Time to waken the sleeping giant

19 Feb 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 19 Feb 2016

Scope editor Nick Garbutt argues that the forthcoming elections provide the sector with the opportunity to fulfil its potential to influence political change. 

More people work in the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland than there are farmers. The sector employs more than the construction industry, and almost three times more than the information and communications industry. It dwarfs the number of police officers.

The latest figure we have for the sector is around 29,000, less than the union Unison, which has around 10,000 more members, but still a comparable figure. There are approximately 4,800 charities in Northern Ireland with combined revenues of £741.9 million, of which 97% goes directly back into the economy

In this context it is instructive to ask two questions. Why do all these other interest groups get named checked so often during election campaigns whilst charities are not, either at hustings or in speeches? And what, if anything, can we collectively do to address this?

The failure of charities to figure in election debates is not confined to Northern Ireland. It happens in the United States and across the UK as well. Doubtless it is a global phenomenum.

Yet the sector is a vital component in society, and increasingly a bedrock upon which so many vital front line services, and most of the good things in life depend.

Arts and culture, our universities, community education, support for people with disabilities, much of the support older and younger people receive to improve their lives are provided by charities. Then there are the faith communities, the armies of volunteers that charities attract. If a city is an attractive place to live and invest in, you can bet your life that the activity of non profits has had a lot to do with that.  

Our towns and cities, and most aspects of our daily lives would be the worse off without them. They touch more lives than the farming industry, critical though that is, and the construction industry, and pretty much every other factional interest there is there.

Charities, by their legal definition, exist to do good. That is what they all have in common regardless of their activities they individually pursue. This is not always the case with other sectors that politicians are often prompted to speak about when looking for votes.

This is not to say that the sector does not lobby. Of course it does. Many charities in Northern Ireland have policy officers and regularly meet with politicians and civil servants to further their agendas. Plenty more employ professional lobbyists to do the same.

This is all good and doubtless influence is secured as a result of it. But lobbying that is confined to private meetings at Stormont is limited both in its scope and potential outcomes.

We are about to enter a period where the boot is very much on the other foot. Politicians need our votes and we have the opportunity to ask them, on our own doorsteps, what they are doing to protect and further our interests.

In previous elections this sort of lobbying has been of dubious real value. After all, in Northern Ireland voting is primarily on lines beyond the scope of politicians to deliver: ie on the national question rather than the actual issues determined by the Assembly: health, education, housing etc.

To that extent the actual policies pursued by parties have been largely irrelevant, to the extent that independent surveys have demonstrated that people often vote for parties whose policies on bread and butter issues they oppose.

Times, however are changing. The past year or so has seen a vigorous emergence of real politics in Northern Ireland. Many issues have emerged: three of the most prominent have been the state of our health service, austerity and welfare reform, and equality issues, primarily around equal marriage and abortion rights.

So in this election real policy, and policies will matter and we have the opportunity to elect people for what they will do for us, not just because of their respective views on the border.

What better time then to remind politicians of the power of the sector and the fact that those of us who work within it, volunteer for it or benefit from it vote as well.

There is already a model out there we could follow. In the 2014 state-wide elections the Californian not for profits got together to run a campaign called Vote With Your Mission.

The idea was for charities to encourage all their staff, board members and volunteers to register to vote and to interrogate candidates who visited their homes on their attitude to the sector in general and to the issues specific to their own organisation.

Campaign members wore badges which said: “I work for a non profit and I vote.”

It is important to note that the Californians did not endorse any candidate or party: instead they encouraged the sector to ask searching questions and to ensure that all the politicians they encountered were all too aware of the nascent strength of the non profit sector and its potential to affect voting patterns.

In Northern Ireland there are no such plans for the Assembly Elections this time around. But it would be good to see the sector taking the first steps towards starting a similar movement. Add together all those employees and their families, the volunteers and beneficiaries of their work and you have what could be the most powerful lobby of all in Northern Ireland. It is time for the giant to wake. 

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