Seamus McAleavey looks back at his time at NICVA

3 Feb 2023 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 4 Feb 2023

Seamus McAleavey

Modesty is such a rare quality among leaders in these days of “influencers” and social media braggarts that it can be disconcerting to come across it.

Seamus McAleavey who retired last week as chief executive of NICVA is a case in point. He genuinely does not like to talk about himself and becomes uncomfortable when invited to.

Asked if he has had a positive impact over his career, he responds: “I’m not putting myself at centre of things, let others be the judge of that.

“My view is one of community, and what we have achieved, both at NICVA and in the sector.

“Our work is a collective effort, people bounce off each other, so it is not about individuals. But that said, things have progressed over the years, we’re no longer dismissed by the powers that be. We’re taken seriously these days.”

He was speaking on Friday last, his last day at NICVA after 33 years’ service. Afterwards he had a sandwich with his team before his final commute back to Newry and retirement.

Seamus’s early career was in the Community Sector with the Youth Training Programme, he then joined the Confederation of Community Groups in his home town of Newry, working with the unemployed.

At the time Newry had unemployment rates of 30 – 35%, many gravitated to Belfast for work, Seamus amongst them. He joined NICVA in April 1990, initially working on policy.

But, unlike many of his contemporaries, he elected to stay living in Newry and undertake the long commute instead, which added ten hours travel time to his working week.

He started with NICVA at a time when the conflict was going through an especially vicious stage.

“Times were bad, there was a lot of serious division, and suspicion of other communities and a lot of sectarian killings.”

NICVA’s offices were then at 127 Ormeau Road, around 100 yards from the Sean Graham Bookmakers, where five people were killed by UDA gunmen on 5 February 1992.

“We were hosting a small seminar that day on charity tax law,” he recalls, “we never heard the shootings but could see there was a commotion and then heard sirens wailing found out how many had been killed.”

This was the background to Seamus’s early work with NICVA, as the organisation tried to work a pathway that was anti-sectarian and based on equality, sharing information and collaborating between communities.

An obvious obstacle was that at the time there were still a lot of restrictions on where people were prepared to go. Veterans of the period will remember that the centre of Belfast came to be regarded as a neutral area for that reason.

And being seen to be, and staying, neutral was far from straightforward either.

“Community sector organisations could be judged as supporting “them”, whoever they happened to be. It was very easy to offend a political party or the government,” he said.

During this period funding could be denied to groups by government if “there was a risk of furthering the aims of a paramilitary organisation.”

One of the most notorious cases was the withdrawal of funding to the Irish language group Glór na nGael.

Seamus said: “What happened was that funds were just withdrawn, there was no evidence produced, no trial. It was Kafkaesque. You did not know what you were accused of.”

NICVA campaigned against this approach. “We just wanted them to be treated fairly with natural justice. If there was a case for them to answer, let them answer it. And what was happening was not the way to go about it.”

Those were dark days but the next few years saw real progress on the path to peace, most notably the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement four years later.

When it was signed, the then chief executive of NICVA Quintin Oliver left to run the Yes campaign in the referendum that followed. Seamus was appointed in his place, a new leader for what was a very different time.

Direct rule put organisations, including NICVA, in opposition to a government that was coming from the outside with no local mandate. But post ‘98 Seamus and the team were seeing their role differently, he said: “we wanted to get in a much more supportive role with government, building good relations both with parties and civil servants.

“It was a long slog. Good relations take a long time to build but 10 minutes to destroy.”

Central to NICVA’s relationship with government has been to maintain political neutrality, which sounds a lot simpler than it can be in practice.

The stakes were high. “If you favour one party over another or you get favours you will become unstuck. We have always played with a straight bat.”

That meant, of course, that when governments set budgets NICVA’s focus was always on social issues, the constitutional issues were avoided.

He says: “It is important to establish that you can contribute in this way, putting forward policy positions and not seeking partisan results. But it is great when parties steal your policies.”

Seamus has seen positive change in the sector over the years.

“It has continued to expand. We now have 30,000 on boards, a lot of these people are highly skilled and can bring this to bear for their organisations.

“We saw that during the pandemic when all sorts of assets we did not know were there came to the fore.”

He’s also been struck by improvements in lobbying skills: “I’ve seen organisations that try much harder to get messages across, and show more understanding of difficulties politicians and civil servants face.  

As a result he believes the sector is in a better place. “We can now get a hearing with politicians or senior civil servants and, once you get one, you will eventually get through.”  

This has been accompanied by an increase in professionalism across the sector.

“We’re no longer seen as the golden-hearted amateurs, nice but ineffective.”

NICVA’s own standing is a case in point. Seamus believes that its relocation to newly-constructed premises at Duncairn Gardens was great for the organisation’s standing.

The new facility was built on the north Belfast peaceline. It not only provided great facilities for the sector but also helped stimulate regeneration in the area which in turn impressed government, demonstrating the sector’s potential to stimulate growth.

As Seamus leaves office he fears the consequences of a failure to restore stable government.

“Stagnation is very damaging. We have a health service, an education system and an economy which are fragile and need work.  

“Not only does the current situation postpone dealing with difficulties, it degrades the services too, making them harder to deal with. There is a real cost to inactivity.”

And he fails to understand why any party would not want to be in government. He says: “It is their chance to demonstrate capacity and capability. Their future is in demonstrating how successful they might be.”  

But for all that one of his most treasured memories will be seeing so many people coping when the going has got tough.

“I hate the word resilience but there is a lot of it about. People have coped with crisis after crisis.”

If you think back to when he started at NICVA, Seamus has witnessed how communities coped with violence and division, the sweeping changes which led up to the Good Friday Agreement, the various periods without a functioning government, the financial crisis of 2008 and the 10 years of austerity  which followed, Brexit and its uncertainties, Covid, then the cost of living crisis.

“It is amazing just how resilient people are. That tells you something about humanity.

“I’ve met so many people who respond in amazing ways to crises. Beforehand they would say they would never take the challenge on in a million years, until the problem hits them. Then they take on huge tasks, demonstrating a tremendous well of resilience and humanity. Most of them do not see themselves as in any way special.

“And that makes me beware of people who tell you they’re great!”

Seamus McAleavey would never be guilty of that himself.

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