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Interim Report: Independence of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in NI: finding a new story to tell


Abstract and Figures

This report details the interim findings of research into the independence of the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector in Northern Ireland, commissioned by the Building Change Trust in 2015. The purpose of the report is to share early findings and to initiate debate, rather than present final conclusions. This interim report will provide a clearer understanding of the levels of independence of VCSE organisations and the sector’s understanding of the wider environment whithin which it operates, initiating a dialogue about how the VCSE sector perceives and understands the notion of independence.
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the voluntary,
community and social
enterprise sector in NI:
finding a new story to tell
Interim report
The Building Change Trust was established in 2008 by the Big
Lottery Fund with a National Lottery grant of £10million as an
investment for community capacity building and promotion of the
voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland.
The Trust supports the community and voluntary sector in Northern
Ireland through the development, delivery of, and learning from
a range or programmes including commissioned work, awards
programmes and other interventions.
Between now and 2018, our resources will be
used to support the community and voluntary
sector to achieve more and better collaboration,
increased sustainability and to be a learning
sector which identifies, shares and acts on
lessons of others’ actions. This work will be
carried out across 5 overarching thematic areas:
Collaboration, Social Finance, Social Innovation,
Inspiring Impact, and Creative Space for
Civic Thinking.
To date, the Trust have been involved in the
commissioning of a number of sucessful
programmes and organisations including
Collaboration NI and Inspiring Impact NI.
In the realm of Social Finance, the Trust has also
made a £1million investment in Charity Bank
and has commissioned Cooperative Alternatives
to bring a community shares programme to
Northern Ireland.
In Social Innovation the Trust has made grants
for socially innovative projects, undertaken
research in key areas such as Digital Social
Innovation and has commissioned a number
of social innovation processes to experiment
with new ways of designing solutions to social
problems. To date these have included the
Young Foundation’s Amplify NI programme,
SI Camp, and the Techies in Residence
programme. Most recently the Trust has embarked
on a co-design process to establish Social
Innovation NI, a collaborative partnership to
deliver a range of supports to social innovators.
As part of their work in Creative Space for Civic
Thinking, the Trust has been instrumental in
the setting up of the Northern Ireland Open
Government Network and has stimulated and
resourced innovation in civic engagement at
local level through its Civic Activism Toolkit and
Awards Programme. The research partnership with
Ulster University examining the independence of
the VCSE sector - of which this report is the first
output - is also a core part of this.
The Institute for Research in Social Sciences
(IRiSS) seeks to harness and develop the highest
quality research within the broad areas of social
and public policy with social work, education,
politics and international studies.
It provides an institutional framework for
undertaking high quality research and for the
development of a vibrant research culture
through organising seminars, colloquia and
lectures, funding participation by Institute
members in national and international
conferences and a forum for engaging with
policy makers and those involved with service
delivery in the public and voluntary sectors.
The authors of this report are:
Dr Markus Ketola:
Dr Ciaran Hughes:
Beveridge defined voluntary organisations as “as one which, whether
its workers are paid or unpaid, is initiated and governed by its own
members without external control”.
From its beginnings in the voluntary activism
and philanthropy of the 19th Century the
purpose of the voluntary and community sector
has been the free association of citizens to
improve one’s lot and that of fellow citizens.
It has always been more than the delivery of
services and whilst this is a significant aspect
of voluntary action the freedom to give voice
to the most vulnerable and marginalised people
in society is a keystone of the voluntary and
community sector and indeed as Beveridge
states “the distinguishing marks of a free
society.” The agent for social change is as
Margaret Simey states …”voluntary action.
She goes on to say, “No government is elected
to contravene its own manifesto. It is to the
conscience of the dissenter and the non-
conformer that we must look for the will to
The Building Change Trust was established in
order to support the Northern Ireland Voluntary
and Community sector to explore the challenges
and find creative solutions in a rapidly changing
The issue of the sectors independence has been
a recurrent theme across the Trusts work and
lifespan to date, raised by sector representatives
themselves, usually based on a sense that
independence was being undermined or even
taken away.
In 2013 we commissioned an opinion piece by
Dr. Nick Acheson to give his own view on the
situation through piecing together the evidence
that then existed. Dr. Acheson’s work gave
further validity to the widespread perception
that VCSE sector independence was under
threat through a combination of co-optation,
instrumentalisation and incorporation.
This also chimed with the findings of work at UK
level by the Baring Foundation’s Panel on the
Independence of the Voluntary Sector and the
National Coalition for Independent Action.
However Northern Ireland, whilst sharing many
features of the broader UK and Irish contexts, is
also its own place both in terms of the political
and historical context, as well as the character
and make-up of the VCSE sector.
Consequently, and on the urging of sector
representatives, we commissioned Ulster
University to carry out a two year research
initiative to probe the issues further and build a
local evidence-base. Through this our intention
is to inform and equip the sector to debate and
self-reflect, as well as to engage in meaningful
dialogue with government about the nature and
practice of its relationship.
We are pleased to be able to offer this first of
two reports as a catalyst and initial step towards
these ends and hope you find it engaging,
thorough and most of all, useful.
A further, final report will follow in late 2016, as
will an independence toolkit to provide practical
help for organisations to consider and reflect on
where they sit in relation to the multiple facets
of independence.
Bill Osborne MBE
Building Change Trust
Foreword 05
09 The research process
10 Main findings
11 Independence - An idea central to the sectors self-identity
13 The delivery agents of government objectives?
19 Mimicry – losing organisational distinctiveness and values?
24 Adding to the debate? Independence of voice
32 Competition
36 Contextualising the findings historically and in the wider
independence literature
36 The policy context
39 Impact on independence
40 Northern Irish exceptionalism?
This report details the interim findings of research into the
independence of the voluntary, community and social enterprise
(VCSE) sector in Northern Ireland, commissioned by the Building
Change Trust in 2015. The purpose of the report is to share early
findings and to initiate debate, rather than present final conclusions.
This interim report will provide a clearer understanding of the
levels of independence of VCSE organisations and the sectors
understanding of the wider environment whithin which it operates,
initiating a dialogue about how the VCSE sector perceives and
understands the notion of independence.
The report builds on earlier work commissioned
by the Trust, as well as on research conducted
in England by the Baring Foundation’s ‘Panel on
the Independence of the Voluntary Sector’ and
the National Coalition for Independent Action
(NCIA). The research provides the first robust
empirical evidence on the state of independence
in the Northern Irish context. This interim
report forms the first of three outputs from this
research, with a final report and Independence
Toolkit to be published in the autumn of 2016.
The primary aim of this preliminary report is to
generate debate and provide the background
for further discussions about the VCSE sector’s
Unpacking independence and
Lessons from the Wider UK
Defining the independence of the VCSE
sector is not an easy task. The sector is a
“loose and baggy monster”1, with a myriad of
organisational types and sizes.2 The sector
conducts its work in many policy fields, its
organisations have a range of geographical
remits and each organisation has a particular
relationship with government and other funders.
This means that experiences and understandings
of independence are likely to be equally
varied. However, amid growing concerns that
certain policy developments were threatening
the independence of the sector, the Baring
Foundation seems to have taken the view that
‘we need start somewhere’ and initiate a debate
about the sector’s relationship with government
and threats to its independence. It therefore
established a ‘Panel on the Independence of
the Voluntary Sector’ in 2011. This research
has drawn on the ground-breaking work of the
Independence Panel, and in particular, its three-
way conceptualisation of independence.3
Independence of purpose – this refers to the
ability of organisations to stay true to their
mission and values.
Independence of voice – this concerns the
extent to which organisations are able to
exercise a critical voice, protest, campaign
and negotiate without fear of negative
consequences or retribution.
Independence of action – this concerns the
ability of organisations to design and deliver
effective activities and services, take risks
and innovate and respond to beneficiaries’
needs creatively.
In 2015, the Independence Panel concluded in
its fourth and final report that:
There has been a loss of the sector’s
distinctive identity and respect for its
There is a lack of meaningful government
consultation with the sector.
Statutory funding is not supporting a strong,
independent and diverse sector, and poor
commissioning and procurement practices
fail to draw on the distinctive strengths of
voluntary organisations.
There are ineffective safeguards for sectoral
There are threats to independent governance.
The experiences of the National Coalition
for Independent Action resonate strongly
with the above concerns over independence,
and this research has also drawn on NCIA’s
conceptualisations of independence and the body
of evidence they have collected. The Coalition
was established in 2007 to mobilise support from
community and voluntary groups at grassroots
level to challenge “the complicity of big national
charities and infrastructure organisations in
the government’s co-opting of the voluntary
sector.”4 NCIA’s campaigning called on voluntary
organisations to remind themselves of their
commitment to social justice and the importance
of being seen as champions of positive social,
economic and environmental development.
Despite its campaigning, the outcome was not
wholly positive, and the campaign ended its
operations in 2015 stating that:
We have failed in our other aspiration – to
persuade mainstream voluntary services to
speak out with others in pursuit of social justice
and defend their autonomy as independent
forces for change. We realise now that we are
not in a position to rescue voluntary groups from
co-option into the mess created by destructive
state action and profiteering corporations – only
they can do it, if they so choose. So we have
decided to stop. Something else is needed now
to occupy the space we have taken. We believe
the future lies in grassroots activism and the
re-imagination of voluntary action able to speak
out its politics. There is no need for NCIA in this.
Individuals involved in NCIA will continue the
struggles in these different places.5
In essence, this research set out to uncover
to what extent the processes and outcomes
outlined have the potential to be replicated
in Northern Ireland. For the VCSE sector, the
English context continues to be informative,
given the influence of New Labour ‘partnership’
policies on the development of the VCSE
sector’s relationship with government in all
regions of the UK. Indeed, the similarities in the
policy context - not least, the greater use of
contracts for services – have led to concerns
that independence could be under threat in
Northern Ireland. In both contexts, the VCSE
sector’s relationship with government has
evolved from relative independence, to an
extension of public services to becoming a part
of a mixed economy of service delivery and
contracting for services.6 Each of these phases
in the relationship has led to greater degrees of
engagement between the sector and the state,
thus raising increasingly complex questions
about the sector’s independence. At the same
time, Northern Ireland remains exceptional in
Introduction 0706 Introduction
1 Kendall and Knapp, 1995: 67
2 Alcock, 2010
3 Baring Foundation, 2015
4 Kelly, 2008
5 Benson, 2015
6 Lewis, 1999
As in the UK, there is no consistent and undisputed data source on the
size and shape of the sector, in part because of disputes about what it
is that is being measured and about how to gather data (for example,
many organisations are considered ‘below the radar’ of government or
infrastructure bodies).
many ways. It has its own specific history in
terms of the development of the sector and its
relationship with government has been different
to that in other regions,7 shaped as it was by
Northern Ireland’s history of conflict, division
and repeated political vacuums.8 9 The sector
has also had access to financial packages and
support from governmental and external funders
that were not available in other regions (the
history of the sector and the policy context
within which it has operated is outlined further
in the discussion section at the end of this
report).10 11 Therefore, the questions for
debate are:
How likely is it that the Northern Ireland
sector will follow precisely the same route as
Does the sector’s particular history and
circumstances present specific opportunities,
challenges and threats in terms of VCSE
7 Acheson,and Williamson, 1995
8 McCall and O’Dowd, 2008: 33
9 Birrell and Williamson, 2001: 207
10 O’Dowd, L. and McCall, C. (2007)
11 Branif and Byrne, J. (2014)
12 NICVA’s State of the Sector VI estimated that the sector in Northern Ireland consists of 4,836 organisations
08 Introduction The Research Process 09
In the UK, NCVO and the Charity Commission
have different estimates for the sector’s size
and income. In Northern Ireland, existing
sectoral profiles, such as that produced by
the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary
Action (NICVA) are based on survey data of
self-selecting organisations and the sampling
frame (the database of organisations) is
incomplete.12 For these reasons, it is impossible
to gauge the extent to which any survey
sample is representative of the population of
organisations. Using an open-survey link and
through direct targeting of organisations, the
questionnaire was completed by 179 individuals
from 166 organisations. This included responses
from 83 chief executives. Chief executives were
also asked a number of additional questions
about funding, staffing and the wider policy
environment. These questions allowed for
further disaggregation of the data to tease
out differences between policy fields, size of
organisation or funding sources. As we have
little information on population parameters, it
is not possible to make statistical inferences
about the data. However, it is possible, by
triangulating survey data with focus group and
interview data and other research literature,
to identify repeated themes and patterns. It is
not the aim of the research to make statistical
generalizations, but rather, to shed light on
processes and understandings within the
sector. By identifying themes that are repeated
within the types of data, and across the types
of data, we can be confident that similar
findings would be made by other researchers
asking similar questions. This research is
based on participatory research methods
where research participants -members of VCSE
sector organisations - have an opportunity to
participate in shaping the research design and
the analysis of the findings. These opportunities
– such as workshops and focus groups - will
continue to be organised until the final report
is completed in autumn 2016. In particular, the
design of the Independence Toolkit will draw
on the cooperation of sectoral representatives,
sharing their experiences of using the toolkit
and providing feedback on the usefulness of
draft versions. The interim findings will inform
the next stage of research, consisting of:
Continue with a more in-depth investigation
of the experiences of organisational
independence through focus group interviews
and case studies.
Engaging with government representatives so as
to incorporate their experiences into the findings
Devising an Independence Toolkit
Independence of purpose
and misson is important
to our organisation
Staying true to our mission
is central to our activities
Staying true to
our principles is central to
our activities
Our organisation’s mission
always reflects the needs of
our service users
Our organisation has a
clearly defined purpose
and mission
Our organisation has
defined principles that
guide its work
However, it is the Panel’s view that, in the UK,
the “very identity of the sector is in question”.
The Panel argues that the sector is increasingly
being treated as interchangeable with the public
and private sectors; there is a push toward
more bureaucracy and a private sector business
model is leading to mission drift. There is
also a “lack of financial support and effective
safeguards for independence.16
Yet we can see from Figure 1 that the VCSE
sector in Northern Ireland does see the
idea of independence as important, and
organisations believe that a sense of mission
and key principles guide their work. As Figure
1 illustrates, the importance accorded to
independence and mission is shared across all
levels in organisations, from non-management
to management to chief executive.17
According to the Baring Foundation’s Independence Panel, the sector
can be “innovators and risk takers” and a “voice speaking truth to
power” because of its independence.15
As noted above, the sector is a “loose and baggy monster”,13 with
each organisation having its own breadth of experiences, and with
every organisation dealing with their own challenges or capitalising
on new opportunities.
However, there are repeated themes within
and across the different data types. Similar
practices and processes are experienced by
organisations working in very different policy
fields, and there are processes and practices
that are experienced by individuals working in
very different types of organisations. There
is no doubt from the initial findings that the
VCSE sector in Northern Ireland is facing
challenging times, just like its counterparts in
other regions of the UK. The findings suggest
that independence is strongly linked with
specific challenges and changes currently being
experienced by organisations in Northern Ireland:
Pressure from some funders is making some
organisations copy the practices of the public
and private sectors or dominant organisations
within the sector, with the result that the VCSE
sector is losing some of its distinctiveness and
becoming internally homogeneous.
Many organisations feel that government
funding is available only for activities that
meet pre-defined objectives, making it
difficult for organisations that wish to develop
innovative ways to meet newly identified needs.
In the view of some respondents, access to
funding has become the new measure of
success amongst many organisations, and
competition for funding is having a negative
effect on collaborative relationships and trust.
Some organisations are moderating their
critique of government or policy directions,
often out of fear of losing funding.
In sum, the findings of the research point
towards four specific challenges for the VCSE
sector in terms of independence in Northern
Ireland, and we can see the emergence of
organisations that share one or a number of
organisational characteristics:14
13 Kendall and Knapp, 1995: 67
14 It should be noted that we treat these four characteristics as ‘ideal types’, describing a range of possible behaviours by
identifying the essential characteristics attached to each. In practice, organisations may express a mixture of characteristics or
shift between or in and out these characteristics. The types should be seen as heuristic and as a way to simplify some of the
complexity involved.
15 Baring Foundation. 2013
16 Baring Foundation. 2012
17 All % in Figures refer to valid item responses
Organisations that
operate as arms of
government. They come
to be used as a means
to an end, fulfilling a role
and delivering services
to a pre-written script.
Organisations begin to
moderate their critique
of government. This can
arise out of attacks on
the independence of
voice of the sector, or
from a fear of
losing funding.
Organisations that start
to behave increasingly
like the public agencies
that they came in to
replace, or they act like
other organisations
within the sector.
collaborate and trust
others less. Prioritise
vertical resource
transfer relationships
with government over
horizontal networks.
Sample Chief Executive Management Non-Management
Figure 1. % Agree/Strongly Agree
Four organisational responses
to the challenges posed to independence:
10 Main Findings Independence- An idea central to the sectors self-identity 11
It is in the responses to the final statement in
Figure 1 that we start to see some slippage in
the sector’s positive response to statements
about independence. In comparison to the
other statements, a smaller proportion of all
respondents (87.2%) and respondents in
non-managerial roles (77.3%) agreed that their
organisation’s mission always reflects the needs
of their service users. As shall be discussed
below, this slippage may be due to processes
whereby more and more organisations are
trying to make their services align with
government objectives. Of course, for many
organisations their services will naturally align
with government objectives, but for those
whose original mission lies outside of stated
government objectives, mission drift may be a
real threat to their independence.
In the UK government’s narrative of the voluntary
sector it is being increasingly characterised
as a service deliverer, a depoliticised actor
that has value only as a contractor for public
services at low cost.20 Such a conceptualisation
of the sector is explicit in some government
documentation in Northern Ireland. For
example, the NI assembly has reiterated
government’s commitment to act collaboratively
with partners in the sector, and it has made
clear that one of its priorities is to build effective
partnerships and to promote the role of the
VCSE sector,21 but the sector’s role will be
“contributing to the attainment of government
objectives.” Certainly, a belief that government
views the sector as part of a cost-cutting
exercise is a much repeated theme in the data:
The sector is suffering a real assault to its true
mission, purpose, ethos and independence…we
are seen by government as the cheap option to
public spending and service cuts.
Research in the UK suggests that when the
sector becomes locked into a hierarchical
system, and where government takes an
instrumental view of the sector, the sector’s
actions and services come to be increasingly
regulated by the state.22 Such top-down
processes are reflected in the survey findings,
for although 79.7% of chief executives believe
that their services are shaped by their service
users, only 64.9% of chief executives agree that
their services are shaped more by their service-
users than the demands of funders.23 Another
common theme running through the data is
that it is those most locked into restrictive
hierarchical funding relationships that will be most
affected by top-down instrumentalist pressures.
As one chief executive interviewee notes:
It all comes down to money in the end, where
do people get their funding from? Follow the
money and that will show how independent an
organisation is.
As we can see in Figure 2, a much higher
proportion of those that receive the majority of
their funding from a non-government source are
confident that their services are shaped more by
their service-users than the demands of funders,
with a fifth (20%) of those that are funded
mainly by government disagreeing that their
services are shaped more by their service-users.
As research in the UK shows, what are seemingly
voluntary partnerships often mask the use of
hierarchical power by the state to orchestrate
and control the sector,24 and partnerships have
Studies into the independence of the voluntary and community
sector in the UK suggest that at the root of the challenges facing
the sector is an instrumentalist view of the voluntary sector amongst
many politicians and the public sector,18 with little recognition of the
sector’s purported contribution to a healthy society, participation and
the building of social capital.19
12 Independence- An idea central to the sectors self-identity The delivery agents of government objectives? 13
18 Baring Foundation, 2012
19 OFMDFM, 2005: 57
20 Baring foundation, 2014
21 NI Executive, 2011, 33
22 Milbourne, 2011
23 64.4% of all respondents agree that their services are shaped more by their service-users than the demands of funders
24 Davies, 2011
become a common form of incorporation of
VCSE sector organisations into public service
delivery.25 The Northern Ireland government
seemed to acknowledge the difficulty of putting
into practice the more boosterist rhetoric of
partnerships, with an official report stating that
“an effective relationship between the Sector
and public bodies, built around partnership
and mutual trust and respect is essential.
However this has not always been the case”.26
Interviewees express real concern for the future
of the sector if it comes to be made up of
organisations that are trying to fit into a
funding system that is only concerned with
government objectives.
I don’t see there being any no room for the
community sector in the future…soon all there
will be will be the big vols…definitely not the
vibrant community sector we used to have….this
is all about mission drift and chasing money and
it’s making the sector very very homogeneous.
The way I see it going is you will have your
big organisations delivering services and a
small number of politically well-connected
community organisations
Interviewees also express frustration about a
funding system that they feel puts forward safe
and tested programmes and partnerships with
government, with interviewees lamenting the
perceived loss of the sector’s purported creativity:
We have had young civil servants coming to
ask us to get involved in their new thing and
they think this is all brand new, and I’m sitting
there thinking ‘I was doing that 30 years ago’,
but they think it’s all new….in my view there has
been too much partnership…there isn’t any of
the creative chaos that the sector should be.
Though a relatively small proportion28 of chief
executives believe that their funding (no matter
what the source) gives them flexibility and the
capacity to innovate, when we begin to unpack
this finding we get a much more complicated
and messy picture. A higher proportion
of those funded mainly by government
(30.8%) than those funded mainly by non-
governmental sources (25.9%) agree that their
organisation has flexibility and a capacity to
innovate. Secondly, of those funded mainly
by government, a higher proportion of those
funded mainly by contracts (33.3%) than those
funded mainly by grants (30.8%) agree that their
organisation has flexibility and a capacity to
innovative. State funding is increasingly through
contracts rather than grants and there is often
an assumption that grants are less restrictive
than contract funding. However, contracts
bring stability, clarity in and formalisation
of relationships, plus clear accountability
lines.29 Therefore, it may be the case that for a
significant proportion of organisations that are
mainly funded by government, contracts allow
top-down objectives to shape what service the
organisation actually delivers, but the security,
clarity and the strength of the relationship
with the funder that comes with a contract,
may give the organisation more freedom to
act strategically and innovatively within the
bounds of the contract, so long as they deliver
the desired outputs (interviews suggest this
can often be contingent on the personalities
involved in the relationship). This is further
reflected in the responses to the question
of whether or not chief executives would
refuse funding if it explicitly threatened their
independence.30 We can see from Figure 4 that
7.5% of those funded mainly by government
would not refuse funding if it compromised
their independence, suggesting that for some
organisational survival is paramount and
If more than two-fifths of chief executives that
are funded mainly by government are sceptical
that their services are shaped more by their
service-users, can the sector innovatively
respond to the needs of its service users?
Figure 3 illustrates that less than a third of chief
executives believe that the funding system
allows their organisation to act flexibly and
innovatively. These findings would seem to
stand in stark contrast to government rhetoric
about how the sector’s independence gives it
a “capacity for innovation” in efforts to tackle
existing social challenges.27
14 The delivery agents of government objectives?
25 Muir and Mullins, 2014
26 NIA, 2012, 1 in Muir and Mullins, 2014
27 Brown, 2006 cited in Haugh and Kitson, 2007: 986
28 ‘Small’ in comparison to the claims made for the sector’s innovativeness
29 Baring foundation, 2014
30 Overall, just two-thirds (66%) of chief executives explicitly stated that they would refuse funding if compromised
their independence
Our services are shaped more by our
service-users than the demands of funders
(Chief Executives)
Majority of funding
from Government
Majority of funding
from Non-Government
Agree Disagree Neither Agree nor Disagree
57.5% 75.9%
Figure 2.
Figure 3.
The funding system allows
our organisation to be
flexible and innovative.
(Chief Executives)
Neither Agree nor Disagree
The delivery agents of government objectives? 15
answers to ‘the problem’.31 Sector organisations
commissioned by government are expected
to deliver these objectives, with the state
maintaining its surveillance role through the
control technologies of the audit culture and
the internalisation of performance cultures
by sector groups and leaders.32 The findings
above suggest that a significant proportion of
organisations are operating in an environment
where decision-makers take an instrumental
view of the sector, and with this top-down
instrumentality, and with fixed government
objectives, comes a rigidity that is incompatible
with innovativeness or creativity. It is clear
that, as in the rest of UK, some organisations in
the sector can become just another tool in the
achievement of government objectives, with
the sector having value only in so far as it can
deliver public services in an efficient manner “to
a pre-determined script”.33 This is confirmed in
the qualitative data, with interviewees pointing
out how the ‘added-value’ of the sector is, in
their view, excised from the decision-making
process, with government funders issuing
restrictive edicts about how a service will be
delivered and to whom that service will be
delivered. From the findings of the survey,
it is clear that the sector is operating in an
environment where it does not feel that its
independence is respected or recognised by its
main funder. Just 21% of all respondents believe
that government recognises and respects the
independence of the sector, with more than half
of respondents (50.6% ) (Figure 5) disagreeing,
and this is a finding that holds across a range of
different groups within the sample.
therefore independence drops further down
the list of organisational priorities. However, a
quite high proportion (37.5%) of chief executives
that are mainly funded by government stated
that they neither agreed nor disagreed if they
would refuse funding if it compromised their
independence. It would therefore seem that
there is a realisation that the sector has been
placed in a role where it increasingly services
government objectives, with the findings to this
question suggesting that a significant number
of chief executives would approach this issue
of independence pragmatically. Reflecting the
findings outlined above, it may be the case
that organisations that are mainly funded by
government would take on contracts that
are essentially designed around top-down
objectives (and thus there is some sacrificing
of independence of mission), but they do so in
the belief that there will be independence of
action within the bounds of the contract. In
addition, 73.7% of organisations that receive
their funding mainly from government agree
that they are delivering objectives that have
been agreed in collaboration with government.
If there is a strong belief among those funded
mainly by government that their relationship
with government is a collaborative one, we can
see why almost a third would believe they have
flexibility (Figure 3). Those who receive the
majority of their funding from non-government
are much less ambivalent about the question of
funding being a threat to independence, with
82.1% agreeing that they would refuse funding if
it compromised their independence.
However, despite possible claims to pragmatism
among those who receive the majority of their
funding from government, the fact remains
that more than two-fifths of chief executives
are sceptical that their services are shaped
more by their service-users, and almost 70%
are sceptical that they have real flexibility
or capacity for innovativeness within the
current funding systems (Figures 2 and 3).
Research in other jurisdictions suggests that
governmental actors have relatively fixed
priorities, objectives and definitions and
As the sector moved from the margins to the
mainstream of public service provision, and
as communities took on more responsibility
(and risk) by accepting government resources,
there was always the risk that its independence
could be compromised.34 However, as outlined
above the sector’s relationship with government
was framed as a partnership bargain,35 with
organisations dealing with more bureaucracy
and top-down directives, but being offered
in return a refreshed legitimacy and more
recognition and influence. In an almost satirical
embrace of New-Labourite language, the sector
in Northern Ireland was promised a role in
bottom up solutions to complex problems.
16 The delivery agents of government objectives?
Our organisation refuses funding if it
would compromise our independence
(Chief Executives)
Majority of funding
from Government
Majority of funding
from Non-Government
Agree Disagree Neither Agree nor Disagree
55% 82.1%
7.5% 3.6%
Figure 4.
Figure 5.
The delivery agents of government objectives? 17
Government recognises and respects
the independence of the voluntary and
community sector.
Whole Sample
Chief Executive
Majority of Funding
from Government
Majority of Funding
from Non-Government
Disagree Neither Agree nor Disagree Agree
31 Davies, 2011.
32 Taylor, 2007: 30.
33 Acheson, 2013: 10
34 Milbourne, 2011.
35 Raco and Flint, 2001.
Research in other regions of the UK has
found that many of the practices advocated
for managing for-profit organisations or
government bodies are already in place in VCSE
organisations, and public sector management
cultures have transformed management
practices in the VCSE sector.40 For decades,
research in England has been challenging some
of the stereotypes about voluntary organisations
being more egalitarian, more participative
and more cooperative than their for-profit
counterparts, as well as challenging the idea
that members of staff in VCSE organisations
are united by working for a common cause.41
According to interviewees, some of Northern
Ireland’s organisations are going through
similar changes, often due to mimicry of other
organisations or due to top-down pressures to
change their organisational culture.
The volunteer organisations are becoming
mirror images of the statutory organisations,
that’s tending to happen, and it’s a push/pull
factor you know, they feel like they have to be
like that to get the contracts.
As another interviewee seems to suggest, it may
be possible to make significant changes to an
organisations culture and structure by making
small imperceptible changes over a long period
of time.
You make wee small changes that don’t
seem important at the time, then you look
back ten years later and the organisation is
In terms of shared decision-making and
hierarchy within the organisations that
responded to the survey, 82.7% of chief
executives and 85.1% of Management
agree that staff have their voice heard
in internal decision making processes,
though this drops to 65.1% amongst
non-management (Figure 7).
Government has devolved decision-making
powers to communities and service-users
Neither Agree
nor Disagree
Whole Sample Chief Executive
The programme [Areas at Risk] is very much
grounded in the community and uses a ‘bottom
up’ approach to deal with sensitive and complex
issues...this programme focuses on building
social cohesion and community capacity
and it aims to develop confidence within
communities to help address issues...working
with local community activists, the communities
themselves identify the issues and problems and
with the support of my department, determine
the most appropriate way in which to address
the identified issues.36
This governmental rhetoric continues in more
recent policy programmes:
Community participation in the community
planning process should be open and inclusive,
and methods of engagement and consultation
should be used that are most appropriate to
a particular council’s circumstances. Effective
public consultation and engagement will help
ensure that the views of the whole community
will be taken into account in decision making.37
However, just 10.4% of all respondents believe
that government has devolved decision-making
powers to communities or service users. This is
not a view held only by small organisations or
organisations operating solely in marginalised
communities, for as Figure 6 suggests, the vast
majority of chief executives, some of whom are
operating the largest of organisations, do not
believe there has been any real transferal of
decision-making powers. This suggests that the
sector may have traded away independence by
becoming increasingly involved in government
programmes and contracting, but what was
supposed to be the counter-balancing transfer
of power and influence has failed to materialise.
To a large extent, it would seem that, as in the
UK, the government’s partnership rhetoric
has been fully embraced by the sector.38 The
findings thus far suggest that because of an
instrumental view of the sector by government,
the policy rhetoric of a vibrant independent
sector, and of relationships based on ‘mutual
trust’, is promulgated so intensively because
there is very little substance behind it.
18 The delivery agents of government objectives?
Figure 6.
39 Leat, 1995
40 Milbourne and Cushman, 2011: 15
41 Leat, 1995
36 Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie. Ministerial announcement of Phase III of the Areas at Risk Pilot Programme,
NIE, 2009
37 DOENI, 2013
38 Acheson, 2013: 10
Mimicry – losing organisational distinctiveness and values? 19
Figure 7.
Agree Disagree Neither Agree nor Disagree
All staff have their voices heard in
internal decision-making processes
Chief Executive
Research in the UK has for decades been capturing how some sector
organisations are sounding and acting more and more like businesses,
with the sector’s claims to distinctiveness and its special fiscal
privileges being increasingly questioned.39
Agree Disagree Neither Agree nor Disagree
When making important strategic decisions,
senior staff consult junior staff
Chief Executive
As Figure 8 illustrates, just 55% of non-
management staff agree that senior staff in
their organisation consult junior staff when
making important strategic decisions. This
figure is quite low for a sector that makes
claims to participation, and thus reinforces
the finding across the different data types
that significant proportions of the sector may
have become business-like and hierarchical.
Research conducted in other regions suggests
that organisations that had valued collective
action and shared decision making in the
past are increasingly being restructured
into organisations that have management
hierarchies.45 It may be the case that in
Northern Ireland, in response to top-down
pressures and the rollout of dominant
organisational cultures, local organisations may
be following similar processes.
Because relationships between funder and
funded, between organisations and within
organisations are governed by managerial
cultures, competitive interests and excessive
levels of control through contractual
frameworks and audit, there is little attention
given to relationship building. So it is perhaps
not surprising that more than a third of
non-management are sceptical that their
organisation is non-hierarchical in terms of
decision making. However, in a context where
organisations are increasingly being pushed
and pulled towards managerial cultures, there
are still 65.1% of non-management respondents
believe they have their voices heard in internal
decision-making. Data from interviewees may
help explain this figure. For one, a number of
interviewees suggest that there are processes
in place for staff to be heard, but being
listened to might be a different matter. Some
management level interviewees also pointed out
that organisations (or parts of organisations)
can grow up around personalities whose only
managerial qualification is their purported
commitment to the issue, they may be lacking
in basic management or other skills, which then
have to be brought in from outside. As a result, a
staff member can carve out an area of operations
within the organisation that no-else can interfere
with, and by default their voice must be included
in internal decision-making processes.
In 2009, a YouGov survey conducted for
the Chartered Institute for Personnel and
Development of 3,314 UK employees found
that public sector and voluntary sector workers
are significantly more likely to report that they
have been affected by bullying in the last two
years than those working in the private sector,42
which again implies structures of dominance
and control in voluntary organisations that
are incompatible with the participatory and
egalitarian rhetoric. As some of the sector has
morphed into a professionalised service delivery
arm of the state, departmental politics and
jealousies may be just as important in voluntary
organisations as in for-profit and public sector
Much of the language that surrounds the
sector in Northern Ireland is a rhetorical
hangover from New Labour’s active citizenship
agenda. This agenda had drawn heavily on
communitarian theories of social capital. These
theories drifted into governmental discourse
about “participatory structures” and the
sector’s “significant contribution to democratic
governance”.44 However, these theories are
premised on a very particular conceptualisation
of a ‘voluntary’ voluntary and community sector,
a sector that promotes horizontal civic bonds,
trust and collaborative norms. As one chief
executive interviewee suggests, these idealised
conceptualisations may not fit with the character
of today’s VCSE sector in Northern Ireland:
There are people who are attracted to working
in the sector…but the sector isn’t attracting the
campaigners, let’s say, it is attracting people
who see it as a job, a professional job.
20 Mimicry – losing organisational distinctiveness and values?
Figure 8.
Figure 9a.
45 Milbourne and Cushman, 2011: 15
42 CIPD, 2009, NIE, 2009
43 Leat, 1995
44 DSD, 2011
Mimicry – losing organisational distinctiveness and values? 21
Voluntary and Community organisations
try to copy the practices of the public sector
Chief Executive
Whole Sample 28.1%
% Agree / Strongly Agree
As one chief executive interviewee observes:
The competition is fierce and really dirty...
there are people who at all costs it’s about ‘we
are going to exist and I am going to keep it
open’, but are you really thinking about who you
are working for.
With this explicit mimicry of other sectors,
the VCSE sector risks losing its claim to
distinctiveness and grassroots informality. As
an interviewee involved in policy and lobbying
When you go into a meeting or an event now,
it is three quarters of men in suits, businessmen,
who I do not know…when years ago, and this is
really true, everybody was wearing jeans and
jumpers. The whole face of people, the whole
face of the sector has changed because it’s not
the community and the voluntary, it’s the big
service providers.
UK research suggests that one of the clearest
consequences of this ‘keep it open at all costs’
mentality has been a race to the bottom in
employee terms and conditions.50 Research by
NCIA found that there is mounting evidence that
the pressures of outsourcing and contracting,
together with austerity cuts, are forcing pay
rates down amongst frontline staff, whilst top
management pay remains protected or has even
increased. NCIA found that frontline workers
at one charity saw their pay cut by between
£4,000 and £6,000 in the same year that the
chief executive received a performance-related
bonus. Another charity imposed pay cuts on
200 frontline workers in the same year that
the chief executive saw his overall pay increase
by £31,000 to £176,000. Research by NICVA51
suggests that chief executive pay in Northern
Ireland has been largely recession proof.52 NCIA
also found that the management culture in many
voluntary organisations frowns upon Trades
Unions, and ‘managerialist’ tendencies and
hierarchical cultures are used as opportunities
to control and exploit staff, rather than to
encourage and support. Indeed, some service-
delivering voluntary organisations are even in
direct contravention of the National Minimum
Wage.53 Giving voluntary organisations the
benefit of the doubt, it could be argued that
the race to the bottom in pay and conditions
has been driven by marketization and contracts,
a process that the sector simply didn’t have
enough independence of voice, power or
political will to challenge.
As noted above, the UK public sector has
operated with a growing focus on audit and
performance measurement and the dominant
managerial cultures in public agencies have
transformed management practices in the VCSE
sector.46 47 As is illustrated in Figure 9a over a
fifth of chief executives (22.4%) and more than
two-fifths of non-management staff (42.9%)
agree that the sector mimics the practices of
the public sector. Interviewees for this research
confirmed that this mimicry is often a process
that is driven top-down by government, with
contracts specifying how a service will be
delivered and to whom.
In other areas of the UK, research suggests
that another driver in this mimicry is the
sector’s substantial (but not overly transparent)
expenditure on external consultants. Many of
these consultants have little experience of the
voluntary sector and bring ‘one size fits all’
public management ‘solutions’ to their work with
voluntary organisations.48 Often the skills being
sought from a consultant are already present
within the sector, but perhaps due to a fear of
losing their competitive edge, organisations are
often unwilling to collaborate and share skills,
preferring instead to allow the private sector to
siphon off money from the voluntary sector.49
Interviewees involved in this research explained
that even the strongest cooperative bonds can
be dissolved through the antagonisms that arise
out of competition and mimicry of private sector
practices, making it difficult to share information
or expertise.
Almost a quarter of the sample (24%) agrees
that the sector tries to copy the practices of the
private sector. A smaller proportion of chief
executives and management (Figure 9b) agree
that such mimicry takes place, but over a third
of non-management staff agree that the sector
tries to copy the private sector. In the current
climate, non-management staff could feel that
they are working in an environment where the
bottom-line and winning the next contract
trumps all other values.
22 Mimicry – losing organisational distinctiveness and values?
Figure 9b.
50 Cunningham, 2008
51 NICVA. 2012
52 NICVA. 2014
53 Walker and Sullivan, 2014.
46 Lewis, J. 2005
47 Milbourne and Cushman, 2011
48 Plummer, 2006
49 Pudelek, 2013
Mimicry – losing organisational distinctiveness and values? 23
Voluntary and Community organisations
try to copy the practices of the private sector
Chief Executive
Whole Sample 24%
% Agree / Strongly Agree
In Northern Ireland, a Concordat between
the voluntary sector and government was
agreed by political and voluntary sector
representatives in 2011. This document describes
how partnership arrangements between the
sector and government were mechanisms
that “would assist citizens and communities
to empower themselves” and in the process,
“make a significant contribution to democratic
governance”.58 That a vibrant and independent
sector is essential for a healthy democracy,
and that the sector gives voice to and supports
those not represented in traditional democratic
structures, is central to discourses surrounding
the sector. According to the Baring Foundation
Panel, the voluntary sector plays an important
role in providing checks and balances on the
power of the state, and its independent voice
has become more central to political debate as
trust and engagement in traditional politics has
declined. However, in the Panel’s view, the right
of some voluntary organisations to campaign
and criticise government is now coming
under direct challenge and self-censorship is
increasingly common.
For decades, both local administrations and New Labour and
Conservative ‘helicopter rule’ administrations have publicly recognized
the supposedly distinctive expertise and value of the sector,54 the
value of community knowledge,55 and government has committed
itself to including those with local knowledge in decision-making and
implementation as part of a process of democratic renewal.56 57
There are geographical differences in the
participation of organisations in public debates,
perhaps reflecting the fact that within the
sample, 36% of organisations that are based
outside Belfast have an income of more than
£250,000, compared to 61.6% of organisations
that are based in Belfast. It is the larger
organisations that have the capacity for policy
officers or ‘public affairs’ departments, and they
can devote time to writing consultations or
attending forums and meetings. It is therefore
not surprising that 84% of chief executives of
organisations based in Belfast agree that their
organisation engages in important political
debates, but this drops to 76% outside of
Belfast. 81.2% of all respondents based in
Belfast city agree that their organisation
engages in important political debates, but
this drops to 68.8% outside of Belfast. These
findings may help explain why a common view
in the qualitative data is that public debate in
Northern Ireland can tend to be Belfast-centric.
We can also see from Figure 12 that it is the
smallest of organisations that are least likely to
participate in public debates. This may be down
to personal choice, but it may also be an issue of
time and capacity. As these may be some of the
most organic and grassroots associations (and
hence the most independent), it is important
that their voice is included in public discourse.
24 Adding to the debate? Independence of voice
54 Milbourne, 2011: 37
55 Taylor: 2007
56 There is little systematic comparative evidence on the added or distinctive value of sector organisations in providing services
over and above public or private sector provision. In 2008 the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee
concluded that “The central claim made by the Government, and by advocates of a greater role for the sector in service delivery,
is that third sector organisations can deliver services in distinctive ways which will improve outcomes for service users. We were
unable to corroborate that claim. Too much of the discussion is still hypothetical or anecdotal.”
57 Taylor: 2007, 300; Imrie and Raco, 2003: 21; Kearns, 2003: 58
58 DSD, 2011: 2.
Adding to the debate? Independence of voice 25
As illustrated in Figures 10 and 11, the vast
majority of all respondents (74.4%) and chief
executives (81.6%) agree that their organisation
participates in important public debates.
Figure 10.
Our Organisation
Participates in Important
Public Debates (Sample)
Neither Agree nor Disagree
74. 4%
Figure 11.
Our Organisation
Participates in Important
Public Debates
(Chief Executive)
Neither Agree nor Disagree
Overall, 62.2% of chief executives agree that
their organisation has the freedom to be critical
of decision makers in government, quite a
low figure for a sector whose independence
of voice has apparently been codified in the
Concordat. There are clear trends in the data
that suggest that organisations that receive the
majority of their funding from government have
less confidence to speak critically (see figure
13). In addition, irrespective of the funding
source, a smaller proportion of chief executives
funded mainly through contracts for service
delivery (58.8%) agree that they have freedom
to be critical of government compared to those
funded by grants (66.7%).
However, a higher proportion of those receiving
the majority of their funding from government
claim to have been critical of government
decision-makers in the past than those receiving
the majority of their funding from independent
sources. What may be more surprising is
the fact that, with all the challenges facing
Northern Irish society and the sector itself,
almost a fifth of organisations that receive most
of their funding from government, and more
than a quarter of those funded mainly from
independent sources, haven’t had cause to be
critical of decision-makers (Figure 14).
Those in less senior positions within an
organisation are more sceptical that their
organisation has been publicly critical of
decision-makers, with just 49.3% of those below
senior manager and 44.2% of those below
manager level agreeing that their organisation
has been publicly critical of decision-makers.
Senior staff may ‘pick their battles’ and take
a pragmatic approach to being critical of
government so as not to risk the organisation’s
mission, and as they are responsible for the
organisation and its staff, it is easy to see
how non-management staff could come to
see senior staff and chief executives as overly
cautious. Plus, there is the often repeated view
in the qualitative data that chief executives will
not ‘bite the hand that feeds’ or ‘rock the boat
too much’ because they are operating in an
environment where, as one respondent explains:
There is no independence, if you step out
of line you will very quickly have your
knuckles rapped.
26 Adding to the debate? Independence of voice Adding to the debate? Independence of voice 27
Majority of Funding
from Government
Majority of Funding
from Non-Government
Our organisation has the freedom to be
critical of decision-makers in government
Agree Disagree Neither Agree nor Disagree
Figure 13.
Figure 12.
Figure 14.
Over £1,000,000
£500,001 – £1,000,000
£250,001 – £500,000
£100,001 – £250,000
£10,001 – £100,000
Less than £10,000
Our organisation participates in important
public debates
% Strongly / Agree
Majority of Funding
from Government
Majority of Funding
from Non-Government
Our organisation has been publicly critical
of decision-makers in the past.
Agree Disagree Neither Agree nor Disagree
Majority of Funding
from Government
Majority of Funding
from Non-Government
We have avoided being critical of government
for fear of negative consequences
(Chief Executives)
Agree Disagree Neither Agree nor Disagree
Non-Management Management
Our organisation has been critical
of decision-makers in the past
Agree Disagree Neither Agree nor Disagree
As one experienced fundraiser working in
the charitable sector explains, what passes
as critique of policy or as campaigning and
lobbying, is often simply a self-interested
and ‘too little too late’ campaign to keep an
organisation open:
If there is criticism, it will be as a result of a
cut being handed to them, but they won’t say
beforehand that this policy direction is wrong,
this approach is wrong, strongly enough. When
the writing is on the wall, and the cut is handed
to them and they are about to close, then they
will shout. It is a reaction to their own funding
cut; it is not a reaction to policy.
Staff working outside the dominant
management hierarchy within an organisation
might believe that the organisation is acting too
cautiously and as a result would like to ‘rock the
boat’ within their own organisation, but they
should perhaps be cognisant of lessons from
English research. At a time when the sector
is undergoing cuts and hence redundancies,
it has been found that some chief executives
use the restructuring process to remove
underperforming staff, but also, other staff
that are seen as ‘problematic’.59 Because
organisations are forced to compete for
contracts, many are also forced to underbid on
costs to remain competitive, and this leads to a
loss of independence in terms of the structuring
and staffing of the organisation. NCIA research
found that some large charities ‘restructure’
in ways that allow them to successfully push
out anyone perceived by management to be
“troublesome” (including, in one case, a union
activist who was ‘restructured’ out of a job while
on maternity leave).60
More than a third (36%) of chief executives
from organisations that receive the majority of
funding from government agree that they have
avoided being critical of decision-makers in
government for fear of negative consequences,
whereas only 10.3% of chief executives that
receive the majority of their funding from
non-government sources agree that they have
avoided being critical of decision-makers in
government (Figure 16).
Overall, 13.5% of chief executives agree that
voicing criticism of government resulted in
funding cuts for their organisation and 29.2%
agreed that voicing criticism of government had
negative consequences for their organisation.
These figures can be interpreted in a number of
ways. First, a proportion of organisations may
have the freedom, the independence of action,
to be critical of government, but they are not
free of the consequences of this action. If the
chief executives’ perceptions are correct, and
the negative consequences are a direct result
of their criticism, this would call into question
the Concordat commitment to independence of
voice.61 Another interpretation is that the threat
to independence of voice may be exaggerated,
given the fact that relatively few chief executives
are willing to blame a cut or other negative
consequences on their criticism of government.
When we look at some specific examples, it
does seem to be the case that the threat to
independence of voice may be overstated.
For example, the 2012 ‘Give it back George’
campaign illustrated that the sector can, when
its own interests or those of its donors are
threatened, enlist the help of powerful backers62
and rail against the decisions of the highest
echelons in government. This campaign sought
to reverse the Chancellor’s decision to impose a
cap on tax-free giving that enables rich donors
to offset tax against giving. This two-tier tax
system allows the wealthy to decide if, and to
28 Adding to the debate? Independence of voice
61 We cannot be sure if a loss of income is directly due to being critical of government
62 Ramesh and Jowit, 2012
Adding to the debate? Independence of voice 29
Figure 15.
Figure 16.
59 Macmillan et al, 2013: 11
60 Walker and Sullivan, 2014: 8
Voluntary and community sector lobbying
seeks minor changes to policy rather than
major reform
Chief Executive Non-Management
Agree Disagree Neither Agree nor Disagree
36.9% 22%
what extent, they pay taxes. Rather than paying
their taxes, they can instead donate money to a
favoured cause; an option that is not available
to the majority of the population. Some of the
most powerful voices in the sector were arguing
for rich donors to have preferential tax regimes
and they vociferously stood up to central
government to protect the wealthy and their
own interests. The sector was endorsing the
right of the wealthy to decide societal priorities
through their charitable giving. Writing in
Third Sector, the UK’s leading publication for
the voluntary and not-for-profit sector, chief
executive of Voluntary Action Westminster
explained that:
The sector won a major concession from
the coalition government in persuading the
Chancellor, George Osborne, to reverse the
decision to impose a cap on tax-free giving…
the sector has won a major victory, of which
it is rightly proud….in the Give it Back, George
campaign the sector has lobbied hard for big
donations that generally go to big causes
(and big charities). But at the same time, the
most deprived in the community are seeing
unprecedented attacks on their living conditions
and life prospects, with cuts to housing, welfare
and disability benefits, as well as cuts in support
services. Often this has meant cuts to small local
voluntary organisations and community groups
that do not have recourse to big philanthropy.
Where, then, was the sector-wide campaign
against these cuts? The website? The tweets?
The emails? Of course, there are some notable
exceptions – Shelter and the Joseph Rowntree
Foundation, for example - but there is no hourly
drumbeat of tweeting anger. By choosing to
fight so publicly for big donations, the charitable
sector has created an impression that it is more
interested in its own needs and those of the rich
than the most disadvantaged in society.63
Indeed, some parts of the sector have been a
key part in rolling out government’s neo-liberal
and marketization projects, and therefore we
have clear examples of where sector elites, in
order to survive in this market, have conflated
their own interests with those of the common
good. They have displayed independence
of voice when it was organisationally and
personally necessary. As a result, some of the
sector is likely to be in the crosshairs of any
emerging progressive grassroots movement.
This is crucial when we discuss the issue of
independence, for not only must those that
wish put to put forward progressive agendas or
alternative narratives ensure their independence
from government, they may also have to seek
independence from some of the most dominant
voices within their own sector. As in the case of
the “Give it back George campaign”, it is clear
that the sector can seek and achieve policy
change, even if this locks it into an antagonistic
relationship with government. But as we can
see from Figure 17, a significant proportion
of respondents, particularly those outside of
management roles, seem to believe that minor
policy change is the height of the sector’s
ambitions, thus implying that it is losing its
claim to be one of the drivers of major change
in society. As in the UK, we may be seeing the
emergence of a sector that is an increasingly
depoliticised space.
The NI Government has funded an expensive
“social capital building” infrastructure, an
infrastructure of spaces and forums that could
facilitate the kinds of interactions that would
allow the sector to put forward a distinctive
perspective to decision-makers. This investment
could be seen as part of government’s
efforts to meet its Concordat commitment
to recognise, respect and support the right
of the sector to comment on and challenge
government policy.64 Much time, money and
energy is expended on this infrastructure and
on mechanisms for engagement between
the sector and government, but the sense
of depoliticisation, of running out of new
things to say, is clear in the comments of one
policy officer interviewee who is involved in
government-sector and intra-sector meetings
and lobbying,
I’ve been in enough of those meetings to
know that it’s the same cabal that turn up at
everything, and I know, having sat in enough of
them, they make the same points ad nauseam.
Valid or not, you know what they are going to
say. So when it comes to welfare reform, the
women’s sector are going to say it’s going to
hit women harder, and you kind of go “yip”. So
we are all against it. It depends which thing it is
you’re talking about...but we are all a bit green, a
bit left, a bit recycle.
30 Adding to the debate? Independence of voice
64 DSD, 2011
Adding to the debate? Independence of voice 31
Figure 17.
63 Collier, 2012
We can see this quite clearly in the way
the sector adopts governmental language,
narratives, practices and orthodoxies.65 As
was clear in the last section, much of the
sector has embraced dominant organisational
cultures, and over the last few decades, the
sector has covered itself in the language of
collaboration, partnership, social exclusion
and active citizenship, all of which have been
central to government rhetoric about the sector.
Through building partnerships with the sector
and communities, government also sought to
instil in the sector competitive norms.66 This
project has been very successful, with the sector
accepting and participating in a contract culture,
with organisations describing themselves in
terms such as enterprising, innovative and
efficient. For some, competition is a positive,
with the market favouring the best and most
efficient and effective organisations, thus
keeping standards high for service-users. This
is a debatable claim, as cuts to the number of
employees, low wages and even lower morale
are likely to impact badly on service quality.67
As we have seen in the preceding section,
embracing a dominant narrative of contracts
and competition has fundamentally changed
the nature of the sector and the claims it can
realistically make about itself.
Despite widespread claims that the VCSE sector is a driver of
progressive social change, it may be the case that it acts as a site
through which dominant political ideologies and values are rolled-out
into wider society.
For example, for many decades the sector has
claimed that it is a sphere for collaborative
citizen action that cuts across social divides.
This may be the case at the organisational
or community level, but as we can see from
Figure 18, for most respondents and most
chief executives the sector is locked into an
environment where the weight of competition
makes it difficult to build trusting relationships
with other organisations.
One of the people in our network put so much
work in getting a project up and running, all
his own work, doing it on a shoestring, taking
the time to go out and recruit volunteers and
users. It was going great then the department
put it out for tender. In swoops [larger voluntary
organisations] and wins the tender. Why is a big
organisation applying for such small amounts of
money…why are they [small projects] going out
for tender. Within months you never heard of
the project again because they didn’t have the
local networks to deliver it.
This interviewee’s comments call into question
the idea that competition and markets will
favour the organisation that is best placed
to deliver the service, as well as the idea that
competition delivers the best possible service
for users. In addition, a recurrent theme in the
interview data is that a significant amount of
‘collaboration’ and partnership is a tick-box
activity that is enforced top-down, and it
often involves building relationships between
organisational and community elites, with little
buy-in from the wider community.
32 Competition
65 Taylor, 2000, 301
66 Davies, 2011: 120
67 Walker and Sullivan, 2014
Competition 33
Figure 18.
Figure 19.
Competition makes it difficult to build
trusting relationships with other organisations
Agree Disagree Neither Agree nor Disagree
Whole Sample Chief Executive
Too many organisations measure their
success simply by the amount of funding
they have accessed
Chief Executive
Whole Sample 55.6%
70.7% 12.2%
33.3% 21.2%
Agree DisagreeNeither Agree nor Disagree
The respondents were asked their views on a
number of statements that sought to capture
their perceptions of the broader environment
within which they are working. These questions
ask respondents to make generalisations, and
so the responses can only be based on their
individual views. However, trends in the data will
provide a context for further discussions on these
topics during the next stage of the research
project. As we can see from Figure 19, despite
the uncertainty of a significant proportion of the
sample, almost half of chief executives and half of
management agree that too many organisations
measure their success by the amount of money
they have accessed. This is a considerably
high proportion for a sector that claims to
measure its success in social value. Following
the findings as regards to hierarchy and mimicry
of other sectors, those in non-management
positions (70.7%) are more certain that too
many organisations in the sector measure their
success in terms of income generated.
We can also see the impact of the sector’s
embrace of competition when we look at
attitudes about the openness and transparency
of the sector. The vast majority of respondents,
whatever their role, believe their organisation
to be open and transparent, but this figure
drops significantly when respondents are
asked about the openness and transparency
of the wider sector. Though the majority of
respondents believe that the sector is generally
transparent and open, a significant proportion
seem sceptical that the wider sector is made
up of organisations that are as trustworthy as
themselves (Figure 20). This is to be expected,
for competitive environments are inherently
antagonistic and as a result it is difficult to build
trust. A significant proportion of organisations
that have an income below £10,000 agree that
larger organisations should be able to compete
for services delivered by smaller organisations,
perhaps reflecting the fact they will have little
interest in service delivery or contracts. A third
of chief executives in charge of £1,000,000+
organisations agree that larger organisations
should be able to compete with smaller groups
in the name of efficiency. This is a significant
proportion given the fact that, in interviews
with smaller organisations, a repeated theme
in the qualitative data is that too many of the
larger organisations have no commitment to a
diverse sector, or no commitment to ‘leaving
room for others’. Loss of diversity is also a top-
down driven process. England-based research
shows that with the phasing out of grants,
and partnering by local Councils and the NHS,
many medium sized and small groups offering
niche services are now being side-lined as
national charities ‘hoover up’ local contracts68
or the private sector moves in. In the English
context, the VCSE sector is clearly no longer the
automatic or preferred supplier for specialist
niche roles.69
34 Competition Competition 35
7.1 %
Over £1,000,000
£500,001 – £1,000,000
£100,001 – £250,000
£10,001 – £100,000
Less than £10,000
Larger organisations should be able to compete
for services delivered by smaller organisations
as this leads to more efficient services
% Strongly / Agree
Figure 21.
Figure 20.
Openness and Transparency
% Agree/Strongly agree
Whole Sample
Our organisation is open
and transparent about
its activities.
In general, the voluntary and
community sector is open and
transparent about its activities.
68 Carmel and Harlock, 2008. 69 Murray, 2014.
of the “loose and baggy monster”83 that is
the voluntary and community sector.84 As
this research, and indeed government’s own
documentation suggest, it is hard to develop
partnerships based on mutual trust and shared
ownership because hierarchy and differentials in
power are always operating in the background.
This partnership agenda was embraced by
the major infrastructure agencies in the sector
and by the large charities heavily involved in
delivering public services.85 Indeed, to some
extent the initiative for an improved and more
proactive engagement between the sector and
the state came initially from the sector itself, and
in particular from the work of an independent
commission established by NCVO to review
the role of the sector for the new century. The
commission concluded that relations with the
state were now of critical importance to the
development and operation of the sector and
that therefore both parties would benefit from
some formalisation and regularisation of relations.
However, it wasn’t just larger organisations
that became involved in partnerships, for
many community activists, conscious of their
marginalisation by previous administrations, saw
this New Labour ‘big tent’ partnership agenda
as a progressive move forward.86
Equally important, in New Labour’s worldview,
was the revival of a lost spirit of mutualism
and (re)engendering an ethos of self-help in
disadvantaged communities.87 88 This would set
free the latent capacity of these communities
and (re) integrate them back into the social,
political and economic mainstream.89 To
achieve this goal, government would enter into
a bargain with communities that were seen as
flawed or dependent, offering them the benefits
of support, shared ownership of decision-
making and investment, if these communities
took on a level of responsibility for refreshing
relationships within the community and
refreshing relationships between community and
local government. The state would now enable
families and communities to “improve their own
performance”,90 and communities, through their
community and voluntary groups, would have
to shoulder more responsibility for their own
development. In return, New Labour promised
communities and sector organisations that old
asymmetries in power and influence would
be addressed, with local authorities no longer
directing, dictating and delivering services,
but instead, weaving and knitting together the
contribution of various stakeholders. Voluntary
and community organisations were offered a
central role in governance and service delivery
and government promised the sector more
influence as insiders to decision-making.91
The rhetoric of inter-organisational
collaboration, partnership, joined-up working,
‘cross-cutting’ issues, ‘citizen-centred’ services
and community level solutions, alongside a
substantial increase in the resources allocated to
the sector, had obvious appeal for some sector
organisations for such access and resources
could potentially shift them from the margins
towards the mainstream.92
Why all this support for communities from New
Labour? New Labour’s policy programme had
significant continuities with the Conservative
neo-liberalism’s aim of enrolling new
participants (i.e. the sector) into the state-
shrinking neoliberal goals of central and local
government agencies.93 In this respect, the
overall aim of New Labour’s ‘Third Way’ politics
was still the transformation of nation and people
for a globalized world that required workforce
flexibility, business deregulation and the
modernization of the welfare state.94 A central
part of this ‘modernization of the welfare state’
agenda was the outsourcing of services to the
voluntary and community sector. However, New
Labour also claimed that it did not support the
operation of unfettered markets and competitive
individualism because they were inefficient and
Each of these phases in the relationship has
led to greater degrees of engagement
between the sector and the state, thus raising
increasingly complex questions about the
sector’s independence. However, it was the New
Labour governments that took this sectoral-
government relationship to new heights, and
a hyperactive promotion of programmes of
partnership and network building has led
to a fundamental reshaping of the sector’s
relationship with the state –with very real
consequences for its independence.
For New Labour, partnerships with the sector
were a new paradigm for policy-making
and service delivery71 and their cultivation
became central to UK public policy in general
and the New Labour project in particular.72
Partnership was concerned with sharing
responsibility, overcoming the inflexibility
created by organisational or sectoral silos,73
and the development of a collaborative and less
authoritarian form of governance.74 What was
needed, according to New Labour ideologues,
was effective collaboration and coordination at
ground-level between diffuse centres of delivery
and decision-making, with the joining-up of
the diverse resources and competencies of
actors from different sectors.75 In effect, the
“governance mess” of quangos, arms-length
agencies and private and voluntary sector
contractors inherited from the Conservatives
would be held up as a virtue, branded as a
‘new’ paradigm of partnerships rather than
being represented as a barrier to effective
Major new programmes of ‘horizontal’ funding
from government to organisations and agencies
across the voluntary sector stood in contrast to
previous government support linked to ‘vertical’
funding streams in particular service areas.77 78
The sector was believed to be an important
partner in collaborative spaces, because not
only did it have the potential to “provide the
glue that binds communities together”,79 it
also “create[d] the opportunities for people
of different backgrounds to work together for
shared goals”.80 These modernized decision-
making and implementation processes would
deal with cross-cutting issues in ‘joined up’
ways,81 they would not rely on purely public
sector solutions and they would involve and
connect all relevant stakeholders, including
those from outside government. A commitment
to partnership would purportedly allow
government to become a facilitator of networks
that “harness the talents” and contributions
of multiple agencies,82 including the talents
The challenges to VCSE independence are not new. Over the
twentieth century the sector’s relationship with government evolved
from relative independence, to an extension of public services
to becoming a part of a mixed economy of service delivery and
contracting for services.70
36 Discussion – contextualising the findings historically and in the wider independence literature
70 Lewis, 1999.
71 Newman, 2001
72 Davies, 2012
73 Lowndes and Sullivan, 2004
74 Hastings, 2003
75 Pill, 2012
76 Lowndes and Sullivan, 2004
77 Alcock, 2012
78 Kendall, 2003
79 Cochrane and Dunn, 2002
80 DCLG, 2006
81 Sullivan and Skelcher, 2002
82 Blair, 1998
Discussion – contextualising the findings historically and in the wider independence literature 37
83 Kendall and Knapp, 1995
84 Myers and Sacks, 2001; Cochrane, 2003
85 Alcock, 2008
86 Davies, 2011
87 Leonard, 2004
88 Blunkett, 2002
89 Levitas, 2005
90 Blair, 1998 cited in Hodgson, 2004
91 Milbourne, 2011
92 Haugh and Kitson, 2007
93 Davies, 2011
94 Newman, 2005
Some claimed that the sector were dupes,
or active collaborators in, the government’s
project of roll-back/roll-out neoliberalism.102
Drawing on the misplaced perception that
the voluntary sector is more democratically
accountable, progressive or grounded in local
communities than state agencies, a sectoral
elite acted as “the people’s friend”, bearing
“witness to and participating in the destruction,
erosion and fragmentation of state run welfare
services.”103 For others, ‘partnership’, be it with
government or corporations, had led to the
“deradicalisation” of activism and community
development.104 105 Other criticisms were
more operational than political, and the themes
that emerged out of this research (mimicry,
competition, threats to independence of voice
and serving a top-down agenda) mirror closely
the themes in the wider research. For example,
there were concerns in some quarters that
partnership may also lead to incorporation,
with organisations increasingly dependent upon
public funding and support; isomorphism, with
those delivering public services looking just
like the public providers they have replaced;
exclusion, with some organisations no longer
able to compete for public funding or support;
competition, with vertical relationships being
strengthened at the cost of horizontal/cross
community relationships; self-surveillance, with
organisations selecting to censor their own
voices and instrumentalisation, the process
whereby organisations are funded only to
deliver on government objectives to a restrictive
and pre-determined script.106 In conclusion,
this sketch of the policy background strongly
suggests that the policy rhetoric of partnerships,
community empowerment and Big Society
has, in practice, led to significant erosion in the
independence of purpose, voice and action of
VCSE sector organisations.
they had an erosive effect on social interaction
and civic engagement.95 Therefore the new
“turn to community” under New Labour, with
politicians from all parties actively courting
and embracing the voluntary and community
sector,96 was largely driven by a belief on
the part of policy makers that community
governance and the sector could help counter
the socially erosive and fragmenting effects of
their neo-liberal economic model.97
Big Society
When the coalition government took power
in 2010, they sought to change the nature of
the relationship that had developed between
the sector and government under the Labour
administrations. In particular, this has taken the
form of a new policy discourse centred on the
‘Big Society’. The Big Society was intended
to be contrasted with the Big State (or ‘Big
Government’) that Labour had supposedly
advanced, and amongst other things was
intended as an endorsement of the positive and
proactive role that voluntary action and social
enterprise could play in promoting improved
social inclusion and ‘fixing Britain’s broken
society’.98 99 By ‘returning’ power from the
state to the citizen, social change could be put
back in the hands of people and communities.
Though hailed as a new beginning in sector –
government relations, the Big Society rhetoric
of getting more resources into the sector and
making it easier for organisations to work with
the state was uncontroversial, and could easily
have been articulated by the previous New
Labour administration. The Big Society agenda
included initiatives for promoting volunteering,
community organising and a commitment to
localism, but perhaps most importantly there
was the commitment to reforming the delivery
of public services by extending the role of
private and voluntary sector organisations
as provider agencies.100 Following this
commitment, one of the largest and most high
profile exercises in out-sourcing of services,
the Work Programme, was rolled out through
a commissioning process. However, virtually all
of the major contracting agencies were large
private companies, with smaller voluntary sector
providers expected to become involved only at
the level of sub-contractors.
Despite the rhetorical continuity from
partnerships to Big Society, the public
resources to support new developments
have been drastically reduced. With a
political commitment to remove the public
expenditure deficit through cuts in spending
programmes, the Office for Civil Society has
received significant cuts and programmes
that provided for horizontal support to the
sector have ended. There has also been a
phasing out of financial support for the major
sector infrastructure agencies that enjoyed
generous resourcing under New Labour. But
the most far-reaching cuts were those that
followed the reductions in the budgets for local
government, which had always been the major
providers of public support for voluntary and
community activity. Critics pointed out that
the Big Society discourse was a convenient
cover for spending cuts, promoting the virtues
of voluntary and community action and social
enterprise as possible alternatives to universal
state-run services.101 In line with the largely
interchangeable policy rhetoric of New labour
and the Conservatives about freeing up the
potential of the sector and voluntarism, the
voluntary sector has increasingly come to
been seen as a contractual arm of the state
without an independent mission or voice, and
just one player among many in the competitive
environment of austerity.
38 Discussion – contextualising the findings historically and in the wider independence literature
95 Imrie and Raco, 2003
96 Cairns, 2009
97 Davies, 2011; Paddison, 2001
98 Cameron, 2010
99 Davies and Pill, 2012
100 Alcock, 2012
101 Macmillan, 2013
102 DeVerteuil, 2015
103 Popple, and Redmond, 2000
104 Collins, 2002
105 Dauvergne and LeBaron, 2014
106 See The Baring Foundation’s Independence Panel’s reports for further discussion of these threats
Impact on independence 39
Despite high profile endorsements of partnership, the concept was
not without its critics, and with new support came new problems for
the sector. Not least, the greater use of contracts for services had
attendant regulatory and accountability frameworks, leading some to
fear that independence could be challenged.
Devolution of policy making has resulted in
some differences in interpretation and initiative
in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which
have combined with the distinct histories of
voluntary action to create four separate policy
regimes. Despite this, for most of the first
decade of the 21st century, the broad policy
and discursive frameworks continued to be set
by Westminster, with policy towards the sector
following a largely similar trajectory to that of
England.108 In sum, however, the VCSE sector
in Northern Ireland appears to have fully bought
into some of the partnership themes that
migrated across the Irish Sea on a New Labour
wave, thus buttressing a local policy discourse
that is “little more than the reproduction of
barely digested neo-liberal nostrums.109
However, due to the political conditions in
Northern Ireland, the development of voluntary
and community action was different from other
regions. During and after the Second World War,
the role of the sector in Northern Ireland was more
directly influenced by state policies, including the
establishment of the National Health Service and
a wide range of welfare services, and in this period
many Westminster based policies promoted
cooperation between sector organisations and
the state.110 The latter half of the 1960s and
early 1970s saw the emergence of numerous
local community groups, many of which were
involved in the civil rights movement.111 At the
local level, many groups came into existence as a
response to the violence and communal conflict of
the1960s and early 1970s.112 Community groups
were set- up to provide mutual-aid and deal with
damage to houses, homelessness and evacuations,
and some also played a vigilante role within
the community.113 This illustrates the complex,
difficult and often dangerous conditions within
much early voluntary and community action
emerged. VSCEs can be instrumental in drawing
resources into some of the most deprived and
conflict-torn communities. Some sector groups
still provide much needed services to some of the
most deprived and marginalised individuals and
communities in Northern Irish society, with many
organisations dealing with isolation and spatial
and intergenerational deprivation and trauma. 114
Throughout much of Northern Ireland’s history,
the voluntary and community sector has been
afforded a privileged role in the governance
of the region.115 This has been accompanied
by huge resource transfers from government
and external funders, and a level of access to
decision-makers that would be unusual if not
unknown elsewhere.116 Its position was secured
by the development of close relationships
between some VCSE sector elites, civil servants
and funding bodies, a huge flow of resources
and a boosterist narrative that celebrated the
sector as the ‘glue holding society together’.117
The sector grew substantially in the 1970s and
1980s as it stepped into the vacuum left by
the suspension of the Stormont administration
in 1972.118 During these years the sector was
a major channel for funds from London, the
EU and other international funders and the
sector had become a major player in the
implementation of programmes and policies.119
By this time, the sector was already largely
dependent on funding from government and
philanthropic organizations. To shore up its
vacuum-filling role, the sector has been the
beneficiary of extraordinary funding packages,
with a service-delivery and infrastructural
bureaucracy sitting alongside a well-funded
peace-industry. It is perhaps unsurprising,
therefore, that the sector should be described
as having a ‘big ego’,11120 or that sceptical local
commentators have described the sector as
“professional hair-splitters backed up by the
blank cheques of an incompetent bureaucracy”,
whose role is to incessantly celebrate “the
vibrant diversity of our 99.5% white, Christian,
English-speaking society”.121 With the funding
boom, the close connections with decision-
makers, and a government discourse that
described the sector as a ‘valued partners’,
independence of action has been deprioritised
by an increasingly professionalised sector.
It is important to note the disproportionately
large role that public sector funding plays in
supporting VCSE sector activities. Northern
Ireland has a much higher proportion of public
expenditure as a proportion of economic
activity (£10,961 per head, or 23% above the
UK average),122 which is also reflected in per
capita public spending on the VCSE sector, £67
in Northern Ireland compared to £40 in England
during the peak of the New Labour years.123
Northern Ireland has followed closely national
UK trends in changing patterns of funding for
the voluntary and community sector, with two
major differences. The first is the far higher
level of dependence on various sources of
government support; the second is the delayed
impact of austerity led cuts which have been
much smaller than in England, and which reflect
a redistribution of funds rather than reduction.
Indeed overall income from government
increased substantially between 2006/07
and 2010/11.124 Income from government
has been rising both in absolute terms and
as a proportion of total income. By 2006/7,
income from government amounted to 45%
of all income, and of this 65% was in the form
of contracts. Between the years 2003/04 and
2006/07 there was an almost exact swap in the
proportion of government funding that came
in the forms of grants and contracts. Roughly
one-third contracts and two-thirds grants in
2003/04 became two thirds contracts, one-third
grants in 2006/07. But since then, the trend has
accelerated with estimates that government
now accounts for almost 53% of all income, 68%
of which was in the form of contracts (NICVA,
2012). This is much higher than the average
in England, Scotland and Wales, where closer
to a third of income comes from government,
40 Northern Irish exceptionalism?
107 Acheson, 2013:
108 Alcock, 2009
109 Acheson, 2014
110 Kearney, 1995
111 Birrell, 1995
112 Griffiths, 1975
113 Birrell and Williamson, 2001
114 Shirlow and Hughes,2015
115 McCall and O’Dowd, 2008
116 McCall and Williamson, 2001
117 DCLG, 2006
118 McCall and O’Dowd, 2008
119 McCall and Williamson, 2001
120 Acheson, 2014.
121 Emerson, 2005
122 House of Commons Library, 2015 .
123 Cabinet Office, 2007
124 NICVA, 2012
Northern Irish exceptionalism? 41
It is the partnership policies of New Labour that are of particular
relevance in the context of Northern Ireland. Although the Good
Friday Agreement created a power-sharing Executive and an
elected Assembly in 1998, it was suspended between 2002 and
2007. Therefore, the sector (and its relationship with government)
was moulded into its current form under a New Labour direct-rule
suggesting that the funding relationship is
likely to have a more negative impact on
independence than has been found in England.
For a long time, the underlying task of
transition from conflict (variously conceived)
provided a framing narrative for the voluntary
and community sector’s identity (although
by no means all voluntary and community
organisations).125 An important basis for its
engagement with government was the sector’s
supposed contribution to the process of peace
and reconciliation, although organisations had
become increasingly involved in various forms
of out-sourced public service delivery during the
1990s, from a very low base. Thus the Compact
agreement, introduced in 1998, as in other
parts of the UK, was given particular weight by
sector elites who had bought into a narrative of
modernisation and ‘moving on from the past’,
a narrative shared with government. By the
1980s and 90s voluntary sector elites and civil
servants had for decades been bound together
“in a shared endeavour of maintaining sufficient
stability for public administration to continue to
function” through the years of The Troubles, and
the sector has enjoyed a privileged position ever
The deeper funding relationship with the
state has meant an even stronger buy-in to
the partnership agenda, where government
control and hierarchical coordination were
always operating in the background and
presenting a challenge to independence. The
sector has been tasked with addressing the
worst consequences of deprivation, division
and inequality but without any changes in the
broader structural, economic and fiscal policies
that brought about these difficulties in the first
place.127 With little top-down political support
for change and with no bottom-up articulation
of a progressive new vision for Northern Ireland,
peace walls remain a stubborn presence in
Northern Ireland’s sectarian geography and
community relations attitudes seem to be at
the mercy of key political events.128 Despite
the best efforts of some dedicated community
workers and volunteers, and a lengthy series of
generously funded urban-renewal schemes, the
names in the list of most disadvantaged areas of
Belfast have remained consistent over the years.
Indeed, government’s own research found that:
There is generally a lack of solid evidence of
the overall impact of geographically targeted
programmes on multiple deprivation. Such
evidence as there is suggests that the gap
between the most deprived areas in Northern
Ireland and the rest has not closed in any
substantial way.129
The sector is also trying to interact with what
is a highly dysfunctional Northern Ireland
administration in which major economic and
social issues remain unresolved. The political
settlement based on compulsory coalitions has
solidified the power of the DUP and Sinn Fein
as representatives of what are constructed as
two mutually antagonistic ethnic groups, each
with a power of veto, conducting politics as a
zero-sum game and reducing government to a
‘lowest common denominator’ in which difficult
decisions are parked.130 Few organizations have
found it prudent to challenge this in order to
construct effective cross-community coalitions
capable of creating alternative narratives.131
In addition, though UK Government and EU
policy and support has been concerned with
using the voluntary and community sector
in the development of a new civil society,132
many voluntary agencies are embedded in
the sectarian structures of Northern Ireland
society in ways that closely reflect wider social
processes. With this being the case, there
was always a risk that certain elements in the
sector could be colonised by the party political
machines of the dominant parties. For a sector
that had become accustomed to negotiating
directly with senior civil servants and direct
rule ministers without the interposition of local
political representatives,133 the devolution of
power has created new opportunities for the
sector, but also distinct threats and challenges
to its independence.
42 Northern Irish exceptionalism?
125 Acheson, 2012
126 Acheson, 2009
127 Power, Rees and Taylor, 2005
128 Nolan, 2013
129 DSD, 2011
130 Gray and Birrell, 2012
131 Acheson 2014
132 CRU, 2005
133 Birrell and Williamson, 2001
Northern Irish exceptionalism? 43
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