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22 September 2011

Still no plan for Northern Ireland

Four months after the NI Assembly election and there is still no Programme for Government (PfG). During a debate on the issue at Stormont on Tuesday (20 September) there seemed to be a lack of urgency from the two largest parties in planning the future of Northern Ireland. One member worryingly stated that "a PfG is desirable, but not essential" citing NI's ability to get through 25 years during direct rule without one as evidence of this. 

On a more positive note a number of politicians, particularly those from the SDLP, UUP and Alliance party, spoke compellingly of the urgent need for a PfG. They argued that the hard reality of our current economic and social climate makes high level strategic planning even more vital. They called for a document that was less about getting through the next few years and more about casting a long-term vision, a destination to work towards, an overarching structure under which departments could come together to frame and implement all other policy. 

We are 13 years on from the Belfast Agreement. Serious changes are needed and the people expect an Executive committed to effective working - being 'busy' is not enough. Without vision, leadership and joined-up thinking, the hard work being carried out by our politicians and civil servants will be continually limited by a culture of departmental silos and much energy will be wasted on directionless or competing projects. And yet, we are unlikely to have an agreed PfG this year.

Believing that we have something to contribute to the debate, the Evangelical Alliance NI team has produced its own PfG entitled Seeking Peace & Prosperity. It acknowledges the social and economic recession we face and aims to put good relationships at the heart of the political process.

Commenting on the document, former moderator Rev Norman Hamilton said: "One of the weaknesses of current policy is that there is little or no recognition that good social relationships are intimately connected with social justice and the tackling of inequalities. And this is why a Programme for Government which puts relationships at the heart of the political agenda is so important."
During the Stormont debate the centrality of the economy was repeatedly raised. In Seeking Peace & Prosperity we agree that the economy is important, but argue that it should not be the sole measure of success as we seek the peace and prosperity of Northern Ireland. True prosperity includes all that makes life worthwhile - wellbeing, family, relationships and the welfare of others.
True peace is built on just and inclusive relationships. Discussions on human rights and equality legislation must be held within the context of a relational society, where rights are protected and exercised while recognising responsibility towards others - a position echoed by the head of the NI Equality Commission when she spoke at a meeting of the Churches' Public Policy Network convened by Evangelical Alliance NI.

Too many of the most vulnerable in our society continue to suffer from disadvantage, exclusion and high levels of poverty. And the economic climate means that government will have a more limited role for the foreseeable future. There will be a larger role for non-state players - the mediating institutions. Churches and faith-based organisations have the largest capacity to fill this growing gap, with 45 per cent of people regularly attending church and the average evangelical volunteering two hours each week. This equates to more than 50 million volunteer hours each year in Northern Ireland.
Our PfG submission notes the key role churches and faith groups have, but also how often they are ignored in the policy process. We need a plan, and as major stakeholders, churches and faith groups, must help shape that plan. Seeking Peace & Prosperity is an important step in that engagement. We look forward to engaging with politicians to help shape the next PfG, and with the churches on their role in the delivery of the vision.

A PDF copy of Seeking Peace & Prosperity is available at http://www.eauk.org/northern-ireland/public-affairs/upload/PfG-webfinal.pdf