit, the Community Relations Council and district councils in providing grant-aid to community groups. This confusion could give rise to duplication of funding and overlap in the work undertaken. Responsibilities for funding need to be more clearly defined.
c. Long-term funding - in a programme which has long-term objectives, the short-term three year cycle of funding is not conducive to strategic planning in community relations work. This is also reflected in the contractual nature of the community relations officers' employment. Some commitment at Government/local authority level is crucial for the medium to long-term development of the programme, building on its initial success.
d. Monitoring - the accuracy and value of the monitoring process have been questioned by community relations officers, given the way in which figures, of necessity, must be collated. Moreover, the returns encourage the promotion of large high profile events which tend to be less effective in community relations terms. The role of monitoring needs to be clearly set out so that the confusion which exists, among community relations officers, over its purpose and the use to which monitoring information is put, can be clarified.
6. Achievements of the programme
The achievements of the community relations programme are significant, some of the more important are:
a. the endorsement of the programme and its objectives across the political parties by 25 out of 26 local authorities;
b. the increasing enthusiasm with which councillors and officials embrace community relations as an important function of the local authority;
c. the range and effectiveness of projects undertaken by community relations officers which encourage contact, cooperation, mutual understanding and respect for different cultural traditions;
d. the growing confidence with which community relations officers undertake a sensitive task, sometimes in difficult circumstances, and their increasing credibility as professionals;
e. the improving community relations trend, evidenced in both the evaluation data and the social attitudes survey, in which the district council programme plays an important part.
There is a recognition on the part of the United Kingdom government that the seemingly intractable problems of Northern Ireland are best dealt with on a number of political, social and economic fronts. Juxtaposed with, and in support of, such measures are initiatives aimed at tackling underlying community divisions. The government therefore places considerable importance in developing good community relations defined as "bringing two sides of Northern Ireland's community towards greater understanding" (Central Community Relations Unit, 1992, p.1). A major initiative, launched in 1989, provided financial support for community relations programmes developed by local district councils which could command cross-party support from the constitutional parties.
Twenty-five of the 26 councils are now involved in the community relations initiative which, at the outset, received funding for three years, but has subsequently been extended by the same period. A condition of the funding for the programme entailed routine monitoring of activity indicators such as the type of community relations schemes undertaken, the numbers of people involved and an evaluation of the programme's effectiveness in meeting its objectives.
This report is an evaluation of the district council community relations programme and sets out to:
a. describe, in detail, the objectives of the district council programme and the evaluation process (sections one and two);
b. consider the research design options available to the evaluation research team, the problems involved in measurement and the approach adopted in this study (section three);
c. provide an overview of the work currently undertaken by the community relations officers and their experience of the programme in action (section four);
d. examine the views of other council officials (chief executives and chief officers) charged with responsibility for the programme (section four);
e. describe in detail the types of project undertaken by local authorities and assess their effectiveness against the initiative (section five);
f. report details of the support given to councils as part of the evaluation package (section six);
g. record awareness levels of the programme amongst the wider community, and attitudes to community relations in councils participating in the scheme compared with those not participating (section seven).
The district council programme - its background
The district council community relations programme must be set within the wider context of a major thrust by government "to bring about equality, to promote reconciliation and mutual respect for the separate traditions and cultures which exist within Northern Ireland, and to create a community which accommodates peoples' differing beliefs, aspiration and traditions" (Central Community Relations Unit, 1992, p.1). A clear manifestation of government intent in this regard was the establishment in September 1987 of the Central Community Relations Unit (CCRU), reporting directly to the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service on all aspects of relations between the two traditions. The Unit was charged with "formulating, reviewing and challenging policy throughout the government system with the aim of improving community relations" (Central Community Relations Unit, 1992, p.2). The Unit was also responsible for developing new ideas which would improve relations, and supporting ongoing efforts aimed at prejudice reduction. In short, community relations became a significant feature at the heart of the government's decision making process.
Government policy for community relations is therefore designed:
A number of initiatives followed which addressed this policy in a variety of ways. Equality and equity measures included the Targeting Social Need Initiative, aimed at reducing social and economic differentials in the community. This included schemes such as Making Belfast Work, the Derry and Rural Development Initiatives. The pace of fair employment reform also accelerated with the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 which strengthened previous legislation by establishing two new enforcement bodies, the Fair Employment Commission (replacing the Agency) and the Fair Employment Tribunal. A cross-community contact scheme, administered by the Department of Education, was introduced to establish and develop contact between schools, youth and community groups. This paralleled educational reforms in schools where two cross-curricular themes, education for mutual understanding (EMU) and cultural heritage, became intrinsic to teaching a range of school subjects under the common curriculum. A cultural traditions programme was also established to support the arts, museums and Irish language groups in a way which encouraged respect for the richness and diversity of shared cultural heritage. Alongside these initiatives a new independent voluntary body, the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council (CRC), was set up in 1990 to promote better community relations and the recognition of cultural diversity in Northern Ireland. CRC provides a forum for community relations issues, is committed to development and training work with individuals and groups involved in community relations and is a grant-aiding body which resources groups working in the field (CRC's Strategy for 1991-94).
Such a cursory overview of community relations' initiatives does not do justice to the detail of the programmes or bodies involved. It is not, however, the intention to describe the work of the community relations policy network, interesting though that would be, but to locate the district council programme in the context of a range of other initiatives with similar objectives (Knox & Hughes. 1993a)
On 15 June 1989 the Central Community Relations Unit invited local authorities to submit proposals for action to improve community relations in their district areas. The timing of the initiative was apt. Local government elections had taken place in May of the same year following a turbulent period of opposition to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. A number of Unionist councils adjourned business and refused to strike district rates. In the wake of a number of legal rebukes, court fines and resolve on the part of government not to concede, the adjournment policy diminished and Unionist councils drifted back to normal business. The 1989 elections witnessed a movement away from the extremes on both the Unionist and Nationalist sides (Knox, 1990). The Democratic Unionist Party's vote dropped by 5.6% and Sinn Féin's by 0.6%, and the ensuing round of elections for chairmen in the newly formed councils indicated a spirit of cooperation. Eight local authorities (Armagh, Derry, Down, Dungannon, Fermanagh, Limavady, Newry & Mourne and Omagh) appointed mayors/chairmen and deputies from councillors with opposing traditions and de facto power sharing evolved although the term responsibility sharing has been used in deference to the sensibilities of Unionists. Councillors also mounted cross-party opposition to the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering, which they saw as a threat to jobs in local councils and an erosion of the role of local government. The requirements of contracting-out services produced unanimity of purpose amongst all councils to vigorously compete for the right to provide existing functions. A window of opportunity opened, heralding a spirit of co-operation in local authorities. This was the context within which the community relations initiative in local government was launched.
CCRU invited councils to participate in the community relations programme with the following objectives:
These objectives are crucial to the monitoring and evaluation exercise as they are the outputs/outcomes against which the success of the district council community relations programme is measured.
CCRU offered 75% grant aid for the employment of community relations staff by councils, the provision of financial support for appropriate cross-community activities and assistance with the development of local heritage and cultural activities. A budget of £279,000 was provided for the programme by CCRU in 1990/91, increasing to £1m in 1991/92 and £1.3m in 1992/93.
The specific conditions laid down for participation were:
The political parties expressed mixed reactions to the principles underpinning the programme. The SDLP argued that the absence of trust was at heart of Northern Irelands problems and any improvement in community relations would come only when trust was restored. Sinn Féin had an ambivalent attitude in which they sought reconciliation through constructive dialogue and debate, but claimed that this could not take place until the Unionist majority veto in the six counties was removed. The Alliance Party fully endorsed constructive community relations work designed to promote understanding and trust between the two communities. Responses from the two Unionist parties ranged from qualified support in the case of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) to opposition on the part of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Whilst the UUP supported schemes to encourage the affirmation and exploration of local regional identities, it claimed that an undue emphasis on commonalities could be as misleading as the picture of a culturally polarised community. The DUP saw the promotion of good community relations as no more than a political gimmick by government ministers, in which public money was squandered on over-rated reconciliation schemes. Good community relations for them was the elimination of terrorism (CRC, 1992). The Unionist position is best described by a parliamentary question posed by an Ulster Unionist MP:
The Minister responsible responded by agreeing with the premise of the first question:
The first council to join the scheme was Dungannon in February 1990, and by the end of that year twelve councils had entered the programme. Eight further councils joined the scheme in 1991, three in 1992 and two in 1993. As yet North Down, the only remaining local authority, has not become involved. The Community Relations Council recently welcomed the fact that most district councils were now involved in the initiative:
Cross-community consensus was certainly a pre-requisite for councils' involvement in the community relations programme. This is not to suggest, however, that council chambers are devoid of the occasional partisan fracas!
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