Independence of the Sector on the Agenda
(L to R) Will Haire, Permanent Secretary DSD, Bernadette McAliskey and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation's John Mulligan discuss the independence of the NI Third Sector.

Independence of the Sector on the Agenda

21 November 2013

On the 7th November, The Building Change Trust and the Association of Charitable Foundations held a joint seminar on the Independence of the Community and Voluntary Sector. 

The event was a follow up to an opinion piece, commissioned under the Trust’s Creative Space for Civic Thinking theme of work, by the University of Ulster’s Dr Nick Acheson.

As well as the publication of the opinion piece, the Trust also hosted a seminar in July 2013 which prompted ACF to adopt the independence of the sector as the theme for their annual conference.

This seminar was a pre-cursor to the conference, providing ACF and representatives from the community and voluntary sector the opportunity to explore, discuss and debate the role of funders in either supporting, or undermining the independence of the sector.

Dr Acheson addressed the seminar, and attendees also heard from a diverse panel including Bernadette McAliskey, Director of STEP NI, John Mulligan from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Will Haire, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Social Development.

Panellists were each asked their views on the importance of community and voluntary sector independence, in relation to their own sectors – community and voluntary sector, private funders and government – and the audience had the opportunity to respond and contribute to the debate.

Bernadette McAliskey compared the state of the sector to a boiled frog – if a frog is put straight into boiling water it will immediately jump out but if you put a frog in cold water and then gradually heat it until it reaches boiling point the frog will stay put and suffer the consequences.

In the same way threats to the Community and Voluntary Sector’s independence have arisen over a period of time and the sector doesn't notice until it’s almost too late.

Bernadette also asserted the sector itself is complicit in its own downfall, through compromising its principles and gradually allowing this situation to arise.

John Mulligan emphasised the importance of Community and Voluntary Sector’s independence to funders, highlighting the fact that the solutions to many of society’s needs do not lie with the state and market alone.

Adding that one of the sector’s key functions is to give voice to groups of people that the political mainstream would rather forget about.

Finally, he highlighted what he viewed as a growing authoritarianism in the attitude of the state towards the Community and Voluntary Sector, citing the Lobbying Bill currently being considered by Parliament and the clampdown on judicial reviews as evidence of this.

Will Haire contextualised the sector’s independence within NI’s broader circumstances i.e. that we are in the midst of a political process and our political system is still at a formative stage.

In such a situation Community and Voluntary Sector independence is absolutely crucial and the public sector recognises the need to support this.

Nevertheless this should not be at the expense of accountability – where funding relationships with government are oriented around the delivery of services then independence may need on occasions to be qualified to a certain extent to ensure standards are met.

All participants were agreed on the crucial importance of the independence of the sector, but there were a range of views on its current state in Northern Ireland and of the role funders – both public and private – in this equation.

Taking all this into account, Actions proposed by participants included a continuing and strengthened role for independent funders in supporting CVS independence in NI, support for creative and risk-taking initiatives that empower organisations to hold government to account and mechanisms to ensure the implementation of the Concordat agreed between the NI Executive and the NI Community and Voluntary Sector.