Published on 30th Apr, 2020
Reaching beyond ‘silos, egos and logos’ was the challenge that Neal Lawson (Compass) threw out to activists in Northern Ireland. A webinar, ‘Empowering Voices in Uncertain Times,’ provided the space for 65 community-based activists to explore the world post-COVID-19. Building Back Better was the theme, although this cannot be taken for granted. There is always a danger that the immediacy of the current commendable community response can drain energy from the need to design the society we want.
The extent of community resilience and mobilisation on display across the North was celebrated, recognising, in part, that this may well be a feature of a society that has long experience of conflict and community self-help. Noticeable, however, is the extent that community action over recent weeks has been cross-community in nature. In a society composed of a jigsaw of ‘single identity’ communities this is indeed a development to be celebrated. The million dollar question is whether, and how, these relationships are sustainable.
Patching together 45 Degree Change
What the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted is the need for a healthy and honest relationship between an enabling State and local community action. Neal argues that vibrant community activity may suffer the ‘firework’ effect, being limited without adequate resources to sustain it. Equally, neither the State nor the Free Market can be allowed dictate what is acceptable or the norm. Our common-sense values have shifted. Those who provide care, essential services and a sense of security are no longer the highly paid elite. We can no longer ignore the fact that unquestioning economic growth is at odds with environmental sustainability and global equity. Our petty politics of blaming migrants and minorities are at odds with those that are disproportionately dying to protect us. This necessitates casting a cold eye on policy making that looks back to the failed strategies attendant on the 2008 financial crisis. It requires re-imagining our systems, as when the NHS itself was designed and implemented. We need to look towards Universal Basic Income, essential public services and an effective Green New Deal rather than taking refuge in austerity for the many and deregulated laissez-faire for the few.
Change, argued Lawson, needs a progressive interface between governance, at both national and regional level, that listens to local communities and the mutual support networkers at community level. ‘The great cauldron of change’, suggested Lawson is recognising ‘mutual vulnerabilities and inter-connectedness’. Leadership during times of change is shown when politics at every level creates space for new, inclusive conversations instead of retreating into a bubble of comfortable conformity.
Crises can pull back the curtain
Stephen Pittam, for many years Trust Secretary of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust that invested in activism in Northern Ireland, drew attention to the apparent democratic deficit at civil society level. Exacerbated by the centralisation of decision-making and a Free Market culture of competitive contract tendering and compliance, there was a real danger that the community and voluntary sector have been side-lined when it comes to influencing policy. This trend has arguably been exacerbated by the past four years of Brexit entanglement which has fatally undermined any ability of the UK Government to act as an impartial arbiter between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. Any new post COVID-19 reality needs to take account of this shifting landscape while also bringing the inescapable all-island context of Ireland into play.
If crises lift the curtain on what is so often taken as the norm, or inevitable, then activism in Northern Ireland needs to be ready to ask new questions of old problems. Some of these questions might be posed of those aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement such as an inclusive Bill of Rights, support for community development and the implementation of a Civic Forum that have been marginalised in the peace process to date.
Re-asserting Community Voice
There was agreement that the current community response should be documented, with learning from the stories forming the basis of future policy making. There is always the danger that bureaucracies and politicians have short memories when it comes to the contribution of civil society. It is essential that the inter-connectedness apparent at local community level is built on to allow for the contentious conversations that are still inevitable in Northern Ireland. Progress, however, will be achieved if these new relationships forged out of necessity allow us to disagree well.
Stories of community response also need the structural dimension of how issues of poverty, inequality, care and marginalisation can be addressed in ways that go beyond mere paper commitments. Building Back Better needs to be inclusive as well as outward looking. It was accepted that this will be a dynamic process that cannot await the discovery of a vaccine or a cure. Thinking through and beyond the current crisis needs to start now.
Empowering Voices in Uncertain Times webinar was organised jointly by the Community Foundation Northern Ireland, the Social Change Initiative and the St. Stephen’s Green Trust.