Our future together: Alliance Party conference 2008

Our future together: Alliance Party conference 2008
By Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
20 September 2008

As part of the annual Alliance Party Conference at the Marine Court Hotel, Bangor, the Northern Ireland Foundation hosted a fringe meeting: “Our future together: Realising a shared vision for local communities”. I prepared a folded-A3 flyer, describing the meeting as “a discussion about engaging with local residents and neighbourhood groups, to explore challenges and possibilities, and work together to achieve a shared vision”.

I served as chair, and panel speakers were Anne Carr (Community Dialogue) and Paul Smyth (Public Achievement):

Anne Carr gave a good description of her relevant experiences, making a point that her work doesn’t concentrate solely at the grassroots community/local resident level, but multiple levels that include local council officers, politicians, and the business community.

She said that she worked to create a “tangible shared future”:

Paul Smyth said that we need to have the type of leader that recognises his/her weaknesses and puts better qualified/knowledgeable people around him/her.

Paul cited the work of Stephen Coleman, who wrote a report for Carnegie UK Trust, “Remixing Citizenship”, which starts from the position that it is not young people that are disconnected from formal politics, but political institutions that are disconnected from young people. The report sets a new agenda for debating the relationship between young people, the Internet and democracy.

Next, Paul described his organisation’s work with the WIMPS (Where Is My Public Servant) website.

Related to the topic of participatory budgeting, Paul described the experience in Oakham, England, where the budget for home health care was put in the responsibility of the recipient. The result was that the funds were put to use in an imaginative way (e.g. a season pass at local football club, which freed up time from his usual carer):

I posed the following series of questions for the audience discussion, tying in young people as part of community dialogue: “What is your experience of engaging with young people? What do you think works? What doesn’t? And what steps would you take next?”

One delegate raised the matter of competing community representatives, and he and others added the paramilitary dimension to this fact as well. I followed by asking how do we reach out to the wider community within a particular neighbourhood, or otherwise circumvent the efforts of “gatekeepers” if they’re curtailing progress.

Another delegate said that the matter wasn’t necessarily one of funding; funding in itself isn’t a sufficient solution. Instead, he saw the challenge as to help, but not come across as imposing a solution. As ever, the ideal was to have local citizens drive the changes they valued most.

Lynn Fraser (Alliance Newtownabbey councillor and previous Mayor there) provided her experience and concrete examples of what she saw as potential solutions. First, there is the tricky issue of defining what the community is. She agreed that funding isn’t the most important matter. Indeed, public funding of “community worker” has now become toxic (i.e. associated with paramilitarism). She said that it was important to examine what the relevant issues actually are, first. For her, it was important to devise ways of engaging with the whole community (neighbourhood), not just groups of people (youth, Catholics, etc.).

She spoke favourably of her practical experience with the NI Fire Service’s “Life Service” scheme, whereby disaffected young people are put through a programme of being exposed and incorporated into the work of the fire service. It is a personal development scheme of sorts, teaching discipline and personal management skills. Importantly, those who go through the programme are included in the feedback mechanisms for future schemes.

Stephen Martin (Young Alliance Chair) said that the empowerment of young people is key. He described young people’s relationship with the current NI political situation as a “stormy present”: young people still don’t feel that they can engage with politicians, but that it was up to young politicians to show that efforts to engage with young people is not just words (rhetoric). Overall, Stephen spoke very forthrightly about the role of young people in politics.

After the fringe meeting, I meet up with Paul and one of his international interns, for a further discussion.

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