A key aspect of participatory democracy and civic activism is the freedom and capacity for individual citizens to organise themselves into groups according to geography or particular shared interests, in order to collectively influence decision-makers. Indeed such freedoms were enshrined in international law following the end of the second World War, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the later International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The most commonly used collective term for the many and diverse ways in which people organise themselves is civil society. One widely accepted definition used by CIVICUS, the largest global network of civil society organisations is:
“the arena, outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests”
Whilst the term civil society may not be in common usage in Northern Ireland, many organisations and individuals within the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector would identify strongly with the above definition. The sector has for decades been a key interlocutor between citizens and the state, often representing the interests of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of the community. This was especially the case during the long years of the Troubles when there were no regional political institutions.
Nevertheless, it could be argued that one unintended consequence of the necessary professionalisation of the sector over the decades, with its attendant increasing reliance on salaried staff, has been a gradual drift from organisations’ origins and democratic basis as groups of citizens. This has been compounded by a sense that, despite having ‘held the fort’ during the Troubles, the sector has struggled to re-align itself to the new political realities since the advent of devolution.
One outcome of this has been an increasing focus on service delivery, a trend magnified by changes in funding patterns to the sector and an erosion of its independence from government. It is undoubted that effective lobbying work on particular issues continues, but in many cases this has been ‘on behalf of’ rather than ‘with’ the people affected.
Consequently, if civic activism, and indeed democratic vitality, is to be progressed in any serious way in Northern Ireland then enabling the VCSE sector to address this ‘drift’ must be a key part of the equation. The sector has a critical role to play in ensuring citizens are informed, engaged and active contributors to decision making, shared responsibility, and better targeted use of public resources. In particular it can help ensure engagement of those furthest removed from political discourse and with least opportunity to influence decisions that impact on their lives.