CiNI Members reflect on the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement

On Tuesday 4th April 2023, CiNI held a roundtable discussion with Members to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and to reflect upon the contribution that the Children’s Sector has made to society in Northern Ireland. In this blog post, our Policy Officer, Ernest Purvis, writes about what we discussed and the significance of the occasion.

The Backdrop

While the political impasse surrounding this anniversary of the Agreement often taints any discussion about the positives of devolved government in Northern Ireland, hope remains that we will soon see a restoration of the Assembly and Executive. The recent decisions by the Department of Education to cut funding for essential schemes such as the School Holiday Food Grant are a stark reminder of why we need local Ministers in place. There is no doubt that society here has moved on considerably since the late 1990s, and it is a much better place for children and young people to grow up and develop. However, as our evidence to the NI Affairs Committee Inquiry on the Effectiveness of the Institutions demonstrates, the constant churn of political instability and uncertainty has stymied progress in so many areas and we have a lot more to do if we want to realise the vision of the Agreement and create a society where all children are valued, treated fairly, and are able to flourish.

The Challenges

Our submission to the NI Affairs Committee helped prompt a discussion among Members around what the Children’s Sector needs at present, what the key issues are, and the difficulties that we are facing when attempting to develop services or move policy agendas forward. At times it feels like we have talked to everyone, but things are going nowhere. Windows of opportunity come and go. There is even a sense of nostalgia with some things, like the extent of youth provision 25 years ago, which benefited from investment tied to conflict transformation funding. And yet, arguably the impact of the conflict is still playing out. Some Members articulated that it is difficult to identify a ‘peace dividend’ for young people in NI, and that too often, constitutional politics have overshadowed debates regarding rights and equality.

The Strengths

Some Members suggested that we need to highlight the positives, and compare where we are now with what life was like back then. They said we need to be honest about our expectations; that progress takes time; and that we can’t realise that vision for our society until we bring everyone along with us. It is true that the parliamentary arithmetic at Stormont has changed, and the significance of that should not be overlooked. It is also clear that, where certain reforms have faltered in the past – such as raising the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility and legislating for Equal Protection – there will be a renewed vigour, optimism, and opportunities to deliver them when the Assembly returns.

There was widespread acknowledgement and appreciation of the fact that the Children’s Sector has always had a strong voice, often ahead of the curve, and expertise and agility to respond to challenging times. When we are told “there is no money” – we adapt. All of this is being put to the test at the moment, and we talked about the need to speak with one voice, coordinate, and focus on key priorities together. One of the biggest frustrations that we share is when we know the value of a project or service, we can evidence it and demonstrate the positive impact for children and young people, only to find all of that unravel due to short-term funding arrangements and siloed thinking. As one Member put it, we are the joined up thinkers – we work everyday with different government partners, other statutory bodies, and across the spectrum of the Community and Voluntary Sector.

The ‘how’ part is important, in terms of how things have progressed and how we have made them work. Mechanisms through which the sector can support each other are really important. To share ideas, experiences, and help each other navigate obstacles. Not every organisation has the resources or the time to do policy work, especially when they are so focused on operational issues. That’s where groups like the Children with Disabilities Strategic Alliance and the Child Poverty Alliance come into their own; and why CiNI recognise how important it is to convene these groups on behalf of the sector.

The Future

We talked about the opportunities (for funding, collaboration, influence) that exist outside of the usual channels and how to harness these. It’s crucial that we don’t forget the value of our work, which can easily happen when it becomes so familiar to us. Corporate Social Responsibility is now the norm for large companies, and it has contributed to some really impactful work in recent years, such as the Gets Active Project tackling holiday hunger that is coordinated by CiNI. All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) in Westminster and the Lieutenancy network in NI are some interesting suggestions of possible avenues for engagement depending on your work.

Members discussed the need for a review of commissioning processes and the need to avoid a race to the bottom. Something that CiNI have raised consistently in our response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. We talked about the ‘social return’ on investment, the value of the sector, and how funding needs moved ‘upstream’ to avoid a heavier burden on the public purse when social problems are eventually met with criminal justice solutions. The Community and Voluntary Sector are a vital extension of statutory services, fulfilling their legal obligations – doing work that public agencies cannot or will not do. We offer a non-stigmatising ‘front door’ to accessing support and we can say things that others can’t (even though they might like to). However, some Members argued that we should not be using charitable grants and funding to subsidise the duties and obligations of statutory bodies, and that some serious conversations around funding for services are needed.

Overall, what was the promise of the Agreement? Everyone and every organisation will have their own interpretation and measure of progress over the last 25 years. But as one Member pointed out: there was a clear sense back then, in 1998, that anything was possible – and this is something that we need to revisit now, in the present day. We should continue to articulate our priorities, our vision, our hopes for change and the reasons why we need to get there. We need to re-state that mantra that everything is possible, and that we can build a society that fully upholds children’s rights. Yes we need institutional reform to help prevent the cycle of political collapse, but we have a close proximity to power in Northern Ireland, and we have built good relationships over many years. A New Executive will be a new prospect, full of opportunities to effect change, and we will keep going, always pushing, always persistent – for the next 25 years.

CiNI Members reflect on the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement

On Tuesday 4th April 2023, CiNI held a roundtable discussion with Members to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and to reflect upon the contribution that the Children’s Sector has made to society in Northern Ireland. In this blog post, our Policy Officer, Ernest Purvis, writes about what we discussed and the significance of the occasion.

The Backdrop

While the political impasse surrounding this anniversary of the Agreement often taints any discussion about the positives of devolved government in Northern Ireland, hope remains that we will soon see a restoration of the Assembly and Executive. The recent decisions by the Department of Education to cut funding for essential schemes such as the School Holiday Food Grant are a stark reminder of why we need local Ministers in place. There is no doubt that society here has moved on considerably since the late 1990s, and it is a much better place for children and young people to grow up and develop. However, as our evidence to the NI Affairs Committee Inquiry on the Effectiveness of the Institutions demonstrates, the constant churn of political instability and uncertainty has stymied progress in so many areas and we have a lot more to do if we want to realise the vision of the Agreement and create a society where all children are valued, treated fairly, and are able to flourish.

The Challenges

Our submission to the NI Affairs Committee helped prompt a discussion among Members around what the Children’s Sector needs at present, what the key issues are, and the difficulties that we are facing when attempting to develop services or move policy agendas forward. At times it feels like we have talked to everyone, but things are going nowhere. Windows of opportunity come and go. There is even a sense of nostalgia with some things, like the extent of youth provision 25 years ago, which benefited from investment tied to conflict transformation funding. And yet, arguably the impact of the conflict is still playing out. Some Members articulated that it is difficult to identify a ‘peace dividend’ for young people in NI, and that too often, constitutional politics have overshadowed debates regarding rights and equality.

The Strengths

Some Members suggested that we need to highlight the positives, and compare where we are now with what life was like back then. They said we need to be honest about our expectations; that progress takes time; and that we can’t realise that vision for our society until we bring everyone along with us. It is true that the parliamentary arithmetic at Stormont has changed, and the significance of that should not be overlooked. It is also clear that, where certain reforms have faltered in the past – such as raising the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility and legislating for Equal Protection – there will be a renewed vigour, optimism, and opportunities to deliver them when the Assembly returns.

There was widespread acknowledgement and appreciation of the fact that the Children’s Sector has always had a strong voice, often ahead of the curve, and expertise and agility to respond to challenging times. When we are told “there is no money” – we adapt. All of this is being put to the test at the moment, and we talked about the need to speak with one voice, coordinate, and focus on key priorities together. One of the biggest frustrations that we share is when we know the value of a project or service, we can evidence it and demonstrate the positive impact for children and young people, only to find all of that unravel due to short-term funding arrangements and siloed thinking. As one Member put it, we are the joined up thinkers – we work everyday with different government partners, other statutory bodies, and across the spectrum of the Community and Voluntary Sector.

The ‘how’ part is important, in terms of how things have progressed and how we have made them work. Mechanisms through which the sector can support each other are really important. To share ideas, experiences, and help each other navigate obstacles. Not every organisation has the resources or the time to do policy work, especially when they are so focused on operational issues. That’s where groups like the Children with Disabilities Strategic Alliance and the Child Poverty Alliance come into their own; and why CiNI recognise how important it is to convene these groups on behalf of the sector.

The Future

We talked about the opportunities (for funding, collaboration, influence) that exist outside of the usual channels and how to harness these. It’s crucial that we don’t forget the value of our work, which can easily happen when it becomes so familiar to us. Corporate Social Responsibility is now the norm for large companies, and it has contributed to some really impactful work in recent years, such as the Gets Active Project tackling holiday hunger that is coordinated by CiNI. All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) in Westminster and the Lieutenancy network in NI are some interesting suggestions of possible avenues for engagement depending on your work.

Members discussed the need for a review of commissioning processes and the need to avoid a race to the bottom. Something that CiNI have raised consistently in our response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. We talked about the ‘social return’ on investment, the value of the sector, and how funding needs moved ‘upstream’ to avoid a heavier burden on the public purse when social problems are eventually met with criminal justice solutions. The Community and Voluntary Sector are a vital extension of statutory services, fulfilling their legal obligations – doing work that public agencies cannot or will not do. We offer a non-stigmatising ‘front door’ to accessing support and we can say things that others can’t (even though they might like to). However, some Members argued that we should not be using charitable grants and funding to subsidise the duties and obligations of statutory bodies, and that some serious conversations around funding for services are needed.

Overall, what was the promise of the Agreement? Everyone and every organisation will have their own interpretation and measure of progress over the last 25 years. But as one Member pointed out: there was a clear sense back then, in 1998, that anything was possible – and this is something that we need to revisit now, in the present day. We should continue to articulate our priorities, our vision, our hopes for change and the reasons why we need to get there. We need to re-state that mantra that everything is possible, and that we can build a society that fully upholds children’s rights. Yes we need institutional reform to help prevent the cycle of political collapse, but we have a close proximity to power in Northern Ireland, and we have built good relationships over many years. A New Executive will be a new prospect, full of opportunities to effect change, and we will keep going, always pushing, always persistent – for the next 25 years.