Book Review

Published in ‘Studies’, Winter 2002

People Power? The Role of the Voluntary and Community Sector in the Northern Ireland Conflict, by Feargal Cochrane and Seamus Dunn; Cork: Cork University Press, 2002, pp.194.

Civil society displays fundamentally different characteristics in a divided rather than united community, yet still has enormous potential to affect the quality of everyday life. Much has been written about the political negotiations that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland but less attention has been paid to the involvement of community workers and non-governmental peace/conflict-resolution organisations (P/CROs). Following in the tradition of Fionnuala O’Connor’s landmark contribution, In Search of a State: Catholics in Northern Ireland (1993), Cochrane and Dunn’s research operates at the so-called track-two level highlighting the distinct contribution voluntary action can make to effect change but away from television cameras and newspapers.

The research, part of the International Study of Peace Organizations project funded by the Aspen Institute in Washington DC, examined organisations in areas of emerging peace processes. The authors were responsible for the Northern Ireland element which also involved similar studies of South Africa and Israel/Palestine and a brief comparative perspective is also provided. It appears that the sector in Northern Ireland was not as effective in driving political change as in South Africa but played a more central role than in Israel/Palestine. The different context, resources and levels of trust between the conflicting parties are crucial in this regard.

Ten community development organisations were selected for analysis based on criteria such as orientation, structure, size and location. Some P/CROs approach their work on a cross-community basis, others have an inter-community orientation while single-identity groups confine themselves to one community. The thought-provoking profiles of activists illustrate motivations ranging from religious beliefs for those in Quaker House, gender interests for those in Women Together for Peace and single-issues such as preventing punishment attacks for those in FAIT. The research shows that the common understanding and approach that bring people together initially do not always survive the intensity of debate and activism to achieve the organisation’s goals. For example, The Peace Train formed in response to continual IRA blowing up of the Belfast/Dublin railway line, ironically suffered ‘more difficulty managing conflict within the organization than in dealing with opposition from the paramilitary groups it was established to confront’.

An evolution typically takes place which can eliminate the ‘gifted amateurs’ involved initially but with limited time or interest in developing formal structures. These are replaced by professional administrators often leading to tension with the original founders. The reader may wonder what exactly constitutes a voluntary organisation when it eventually becomes staffed by paid professionals? This broader question, which is relevant to any discussion of the voluntary sector’s contribution to effecting change in society, was probably beyond the scope of the current research.

The book offers an excellent and balanced treatment of the political, social, economic and cultural background to the conflict. Driven by political and cultural grievances since Partition, nationalists developed a far more cohesive sense of community. Having regarded themselves as socially and culturally superior to their neighbours, the Protestant working class now had to come to terms with a strange and confusing reality. With an underdeveloped sense of community, it needed to play ‘catch up’ with Catholics and re-evaluate its relationship with the unionist political élite.

Most P/CROs in Northern Ireland spend significant time and organisational effort in developing funding opportunities, usually short-term in nature. This is not an uncommon problem for the voluntary sector in general but certain ethical and credibility dilemmas arise where groups challenging State policies and actions are themselves effectively ‘bank rolled‘ by the State institutions they oppose so vigorously. Political funding from the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) poses a potential conflict for radical loyalist groups since this could be viewed as an inducement to accept policies with which they disagree. It would be useful to examine also whether any attempt has been made to link the level of or continuation of funding to the effectiveness of voluntary groups. Innovative partnerships between the public, private and community/voluntary sectors hold the key to real change in society and it would have been fruitful to explore what new forms of relationships are possible. The book suggests that the British Government may have been undemanding in terms of assessing the voluntary organisations’ performance and this is probably best understood in the complex political environment in which they all operated.

The authors argue that measuring the impact of P/CRO groups is extremely difficult in practical terms. The approach they take is to give a qualitative assessment of their impact over the last thirty years of political conflict. While there could be an understandable tendency to oversell the importance of the P/CRO sector in driving major political change, it is to the credit of the authors that they do not do so. While impressed with the drive and commitment of individuals and organisations, they believe the activities of the P/CRO sector were not of fundamental importance to the peace process itself. Arguing that mere existence of the sector was beneficial epitomizes the ‘woolly liberalism and well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual culture for which the sector has rightly been accused’. They conclude that the real dynamics behind political process lay not in the ‘good works’ of individuals within the community development sector but in the balance-sheet mentalities of the protagonists to the conflict. The most important event in this regard was when the Gerry Adams and the republican leadership decided to reposition Sinn Fein politically. The pressure applied by the P/CRO sector was at best marginal. Voluntary work is process-driven rather than outcome-driven and primarily involves consensus-building rather than engineering a particular solution or deal.

It is clear that the sector has encouraged many individuals, particularly the likes of David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson on the loyalist side, to come out of their communities and actively engage in the political process. It has played a major role in building dialogue and peace within a deeply divided society and enormous gratitude is due to those people who have devoted time and energies at great personal cost to these endeavours. This book gives them the attention, respect and credit they rightly deserve.

Frank Allen & Finbarr Bradley