Celine McStravick: taking the reins at NICVA

26 Jan 2023 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 26 Jan 2023

Celine McStravick

Celine McStravick’s appointment as chief executive of NICVA seems the logical next chapter for a woman who has been deeply influenced by the sector she now represents.

Her involvement in it goes right back to her teenage years when she was a volunteer youth leader in north Armagh.

 The Seventies were a time of great tension between the communities in that area. In fact Catholics and Protestants had next to no contact. And as the hostilities grew, Celine’s family were forced to leave their home in Portadown for a new house in the neighbouring new town of Craigavon.

Her mum worked in the local playgroup and community centre and Celine volunteered as a leader of the  youth club.

“From a very young age I was watching how people in the community could just make things happen, and that you could not just wait for things to be done by others,” she said.

 This led her to get involved in cross-community work which at the time was organised by the local RUC.

It wasn’t safe to be seen mixing locally with other young people from “the other” community in the area, so rambles in the Mournes were organised. Celine is still in touch with some of the youngsters she met on those hikes.

“I’ve such fond memories of being stuck up mountains and trying not to talk about the obvious difference and diversity!”, she says.  

This work and these contacts were to have a profound and long-lasting influence.

“It put a fire in my belly about community relations, inequality, social justice. It made me think why we couldn’t be hopeful for our future, why we were waiting on peace, but all the young people wanted the same thing.

 “I wanted to be part of the change in Northern Ireland.”

She went on to do a degree in Applied Economics which introduced her to concepts like community development, capacity building, and working with the unemployed, all of which were to prove relevant to what she went on to do.

After university she had a spell in local government, initially at Carrickfergus, then Derry where she was a partnership facilitator for peace fund money.

Celine said: “This was like flying a plane while still building it! In those days we did not really know what partnership was, or what we meant by innovation and sustainability.

“Those were fantastic years, where I learned the most about the power of the community sector to influence from within or from the edges and to showcase would can be done once you take away the controls and bureaucracy and the time delay of the public sector.”

Next Celine joined the voluntary sector as a director of Common Purpose where she set up the group in Foyle, bringing together leaders and emerging leaders from the voluntary, public and private sectors. This exposure to different people from different sectors also had a clear influence.  

At the time Common Purpose was breaking new ground with, for example, members of the police and Sinn Fein sitting together to discuss issues that affect society.

There followed spells in local government before joining the National Children’s Bureau. This is where Celine was to make a really significant impact, influencing not only how government works, but also how it measures success.

The genesis of this was when she realised that there is hardly a decision that can be made by government that will not affect children and families.

At NCB she was asked to do work for the Office of First Minister/ Deputy First Minister on child poverty. And because in those days the Northern Ireland government had no means of addressing poverty by giving the poor more money, the project examined how outcomes could be improved for those living in poverty by for instance improving their educational achievements, and health, and making them less likely to fall foul of the criminal justice system.

This work necessitated departments working together and when government statisticians were also challenged to come up with ways to measure the resulting change this evolved into adopting Outcomes Based Accountability which was subsequently used to form the basis of the Programme for Government (PfG) in 2016.

Unfortunately shortly after consultation on the PfG was completed the Assembly collapsed. And after a brief respite when we had a functioning government we are once again left without one.

Despite this, the outcomes approach has gained traction, and as Celine explained: “ I think the sector has always thought about outcomes, so the language is very familiar because when you are doing work you are always thinking about the outcomes, not about profit for example. Fundamentally we start by asking if people are better off as a result of work we are doing.”

The challenge for her goes beyond breaking down silos between government departments it also involves forging strong partnerships between the public, private and voluntary sectors, understanding the strengths of each.

She said: “I sometimes feel that the public and private sectors don’t fully appreciate this and are reluctant to work with our sector. It is as if they are a bit scared of being preached at, but all three sectors need to work together. And we should be brought in at the start, not at the end.”

This is an especially unsettling time for her to be taking office. We currently have no government, inflation has spiraled, squeezing living standards and making it hard for organisations to keep going public sector budgets are tight. On top of that there are the ramifications of Brexit and the vexed issue of the protocol.

But Celine is very clear about where her priorities lie.

“You have to start with members ,” she said.

For the next three months her diary is jammed with meetings where she will be asking members what are the real issues for them so that she can then speak on their behalf with a collective, authoritative voice to government and others expressing their concerns and priorities.

In general terms there is a sense of crisis. Government departments themselves are under severe pressure with several in deficit.

Yet the voluntary sector itself underpins the rest of society – supporting it is not an optional extra. Celine sees a vital role for her in ensuring government gets that, understands the sector’s role and all the interdependencies that flow from that.

One of the first urgent, cliff-edge issue for her is the impending crisis that will arise in March when the European Social Fund ends. Its replacement will provide around £42 million over two years for Northern Ireland.  This is approximately half what was available under the European Social Fund, which provided £40 million per year, including £29 million match funding from a number of departments. 

The beneficiaries are some of the worst off in society: long term unemployed, the disabled, those not in employment, education or training.

Resolving this shortfall will require a planned, collaborative approach. It is unlikely that the entirety can be replaced like for like but it is a problem which requires solutions, we can’t just wait for the worst to happen.

So Celine will be engaging with government on this, seeking dialogue.

Also later this year sees an important anniversary, both for Northern Ireland and its people, the Good Friday Agreement. Celine wants not just celebrate the part Civil Society played in it, but to emphasise the role that ordinary people can take in society both now and in shaping our future.

“I want to promote a debate about what happens over the next 25 years, asking what we want now and how we push forward to a better place.”

She wants to be part of change, just as she did in Craigavon, all those years ago. Which brings us back to Celine’s drive, motivation and love of the sector and what it can achieve.

She said : “It is really the community sector that underpins society, fighting for rights of individuals it works for.  

“And the energy within the sector is incredible, as is the enthusiasm and resilience. If you could only bottle it and share it out! I want to be part of it, leading it and, thinking ahead, making sure that members have everything they need to do their work.”

*A profile of outgoing chief executive of NICVA Seamus McAleavey will appear in next week's Scope 

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