Community Relations Council – doomed?

As reported by Pete, UCD’s Institute for British Irish Studies report for the Rowntree Charitable Trust deplores a perceived retreat from “reconcilation” in the Shared Future document of 2005 to “accommodation” in the FMDFM ‘s “Cohesion ” document now out to consultation. One result of the downscaling looks like the abolition rather than the beefing up of the Community Relations Council, now a bigger target due to the spending cuts. Scrapping the council in favour of an advisory body to FMDFM seems to chime in well with the UK government’s ” bonfire of the guangos.” Does anyone have the latest intelligence?

Putting the cuts aside for a moment, there’s a very old battle being waged here. In the terrible last days of the old Stormont, the newly minted CRC led by Maurice Hayes was rapidly taken over by the duplicate ministry to provide greater scope for a new non-unionist minister David Bleakley in Brian Faulkner’s government. To little avail, alas.

More recently as we’ve seen the bitter row over the Human Rights Commission, politicians, especially unionist ones, hate being lectured to by the non-elected great and good whom they are obliged to fund for the privilege. Witness  the fate of the Human Rights Commission.

Even in advance of the cuts, FMDFM seem to have rejected the idea of an independent statutory watchdog to keep them on course with a cohesion strategy, and equally importantly, to assess the effectiveness of all layers of government and the voluntary sector in this area and report to the public and the Assembly.

Now you could argue that it’s a good thing that the Executive want to take on the role directly themselves, accountable to the Assembly. But can they be trusted to do so alone?

 Below are IBIS ‘s arguments in favour of independent scrutiny.

There is a seeming reversal of one strategic priority of Shared Future: the institutionalisation of an independent accountable agency (a ‘revamped Community t Relations Council’) tasked to push forward the community relations/good relations duties and to provide a ‘challenge function’, to promote ‘high risk’ action and to look critically at the role of existing political and local organisations and councils and assure best practice in addressing division and diversity (3.2.4). Such an independent agency is replaced in Cohesion by an advisory panel or ‘arms length’ body, which has an advisory role and acts as a ‘critical friend’ to government (10.9).

This threatens to submerge the independent critical and strategic advisory role envisioned by Shared Future in the immediate political imperatives of government, district councils and local communities.

Is it necessary to provide for an institutionalised critical voice in a time of recession?

Yes, if it is the case that the good/community relations duties require strategic thinking and social intervention.

Yes, if it is the case that small well‐judged interventions may have large consequences…  The social, cultural and interactive mechanisms that allow some groups to move to accommodation, some to explore new understandings, others to de‐politicise, and still others to reassert old antagonisms are still not fully understood. We need sensitive models of the multiple ways that change occurs and that individuals come to terms with a violent and conflictual past. Key policy objectives – including the difficult but important aim of ensuring ‘parity of esteem’ – can be pursued effectively only with such models of the varied aims and choices of the different populations.

Without an independent agency tasked with the critical, strategic aims, there is only weak provision for criticism and correction of the perspectives of those concerned primarily with practical politics.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London