Northern Ireland needs a Programme for Government that’s fit for the future

4 Mar 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 4 Mar 2020

If we want to cut our cloth as best as possible for the short- and long-term, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals might be a good place to start.


Stormont’s three-year collapse means business in the first couple of months since its resurrection has been about preparation.

However, last week there were debates on budgetary issues – notwithstanding that a true budget for the coming year won’t be set until summer – and different aspects of the institutions have now bedded in.

The question now, therefore, is this: what is this government going to do?

The list of matters needing attention is long. MLAs, ministers and the political parties have well-documented opinions. Real detail of what the Executive has planned, however, is unlikely to be set in stone until the Programme for Government, a draft of which is due in the next few months.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) comprise high-level aims for tackling major issues facing humanity. There are 17 SDGs in total – such as ending poverty, ensuring good health and wellbeing, and climate action. A total of 193 nations have signed up to the goals, including the UK.

Last year NICVA and the NI Environment Link (NIEL) established the NI Sustainable Goals Working Group, a forum for voluntary and community organisations to work together to promote and pursue the SDGs.

Last week this group suggested that the new government at Stormont finds a place for the SDGs at the heart of policy in Northern Ireland.

Key ask

The working group’s vision is for “A Northern Ireland where sustainable development is at the heart all policy and legislation to ensure the well-being and prosperity of our current generation and generations to come”.

Their key ask is that the future Programme for Government for Northern Ireland be designed around the UN Sustainable Development Goals and measures progress against them.

The forum believes this would ensure that:

  • The wellbeing of our citizens is embedded into decision making in government in Northern Ireland
  • Partnership and collaboration within government and across other sectors is at the core of government delivery.
  • Offer an additional mechanism to monitor progress towards delivering Programme for Government outcomes.
  • A common language can be embedded across all sectors of civic society and internationally.
  • Northern Ireland becomes a leader in meeting its commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The longer we – individuals, families, communities, nations – take to put sustainability at the heart of development, the harder it will be to adjust our ways of working (barring some unforeseen technological marvel, the sort of thing not worth banking on).

This is a bewildering vision for your average person or organisation. What changes can, say, a social work charity make that aligns them more closely with the SDGs?

Problems and solutions

The SDGs Working Group was formed after a roundtable discussion at NICVA last April amidst “growing concern about the lack of integration and coordination on the implementation of the SDGs in Northern Ireland.”

The SDGs represent the UN’s grand vision for taking on the biggest problems we all face. It is not intended to be a gesture. The theory is that none of these problems can truly be solved in silos – even at a national level.

That theory is likely correct but it doesn’t provide solutions. Instead it says that to have any chance of maintaining ecosystems on land and sea, for instance, countries will have to work together.

But this also requires community cooperation. Businesses (and third sector organisations) will have to change. Families and individuals, too.

All this is supposed to happen in a linked way. There are two issues, here: direction, and basic awareness.

Taking the latter first, NICVA carried out a survey of its members last year and barely half of all respondents even knew what the SDGs were (let alone investigating measures to align their work with a supposedly trans-national movement towards sustainability).

Clearly more people will have to know about the SDGs to play a part in reaching them.

Solving the other issue – direction or, rather, a lack of it – will help. High-level strategic aims are one thing but there needs to be a plan that gets down to community level. Making the goals more recognisably relevant to frontline organisations, or businesses, or families will also make it far easier to raise awareness about them.

What now

As Dr Jonathan Bell, NI Environment Link’s Policy and Project Manager, told Scope previously: “The SDGs are so broad ranging - it’s really the UN setting out a vision and strategy for the world - and we need to make that relevant to people at a local level.

“It requires leadership from the Executive Office and a coherent approach to delivery across government.  We hope that once the Executive is restored government will rise to the challenge and create a roadmap outlining: how the SDGs will be implemented in Northern Ireland, Department leads for each Goal, Sustainable Development Indicators to measure progress; and a clear plan for involving citizens.”

NIEL and NICVA are trying to make the SDGs more relevant to the local third sector. Hence their current key ask – embedding these principles in the PfG (tied to outcomes, and with recognisable indicators) should make their influence filter down to organisations and communities.

Per Siobhan McAlister, Policy Officer at NICVA: “There is an important role for the sector here to ensure that NI takes seriously its responsibility to the SDGs and the voluntary and community sector must begin to facilitate this delivery and hold the government to account…

“Successful delivery of the SDGs will rely on civil society organisations working together effectively and working with government and wider sectors to ensure commitments are met. There is now an opportunity for civil society to come together and take a proactive and leadership position in the delivery of the SDGs.”

For now, though, Stormont has a great chance to move Northern Ireland towards sustainability.

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