Good Friday Agreement’s heavy-lifters still wait for Easter Sunday

In Northern Ireland’s most challenged neighbourhoods and communities, where advocating for the Agreement carried the greatest risk, the 25 years since its signing have been a long harrowing of broken promises, stalled initiatives, and predatory practices.

From the mid-nineties onwards, buoyed by the prospect of local power-sharing, a raft of social policies emerged with the potential of consolidating the decades of grassroots activism that maintained local communities (urban and rural) in the face of violence.

Under New Labour, the first Compact between Government and the community and voluntary sector was re-interpreted locally through the lens of the newly formed Department for Social Development’s “Partners for Change” document – recognising the big-picture role of the sector in delivering shared outcomes. The role of churches in building social capital was also increasingly recognised by the Department.

Sure Start, a targeted programme for parents and children under the age of four living in the top 25% most disadvantaged wards in Northern Ireland, was introduced in 2000 as part of the Northern Ireland Childcare Strategy. “People and Place” – a strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal was launched in 2003, supporting 150 projects in 36 neighbourhoods in the most deprived 10% of wards across Northern Ireland as identified by the Noble deprivation measures.  

Despite some positive indicators around education, performance of the Neighbourhood Renewal strategy has been mixed in relation to economic indicators, and poor in relation to health and crime indicators. The most recent evaluation of the strategy (a considerable nine years ago) revealed “People and Place” did not substantially deliver on its overall aim of closing the gap in the quality of life between people in those areas and the rest of society. However this performance needs to be understood within the constraints of funding cuts by the NI Executive.

During this evaluation period the total Neighbourhood Renewal budget was £25m –  already having been cut by 25% during 2007-2014. Following a reduction to £18.3m in 2016, the budget for 2018 faced a further 4% cut. In February 2020, the then Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey publicly committed to a review of the strategy which is still ongoing.The most recent confirmed annual allocation was around £18m. 

While most of these initiatives originated in the years before the NI Executive, or while it was suspended, the hope was that the scaffolding of Stormont would provide long-term support, scrutiny and future development. However it could be argued that Stormont’s own high-profile attempts at regeneration initiatives were political carve-ups. The Social Investment Fund and Urban Villages Initiatives, while delivering some measurable outcomes for communities, were much more geographically limited in scope and largely out-of-sync with ongoing programmes.

At the time of writing, Neighbourhood Renewal funded groups have only received confirmation for three months’ funding. Voluntary youth organisations supported by the Education Authority have only received confirmation of one months’ core funding. Preventative initiatives such as Sure Start and Healthy Living Centres struggle on with shrinking budgets and restrictive funding requirements. A £57m package from Westminster to support groups previously funded by the European Social Fund was not enough to secure the future of many of those programmes. It is a well-articulated point by activists and academics that in marginalised communities women are the shock-absorbers of poverty. 

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 obliges the Executive to develop a strategy ‘to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need’. In 2015, the Northern Ireland High Court ruled that there was no such strategy in existence, and this remains the case. Recommendations for an anti-poverty strategy by a panel of experts, and a draft framework for the policy have been developed but both remain on the shelf.

In the absence of renewed social policy, vulnerable communities which bore the brunt of the conflict and which looked set to benefit most from the promise of the Good Friday Agreement, now sit at the interface between social need and peace-building in a vacuum that is open to the worst extremes of the market – gentrification and organised crime.

Avila Kilmurray, in her landmark book Community Action in Contested Society, writes

“As in many societies emerging from conflict, sustainable peacebuilding requires an open door for those that are finding their voice for the first time, that may be critical of the process, or that feel left behind in the wake of a rapidly changing politics.”

Twenty-five years on – these communities that provide a space for a range of voices, organisations and activities with an inherent “messiness” carry a little less vibrancy and vitality than they did before. Yet the organisations that operate there are still the largely unheralded “safety-net” sector for disadvantaged neighbourhoods, often standing in the gap left by stagnating public services. 

If the Good Friday Agreement was meant to provide a door to sustainable peace, who’s going to open it?

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