Report on the Inquiry into Building a United Community

Session: 2014/2015

Date: 01 July 2015

Reference: NIA 257/11-16

ISBN: 978-0-339-60597-8

Mandate Number: Mandate 2011/16 Fifteenth Report

report-on-the-inquiry-into-building-a-united-community.pdf (39.98 mb)

Download the full report here.


Executive Summary

Together: Building a United Community is the Executive’s strategy, launched in May 2013, to achieve “a united community, based on equality of opportunity, the desirability of good relations and reconciliation - one which is strengthened by its diversity, where cultural expression is celebrated and embraced and where everyone can live, learn, work and socialise together, freed from prejudice, hate and intolerance.”

Noting its long term nature, the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister agreed in September 2013 that scrutiny of this strategy should form one of its strategic priorities. This developed into the consideration of an Inquiry to seek to inform the Executive’s approach to building a united and shared society. The Committee agreed its terms of reference for an Inquiry into Building a United Community in July 2014. The Inquiry is not intended as a review of the T:BUC strategy, but an opportunity for Members to hear from government, statutory agencies, the community and voluntary sector and interested individuals; and make recommendations to support and enhance policy in building a united community.

Led by the themes emerging through written and oral evidence from a diverse range of stakeholders, the Committee has considered a wide variety of issues and challenges, from funding through to opportunities for sharing good practice; from shared space through to the role of local government in building a united community. The Committee acknowledges the passion, energy and enthusiasm that many individuals bring to developing the vision of a united community within their own spheres of influence, and wishes to thank all those who have participated through written submissions, oral evidence and attending stakeholder events. Whilst tensions between communities, particularly at urban interfaces, often attract negative press, there are many positive stories to share of efforts to build a united and shared community, which often take place all year round.

What has been clear to Members throughout the Inquiry process is that there is no single approach to building a united community. Each local community requires a uniquely tailored approach, and programmes and initiatives must be flexible enough to accommodate these nuances whilst still working towards the same goal.

What also became evident through Members’ engagement with practitioners was the burden placed on organisations and individuals through short-term funding cycles. The Committee acknowledges the financial pressures currently faced by all those reliant on public funding due to the uncertain economic climate, but also recognises the importance of placing funding mechanisms targeted at building a united community on a more stable footing in order to achieve the objectives outlined in T:BUC.

The Committee also noted renewed energy around the involvement of local communities in decision making and policy development, particularly with regard to the introduction of community planning as a key power of the new District Councils. The Committee recognises the pivotal role that local government can and should play in supporting and enhancing policy to unite communities.

This report represents the first time that a Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly has undertaken extensive scrutiny of these matters. The Committee notes the words of the First Minister who, in launching T:BUC, said “It would be idealistic to think that any initiative, no matter how significant, can heal all of society’s divisions and problems”. Similarly this report is not the end of the conversation; but having considered the evidence presented, the Committee has proposed a number of recommendations which it hopes will contribute to the ongoing discussions and development of policy aimed at building a united community.

Key Conclusions and Recommendations

General comments on “Together: Building a United Community”

1. The Committee notes the publication of Together: Building a United Community as a devolved strategy aimed at improving community relations and building a united and shared society. The Committee commends those individuals and organisations working towards building a united community, and the Government Departments and statutory agencies that support them in this work.

2. The Committee acknowledges that many different activities across all Departments do make a contribution to building a shared and united society, whether or not they are specifically badged as good relations activity. What is important, however, is that there is a joined-up approach across the Executive to ensure the best outcomes possible.

3. The Committee recognises the important role of the Ministerial Panel, not least because working towards building a united community is not confined to the remit of just one Department, and it is vital that these issues are regularly considered at this level. The Committee stresses the need for regular meetings of the Ministerial Panel with transparent outcomes; and recommends that OFMDFM lay an annual report on T:BUC in the NI Assembly, with contributions from other Departments, as the basis for an annual ‘take note’ debate. This would allow an opportunity for progress to be identified and recognised, and for good news stories to be heard.

4. The Committee recommends that all NI Assembly statutory committees make it core business to include good relations as part of their regular scrutiny of departmental activity, including the monitoring of T:BUC headline actions where Departments have responsibility for delivery.

Consultation and Co-design

5. The Committee considers that, ideally, stakeholders should have the ability to shape policy at a formative stage before key decisions are made and policy documents are written. However, the Committee supports the process of co-design in principle as a positive way to engage with stakeholders in the design and implementation of programmes. Given the long term nature of many of the headline actions, the Committee considers it important that this engagement is meaningful and continues through the lifetime of the strategy. The Committee therefore recommends that OFMDFM consider the creation of a “T:BUC Forum” as an opportunity for the sector to engage constructively with the Department. The Committee suggests the “NEETS Forum” established by the Department for Employment and Learning as a useful model in this regard. Should such a forum be established, it is recommended that it is chaired by a representative from the sector.

Building a United Community: Theory and Practice

6. The Committee acknowledges, and commends, the positive working relationship between the Department and academic experts who have a particular interest in researching issues related to sectarianism, division and the pursuit of good relations; and notes that good, helpful research is regularly produced. However the Committee is surprised that this work does not seem to be widely disseminated or receive local recognition. The Committee recommends that OFMDFM proactively seeks ways to share this expertise across Departments; and explores opportunities to promote and publish this academic work as extensively as possible.

7. The Committee recognises that programmes and initiatives that work in a particular geographical area may not automatically be appropriate for another location. However the Committee strongly urges those designing policy and initiatives to further a united and shared society to look to best practice available locally and build on the learning and expertise that already exists during the early stages of policy development.

Definitions and Terminology

8. The Committee notes the support from the written evidence received and through the stakeholder event for the introduction of definitions for ‘sectarianism’ and ‘good relations.’ The Committee recognises that agreed definitions are useful for the purposes of the monitoring and evaluation of T:BUC programmes, and that the proper place for defining these terms is in the context of legislation. The Committee therefore supports the intention of Ministers, stated within Together: Building a United Community, to “seek to find an appropriate consensus around a definition of sectarianism, based on this Strategy.”

Resourcing T:BUC

9. The Committee recognises the constrained financial situation within which all Departments are seeking to deliver on programmes and priorities and encourages the Executive not to lose sight of priorities to support building a united and shared community amongst other budgetary pressures. In addition the Committee supports the development of a budget profile for each headline action across the lifetime of the strategy, with associated milestones to add transparency to the T:BUC expenditure.

10. The Committee notes that T:BUC recognises that work is required to ensure the allocation of good relations funding is in line with strategic objectives, and also with any future funding model. However the Committee is also aware that delays in terms of receipt of funding, alongside short-term funding cycles, can create uncertainty. The Committee recommends that the Funders’ Advisory Group, which will be established to sit alongside the Ministerial Panel, is brought forward as soon as possible to progress work on the review of good relations funding and the development of a good relations funding model. In developing this model the Committee recommends that OFMDFM takes account of the burden faced by individuals and organisations through short-term funding cycles and considers ways to alleviate these pressures. The Committee also recommends that the Department works to promote transparency in allocation of funding at departmental level, and also through local councils and arm’s-length bodies.

11. The Committee recognises the wisdom, both in terms of public expenditure and strategic planning, of piloting initiatives under the headline actions of T:BUC. However the Committee considers that it is important, not least in terms of the potential for increased confidence in the T:BUC strategy, that programmes and initiatives are moved from the pilot phase to solid state as soon as is practically possible, with those projects that are successful up-scaled appropriately.

District Council Good Relations Programme

12. The Committee acknowledges the valuable contribution that local government has made, and continues to make, to building a united and shared community across Northern Ireland. Members also welcome the inclusion of the District Council Good Relations Programme within the Together: Building a United Community strategy, and recognise the flexibility the programme affords to local councils to work out what building good relations means in the context of their own areas.

13. The Committee recommends that OFMDFM continues to support the District Council Good Relations Programme, and specifically through the ongoing implementation of the NISRA Evaluation Report recommendations; ensuring that letters of offer with regard to the DCGRP are issued at the start of a new financial year; and continuing to provide high quality support from OFMDFM officials.

14. The Committee also recognises the potential of the District Council Good Relations Programme to make small scale interventions in local communities, which can have a major impact. The Committee recommends that OFMDFM reviews the District Council small grants scheme to ensure consistency of provision across local government, and to ensure that these funds are maximised to deliver positive good relations outcomes.

15. Whist recognising that one size does not fit all, the Committee recommends that opportunities to share best practice between local government areas should be enhanced, through opportunities for increased face to face interactions between Good Relations Officers and harnessing new technologies, for example through an online resource bank. The Committee also recommends that the annual reports prepared by each District Council as part of their monitoring and evaluation obligations with OFMDFM are circulated widely amongst those involved in the DCGRP to further the development of that programme.

Community Planning and the Involvement of Communities in Decision Making

16. The Committee notes the perception that the role women have played in building peace has not always been acknowledged by policy makers, and the view that this is also true of the Together: Building a United Community strategy document. Discussion on building shared and safe communities should acknowledge and promote the participation of women in politics and wider peacebuilding.

17. With regard to wider policy development and decision making the Committee recognises that, for some groups, access to elected representatives, government departments and statutory agencies can be difficult. The Committee recommends therefore that OFMDFM brings forward policy development guidance for Departments which ensures that policy and decision makers develop and maintain a clear focus on identifying hard to reach groups; and that they assess and meet their capacity needs recognising that this may, at times, require external facilitation.

18. The Committee acknowledges that local communities have an important part to play in decision making relating to their own areas and notes that community planning has the potential to allow communities to influence decision making in their areas. The Committee recognises that responsibility for community planning rests with local councils and the Department of the Environment and recommends that the First Minister and deputy First Minister work with the Minister of the Environment to ensure that community planning as a departmental priority is focused on the aims and objectives of T:BUC, which could include the inclusion of a specific commitment in the next Programme for Government. The Committee also strongly encourages the Committee for the Environment to monitor the implementation and development of community planning as a vehicle for communities to be involved in decision making, with good relations at its core.

Exploring Shared Issues: Contested Spaces/Interfaces Programme

19. The Committee recognises the merit in bringing groups together around issues of common concern like parenting, supporting children through education, or a shared anxiety around drug and alcohol misuse; and commends the Contested Spaces/Interfaces Programme as an innovative approach to building good relations between communities. The Committee recommends that the Department gives full consideration to the evaluation of the Contested Spaces/Interfaces Programme and applies the learning to the development of future programmes and initiatives, including prioritising areas for funding.

Single Identity Approach

20. The Committee acknowledges that there are different views about the role of single identity work in building a united and shared community. The Committee recognises the importance of respecting the pace at which people are willing to travel in relation to building a united community, and that this will differ depending on local circumstances. The Committee therefore recommends that single identity groups are provided with the tools to build confidence and capacity; and, at the same time, are helped to understand the value of moving beyond a single identity approach, and provided with opportunities for this to happen.

Shared Space

21. The Committee acknowledges the creative and innovative ways in which some organisations and community groups are creating shared space. The Committee believes that shared space has meaning where it offers something purposeful and is not created artificially around a contrived concept. The Committee recognises the role which the Department of the Environment can play in shaping the built environment, most recently through the Living Spaces Design Guide, and welcomes the proposal that further clarification will be brought forward within the new Strategic Planning Policy Statement. The Committee therefore recommends that the development of meaningful shared space is incorporated as an essential component in delivering a united and shared community.

Relationship Building and Trust

22. The Committee notes that time is needed to build relationships, respect and trust between all those involved in building a united community, and that this process is often more untidy than neatly defined funding cycles. The Committee also expresses its concern regarding the high level of burnout affecting those working within the sector, including a heavy reliance on specific individuals, albeit individuals with enthusiasm and passion for the task in hand. The Committee therefore recommends that Departments, arm’s-length bodies, and statutory agencies have an appropriate support mechanism in place for the organisations that they are funding; and that they strongly encourage their funded organisations to consider suitable succession planning.

23. The Committee recommends that the Department gives consideration to adopting the term ‘good relationships’ as a broader framework in which to consider delivering policies and programmes to promote a united and shared society.

Urban Interfaces

24. The Committee recognises that the issues that need to be addressed in order for interface barriers to be removed are complex, and like other areas of good relations work, there is no uniform approach. The Committee notes the concerns of those living immediately beside interface areas who feel that the physical barriers provide a certain amount of security and safety; recognises that malevolent forces continue to have influence in some communities, which in turn contributes to the desire to maintain physical manifestations of division in urban areas; and acknowledges the challenge in communicating a vision for a united and shared society to communities at interfaces. The Committee commends the consultation and preparatory work that is ongoing with regard to the commitment within Together: Building a United Community to reduce the number of interface barriers, in conjunction with local communities. The Committee respects the views of those who do not yet feel secure enough to progress on the removal of interface barriers, and supports the view that no peace wall should be removed without the consent and support of the communities that are living immediately beside it.

25. The Committee recommends that work to liaise with those living at interfaces to understand why they do not feel safe; and to encourage them to develop a vision for building a united and shared community continues. The Committee also encourages the Committee for Justice to undertake scrutiny of the work of the Department of Justice in this regard to ensure that the Assembly is fully appraised, and can input into this work as appropriate.

26. The Committee further notes concerns from stakeholders that too much emphasis is being placed on the removal of physical interface barriers, with little thought being given to the social and economic needs of those living closest to the peace walls. In taking this area of work forward the Committee recommends a holistic approach to the reduction of interface barriers, which might include localised regeneration initiatives, support for education and access to employment for everyone, and in particular young people.

Contested Space in Rural Communiities

27. Members commend the work of those organisations, large and small, dedicated to building a united and shared society within rural communities. The Committee notes the view that there is a lack of recognition amongst policy and decision makers that sectarianism exists in rural communities; and the view that initiatives designed to deal with issues of contested space in rural areas receive disproportionately less funding than communities at interfaces in urban areas. The Committee also acknowledges that there is a subtlety in addressing sectarianism in rural areas which may not have the same manifestations as seen in urban areas; and the perception that, historically, there has been a lack of creative thought and commitment as to how programmes designed to build a united community can be better catered for in a rural context.

28. The Committee recommends that the seven headline actions of T:BUC are rural-proofed by OFMDFM as soon as possible, and that any remedial action identified is carried out quickly. Further the Committee recommends that Executive Departments, statutory agencies and arm’s-length bodies tasked with the development of programmes aimed at building a united community proactively mitigate against a perceived urban bias.

Mixed Communities

29. The Committee recommends that a greater emphasis is placed on the lessons learned by those who have something to contribute to the wider discussions about developing shared neighbourhoods; and in particular that representatives from these mixed communities should participate in the relevant thematic groups to be established under the auspices of the Ministerial Panel. Further the Committee recommends that, in establishing a T:BUC forum, consideration is given to specifically inviting representatives from mixed communities to participate.

General Comments on Approaches to Addressing Sectarianism and Division

30. The Committee acknowledges the breadth and depth of approaches to addressing sectarianism and division and the rich contribution that this work makes to building a united community. The Committee recognises that there is no uniform approach to addressing sectarianism and division; and recommends that the Department continues to deploy flexibility when developing policy and devising programmes relating to these matters.

31. In considering approaches to addressing sectarianism and division the Committee notes the need for careful monitoring of the balance between the Ministerial Panel co-ordinating the processes around pursuing a united and shared community, and the community and voluntary sector which is often charged with the delivery of the outcomes of this agenda. The Committee strongly urges the Department to develop, and continue to build on, good relationships with the community and voluntary sector in this regard.

Mental Health/Intergenerational Trauma

32. The Committee acknowledges that many individuals across society in Northern Ireland cope with conflict-related mental health and trauma related issues; and that efforts to build a united and shared society require a holistic approach. The Committee recommends that the Executive undertakes closer cross-departmental consideration of issues relating to mental health and intergenerational trauma in a way that links to the trauma initiative of the Stormont House Agreement.

Good Relations Indicators

33. The Committee recommends that OFMDFM conducts an interim evaluation of Together: Building a United Community to assess the progress of the seven headline actions to identify good news stories, and to ensure that any alterations required are identified early with time to make any adjustments that may be necessary.


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