Europe: NICVA says remain

26 May 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 26 May 2016

Seamus McAleavey

Scope asks NICVA Chief Executive Seamus McAleavey why his organisation has taken the unprecedented step of campaigning in the upcoming European referendum. 

Charities are not permitted by law to be politically partisan, so supporting parties in an election would be unthinkable. Referenda, however, are different because the public is voting on an issue, rather than electing a party or person to office.

Back in 1998 NICVA issued statements in favour of the Good Friday Agreement after an internal poll showed that 72% of members supported it.

This time around it is to go one step further. Although it will not join the Remain campaign it will actively campaign and is willing to take part in public debates and to advocate staying in Europe in media discussions.

McAleavey explained: “This is not a course of action we have taken lightly. We surveyed our members and the response we got was that 80% were in favour of remaining in Europe we also held a conference to discuss both sides of the argument and 74% of those attending supported staying in. “

The decision to support remaining in Europe was then discussed and agreed by NICVA’s executive committee, its elected governance body.

What are the arguments for remaining in Europe?

Interestingly McAleavey does not believe that the support received by charities from the EU is sufficient reason in itself for supporting the Remain position. He points out that there has been a tendency to exaggerate the extent of European funding. “At its peak, at the time of Peace I, it probably amounted to around 15% of the sector’s total annual income.  Today it’s less than 2%.”

NICVA’s arguments are more broadly-based.

He explained: “It is the better choice to continue to improve the lives and well-being of the people here in Northern Ireland.  In terms of safety, freedom from war in Europe, economic development, trade and the free movement of EU citizens Northern Ireland would lose a lot if it was outside the EU.  There is too much uncertainty about what might happen and what the opportunities might be outside the EU.  The negotiations to uncouple would take years, create massive uncertainty and probably have a very regressive impact on economic growth and investment.”

He also argues that there are specific considerations for Northern Ireland, not least the impact on the border but also:

“The EU has also been a stabilising force for Peace in Europe and showed solidarity with Northern Ireland right from the start of the Peace process.  That was not simply by its generous contribution of Peace funds but its actual understanding of our political problems which it recognised as part of wider Europe’s own history.

“Many of the social policies promoted and supported by the EU are important to NICVA members across Northern Ireland.  The EU is at the forefront of tackling poverty by, amongst others things, supporting access to skills and employment, helping people with disabilities into training and employment and promoting workers’ rights.”

NICVA is not uncritical of the European Union, however. McAleavey said that it had treated both the Republic of Ireland and Greece poorly and pointed out that even the IMF is now calling for it to write off some of Greece’s debts. So support for remaining in Europe does not imply support for everything the European Union does, it is a question of weighing pros and cons and then deciding what it believes to be best for the sector and for Northern Ireland in general.

Taking a position is one thing, but why would NICVA actively campaign?

McAleavey refers to its Articles of Association which contains the following “power”:

“Promote, support or oppose such Bills, Orders or Acts as may be promoted by the government of Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom or Republic of Ireland or elsewhere or proposed to be promoted, or other measures affecting or calculated to be likely, directly or indirectly, to affect any of the objects of the Council.”

He explains that NICVA’s central purpose is the benefit of the community in Northern Ireland and it is explicitly within its powers to advocate on political issues in support of its objects.

The Charity Commission has already confirmed that campaigning on the referendum is legitimate, provided that activities are in support of the organisation’s charitable purpose and that it does not align itself with a particular political party or politician.

However, given that the largest political party in Northern Ireland, the DUP has declared its support for leaving the EU, does that not create risks for NICVA’s stance?

McAleavey is confident that it won’t. He points out that in any discussion he will not be speaking from a personal perspective but conveying the views of a vast majority of his members and his own organisation in order to further and deepen the public debate.

“We’ll make sure that any contributions we make are calm and reasoned and that we are making the points because we are obliged to do so. “

These considerations are not unique to the voluntary sector. Businesses, trades unions, farming representatives, economists and foreign states have all felt the imperative to join the debate on such an important issue, so many observers would regard it as remiss if the voluntary sector took a vow of silence.

It may well be that some will question or challenge NICVA’s right to take part in the debate. However it is hard to see the logic in welcoming the perspective of the business lobby whilst objecting to the Third Sector giving its views.

Yet NICVA’s support for the Remain camp does raise the question about internal dissent. Is McAleavey concerned about any adverse reaction from members that disagree?

He says: “We don’t expect agreement on everything. We have a membership of well over 1,100. They are diverse organisations and some members have different views on a range of polices from others. “

NICVA will be closely monitoring its expenditure on the campaign but doesn’t anticipate it will come anywhere near the £10,000 threshold that would require it to register with the Electoral Commission as a campaigner.

It has often been pointed out that the Third Sector’s interests and concerns rarely figure at all in elections or other public votes. It will be interesting to see if NICVA’s stance makes any difference this time around.  

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