How can public policy help combat sectarianism? Part 2/3

01 August 2019 - by Anna Mercer

In the second part of our three-part series from Anna Mercer’s presentation at the Macgill Summer School last month, this installation considers the role public policy can play in combatting sectarianism.

Following on from the previous paper which looked at how our institutions enable a separate but equal approach, this article looks at the role public policy can play in combating sectarianism.

The move towards an outcomes-based Programme for Government is an outward sign that government is evolving in Northern Ireland. Although still in draft due to the fact that the Executive never signed off on it before collapsing, it moved away from the traditional output model which enabled a silos approach and replaced it with 12 outcomes which demand cross-departmental working to achieve their ends.

A concept promoted by the Carnegie UK Trust, the draft PfG placed wellbeing at the centre of its ambitions, and using the outcomes model, seeks to deliver generational change. This has the potential to establish a more long-term vision for Northern Ireland that can endure beyond electoral cycles, and which is based on a clear and unambiguous ambition; improving the wellbeing of citizens.  

But key to making this work is to underpin it with legislation, which is not something that the former Executive had committed to.

In the same way the Good Friday Agreement insisted on “ugly scaffolding” as conditions of governance around areas such as protecting minorities, the constitutional settlement and powersharing, there is learning that should be deployed to developing an agreed framework which can deliver long-term generational change, no matter who the government of the day is.

This has been done in Scotland through the Community Empowerment Act, and in Wales through the Future Generations Act, which both feature wellbeing at the core of what they seek to achieve. Its relevance extends beyond the context of needing to address sectarianism and is a sign of a responsible government acting to ensure that its delivery agents are equipped to deliver on its policy intent. 

With the inclusion of an outcome that states “we are a shared, welcoming and confident society that respects diversity”, there is a duty incumbent on all departments to work towards achieving this – but my point is that this needs to be enshrined as a legal duty.

This is required to enable arms-length bodies and government agencies to deliver on the outcomes approach, as present legislation sets out a different set of priorities and duties which, as accountable bodies, they are required to report on to their sponsoring department. Therefore, the legislation needs to change to reflect the outcomes approach; goodwill and platitudes will not deliver the cultural and generational change required to radically transform how government policy is made.

We must also make provision for empowering and incentivising the community and voluntary sector, who play a key role in connecting government with its citizens, and who have delivered an increasing number of services in recent years.

Take, for example, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, an organisation which I have had the privilege of working with and who are a grass-roots membership-led organisation promoting Irish culture and music. They developed a partnership with the Royal Scottish Pipes and Drums Association on the basis of their love of music and traditions, and this has led to some fantastic work on the ground in communities.

This is an example of the sort of organic community-level engagement is impactful and effective, and where the outcome is bigger than the sum of its parts. Current funding models do not have the flexibility to reward this approach to reflect its numerous benefits, and whilst there have been some changes in how it is awarded, there is still a journey to go if it is to deliver the ambition of the PfG.

New Zealand recently introduced its first “well-being budget” which aligns growth to outcomes and to peoples’ lives; whilst we are undoubtedly some way off a move as radical as this, these are the sort of opportunities that our politicians should be considering to enable a complete shift in paradigm. And as a small region, with duplication of services to the tune of about £1billion thanks to our need for separate but equal facilities, as well as our limited financial levers, perhaps this is the sort of opportunity that could be transformative.

The third installation of this series will be published on Monday.

The paper will be published in full on the Macgill Summer School homepage.