CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion (Report No. 2)

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Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion


Towards an inclusive society

Paul Teague
Robin Wilson

Social exclusion is a term that has gate-crashed the debate about the direction of social policy without paying the entrance fee of a definition. As a result, there is confusion about its exact meaning.

Some are dismissive, suggesting that it is simply old-fashioned concern about the poor dressed up in fancy garb. In one sense, they are right: social exclusion is tied to the past and to suggest otherwise would be to devalue the commitment of previous generations to reducing poverty and inequality as well as expanding democracy.

At the same time, it would be misleading to view it as simply a new veneer on old problems. 'Social exclusion' is also contemporary, even forward-looking, as it is used to emphasise that changes in economic and social life have rendered old remedies to social problems less effective, if not obsolete. New times have brought different forms of poverty and inequality, requiring modern solutions.

By social exclusion we mean not just a static snapshot of inequality but a set of processes, including within the labour market and the welfare system, by which individuals, households, communities or even whole social groups are pushed towards or kept within the margins of society It encompasses not only material deprivation but more broadly the denial of opportunities to participate fully in social life. It is associated with stigmatisation and stereotyping, though, at first sight paradoxically, some of those who experience exclusion develop survival strategies which are premised upon its continuance. And it highlights the primary responsibility of the wider society for the condition of its marginal members, of the need for all to share equally in the fruits of citizenship.

Consider the operation of the UK labour market over the past 20 years. There have been radical changes in the nature of work and employment - a marked trend has been the virtual collapse of male, semi-skilled jobs. In 1975, about 9 per cent of men without qualifications were economically inactive;[1] by 1993 this had soared to 35 per cent. Today, there are one in four men - 4 million individuals - outside the labour market, compared with one man in 12-15 years ago.

Alongside this trend has been a widening wage gap. From the end of the last century up until 1979, wage inequality in the UK showed little change. Since then, however, the gap has yawned and wage inequality is now greater than it was 100 years ago.

A seductive position is to blame the present Conservative régime, but this is only part of the story. Other industrialised countries have experienced similar trends. A key influence almost everywhere has been a radically changed pattern of demand for skills.

Because of changes in product markets and technology, organisations are turning their backs on those without skills and increasingly seeking those with substantial training. The lesson is clear - there is an exceptionally cold climate in the labour market for individuals with few or no skills.

Other examples could be given of the shifts in employment: the trend towards 'work-rich' and 'work-poor' households, the proliferation of 'atypical' work across Europe, and so on. All these diverse trends point in the same direction-towards a widening division between haves and havenots. All around, evidence is emerging of particular groups - the long-term unemployed, single parents, inner-city residents and so on - being marginalised, even vilified. Shunted under the floorboards of society, they are living lives from which hope, expectation and money have been squeezed out.

To be sure, the tensions between labour-market 'insiders' and 'outsiders', which Hilary Silver explores, have always been there, but contemporary economic and social life is making these divisions more acute and long-lasting. Those who believe that many of the present social inequalities will be reversed simply by removing the current Conservative government are deluding themselves.

Social democratic parties in the UK and elsewhere in Europe are having great difficulty putting together a credible programme to deal with the contemporary manifestations of poverty and inequality. That is why so few governments of this type are sitting in any European capital.

Equally unsatisfactory are platitudes about the need for 'proper' jobs or full employment. These slogans portray a mind-set caught in the economic and employment conditions of the 60s. The impression given is that the present unemployment crisis is some type of conspiracy which if put down would result in the return of skilled, well-paid jobs. This is magic-wand economics, which fails to address the complex and sometimes disturbing working of today's labour markets.

Social exclusion as a concept is an attempt to get away from such ultimately dead-end approaches. It challenges us to see present levels of unemployment and poverty as not simply the product of nasty employers or Tories, but as a result of the emergence of a new economic and social model of development. It challenges us to reinvent our traditional perceptions. For instance, it would be sheer folly to pretend that the family today is the same type of social institution it was 20 years ago.

Social exclusion challenges us to ask searching, uncomfortable questions. Can, for example, the labour movement be the guarantor of economic citizenship it was a generation ago? It challenges us to wave goodbye to many cherished principles and policies. Can universal social benefits continue for much longer, given the huge growth in demand for welfare? And social inclusion must be about recasting the web of institutions and rules that support citizenship rights, so that they are in line with economic and social conditions on the ground.

While the debate about social exclusion is prompting a big re-evaluation of the welfare state and labour-market regulation, frankly, no satisfactory or widely-supported answers have emerged. There is no well-developed identikit model to put in place to relieve inequality.

But then it is an illusion, also, to believe such an identikit could be built. Just as the social model established in many European countries after the second world war took a variety of institutional forms, so the character of any new model will be rooted in the historical, cultural and economic traditions of a particular country. What works in Germany or Sweden may not necessarily be transferable to Ireland. To a large extent, we will have to find our own way out of the social exclusion maze.

The first question is whether any economic strategies can be embarked upon to reduce social exclusion in Northern Ireland. Can more be done to promote employment generation - given joblessness is such a big source of poverty and lack of income?

Contrary to popular belief, the employment performance of the Northern Ireland economy over the past seven years or so has been as good as during any equivalent period in the history of the state. For the most part, the unemployment rate has been on a downward path for more than two years. About 8,500 fewer people are now on the dole than at the beginning of 1992.

Part of this drop can be explained by tougher rules deterring people from signing on. But it also reflects fairly strong job generation: between 1992 and 1994, the numbers in employment increased by over 11,000. At the moment, the employment growth rate in Northern Ireland is as good as, if not better than, the average for the UK as a whole, as well as vis-à-vis the republic.

Despite these positive underlying labour-market trends, however, unemployment in the region remains high. Can more be done internally to reduce it? Overall, the answer has to be fairly pessimistic. First of all, as only a region of an economic union, some of the traditional instruments of macro-economic policy are not available within Northern Ireland. Money cannot be made cheaper by reducing interest rates to encourage investment, nor can decisions be made to increase public expenditure so as to stimulate demand.

One theoretical possibility is for central government to inject extra resources into the regional economy, to maintain cohesion and stability. In practice, however, this option is effectively closed off. During the 25 years of the 'troubles', the British subvention increased sharply.

At the turn of the 70s, Northern Ireland was more or less a self-reliant region, needing only a tiny fiscal transfer from the Treasury. But as a result of industrial decline, large numbers entering the local labour market and the escalation of violence, the Northern Ireland economy was thrown into turmoil. To have allowed an economic crisis to run alongside the political turmoil would have pushed the region into the abyss. In the face of these various economic shocks, successive British governments allowed a big expansion of the public sector.

Financing this expansion meant a huge growth in the UK subvention-the gap between what is raised regionally in taxes and public money spent. Estimates of this subvention vary, largely because it differs from one year to the next. But, currently, it stands at about £3.8 million - a huge sum which, proportionately, far outweighs the transfers to Scotland and Wales.

There is considerable debate about the exact role played by the subvention in the regional economy. One less than complimentary perspective is that the enlarged public sector has turned Northern Ireland into a 'workhouse economy', with those in employment largely servicing or controlling the population. The alternative view is that the large subvention is neither exceptional nor problematic, since Northern Ireland is part of an economic union which promotes efficiency and equity.

More relevant for our purposes than this (incomplete and unconvincing) debate is that the scale of the subvention makes it neither credible nor realistic to argue for extra public cash to solve the region's unemployment and poverty. To expand its public sector even further would turn Northern Ireland into an old-style eastern European economic system.

The large fiscal transfer also makes any strategy to improve labour-market performance through private-sector-led initiatives more complicated. The danger is that any extra economic growth that may arise as a result of the ceasefires will simply be utilised to reduce the subvention.

About 80 per cent of the region's labour force are engaged in non-tradeable activity, predominantly in the service sector. There is nothing intrinsically bad about an economy having a large service sector- provided it is made up mainly of wealth-creating activities, such as tourism or financial services, or it is accompanied by an efficient manufacturing sector with sufficient export shares to finance non-manufacturing activity. But a large non-tradeable sector, alongside a lacklustre tradeable sector, can only be sustained, as in Northern Ireland, by government subsidies.

In these circumstances, the government might attempt to use extra growth resulting from the ceasefires to wean the economy off its dependence on public money. So as jobs and economic activity increase in areas like tourism, the government may contract the subvention. The overall result would be that the net increase in jobs and growth would be low.

This is why the trade union demand for no immediate reduction in the subvention should be fully supported. Should government give such a commitment, the prospects would be much brighter for additional jobs and income generation.

Another possible route to shorten the dole queues is regional redistribution. One way this could be done would be via a regional tax, obliging the more well-off to give more to the public purse to help the less favoured - north Down showing solidarity with north Belfast. Mike Morrissey and Frank Gaffikin are rightly sceptical of such a scheme, though their estimate of the base for a regional tax may be overly conservative. Put simply, a regional tax would have to be set at unrealistically high levels for enough money to be raised to launch an effective assault on high unemployment.

Amongst economists in Northern Ireland, a popular view is that the region's labour market is segmented into public-sector jobs, where wages and conditions are good, and a private sector where wages are lower and employment more precarious.

Obviously, this is a stylised picture: the private sector has highly rewarding jobs, while some public-sector employment is unpleasant. Nevertheless, in aggregate terms, it is not far off the mark.

On the basis of this segmentation model, one proposal was for public-sector workers to receive only a portion of annual UK-wide pay rises, with the remainder being diverted into a regional employment fund. The logic of the proposal was simply that the better off in the labour market - the insiders - should show solidarity with the outsiders by helping create extra jobs.

Recently, however, the conditions necessary to make such a scheme operational have rapidly evaporated. After several years of little, if any, pay increases, many public-sector workers are neither in the financial position nor the political mood to enter into such solidarity wage-bargaining at the regional level. Moreover, the big moves towards contracting out and privatisation, particularly in health, have almost overnight changed the labour market status of many workers, from insiders to outsiders. Furthermore, the seemingly relentless march of decentralised pay-setting m the public sector is dismantling the institutional architecture to enact such solidarity wage bargaining.

Thus, it appears that the scope is limited for offensive regional redistribution strategies to increase the overall number of jobs in the regional economy. But this does not obviate the need for regional taxes or solidarity wage-bargaining.

If the current ceasefires are transformed into a permanent peace, then it is indeed probable that sooner or later the Treasury may seek to reduce the subvention. Regional departments of government may begin to face harsh cash limits, similar to those imposed on local authorities in Britain. Very quickly, trade unions may find themselves in the invidious position of having to choose between wage increases and job losses.

If this situation were to arise, there is a strong case for defensive solidarity bargaining, in which trade unions put a premium on defending jobs rather than increasing pay packets. Virtue should not be made out of this type of bargaining and no doubt it will grate on many trade unionists to go down this road. But at least it would avoid the unseemly circumstances - which happened in the mid-to-late 80s in the republic-of trade unions accepting large-scale public-sector redundancies, in a period of high unemployment, while securing high wage increases for those remaining in post.

Regional taxes, too, could be used to make the local labour market work more effectively. Paul Gorecki and Cormac Keating highlight the many ways the benefits system distorts the labour market by creating disincentives to work. They make a number of positive proposals, the better to dovetail employment creation and the benefits system. But each will cost money, and it may be that regional taxes may be required to secure the extra resources.

Alternatively, a regional tax could be targeted on a scheme to help the long-term unemployed. The eminent macro-economist Dennis Snower has become a passionate advocate for marginal employment subsidies, which Silver has examined. He proposes that those who become unemployed for more than a year should be able to use part of their benefits to provide vouchers to the firms that hire them. In other words, an employer receives a subsidy to recruit the long-term unemployed. Although falling short of a full-scale remedy for unemployment, regional taxes may nevertheless be able to make a strong contribution to one dimension of the problem.

Making the benefits system more employment-friendly or developing targeted schemes for the long-term unemployed are primarily designed to change the incentive structures in the labour market, to help prevent individuals falling into long spells of economic inactivity. They do little to alter the overall conditions of the regional labour market. But Northern Ireland continues to experience a big mismatch between the supply of, and demand for, employment: not enough jobs are being created to keep pace with the numbers entering the labour market.

Because of this structural mismatch, many are sceptical whether programmes for the long-term unemployed, like the Community Work Programme (CWP), recently set up by the British government, can bring about meaningful change. Maura Sheehan and Mike Tomlinson strike such a cautious note. On the basis of their analysis, much needs to be done to prevent the 'revolving door' syndrome, whereby the long-term unemployed go from one project to another without actually breaking into the labour market proper.

Sheehan and Tomlinson highlight other problems with the CWP: the lack of skills and training in many of the programmes, the absence of formal qualifications and an awkward relationship with the voluntary sector. If the best solution-more jobs in the formal labour market-is not immediately realisable, then the second-best alternative should be made available. The CWP seems unfortunately to be sliding into a third-best alternative.

A number of conclusions follow from this analysis. First of all, the climate is cold for big, extra spending to reduce social exclusion: in present circumstances, all that can be demanded is that the UK subvention remains at its current level. Government should be lobbied hard to make a commitment on this point.

Secondly, regional redistribution strategies would be unlikely by themselves to reduce unemployment and poverty, but regional taxes and collective bargaining may allow some positive, if limited, policies to be delivered and assist equality in the labour market. It may be worthwhile introducing some innovations in these two areas.

Whereas the room for manoeuvre on the economics of social exclusion is limited, it may be possible to develop a positive democratic programme in relation to the politics of the matter.

Many of the institutions of government and public life in Northern Ireland are organised and run in a deeply undemocratic way. Many policies pursued by government have inequitable outcomes. In the absence of 'normal' politics during the past 20-odd years, a hierarchical social structure has persisted in the region without effectively challenge. Together, these institutional and social arrangements work to perpetuate an unequal and unfair Northern Ireland. To advance the social inclusion agenda in the region will involve lobbying for far-reaching change in many areas of political life.

Present political structures connecting Northern Ireland with London are deeply undemocratic. The financial relationships between Westminster and Stormont are crucial, yet this area of government comprises a particularly closed system of decision-making.

In 1993-94, nearly £7.5 billion of public money was spent in the region's economy. Arriving at the expenditure plans for the various programmes is a long, complex, bureaucratic process. Usually, it begins with officials in the Northern Ireland Office conducting a mini-budget exercise, which brings together and invariably prunes the demands of regional departments.

These estimates then form the basis of negotiations between the NIO and the Treasury, from which a figure is derived for the block grant - the total annual amount of public expenditure transferred from the Treasury to the NIO. Importantly, this grant is not divided into specific, earmarked programmes. So, when Stormont receives the money, it has a high degree of discretion over the precise allocation of the budget: a department can receive more or less than its initial expenditure bid.

When the block grant is dispersed across the various programmes, another group of civil servants, usually alongside an unelected quango, will sub-divide the money into particular projects and activities. Take health care, for example. Each health board-consisting mainly of unelected officials - will receive a financial allocation which it then channels to the various hospitals and projects under its control. When a hospital receives its share of the pie, another unelected body, mostly in the form of trusts, further distributes the cash in line with its medical and health plans.

Thus an entire chain of financial decisions is taking place, year in year out, in the absence of any effective democratic controls. Civil servants devise and implement policy without in any way being accountable. Elected representatives have at best an indirect influence over public expenditures priorities and policies. Anne Marie Gray and Deirdre Heenan show the shortcomings of the many unelected quangos that have mushroomed in recent years.

All in all, there is a big democratic deficit in the management of public money in Northern Ireland. Like other parts of government decision-making, this deficit will only be effectively addressed with the creation of some type of elected regional assembly. Politicians in such a body would have to account for the financial decisions and policy priorities they established, even though the ballot box might not in the short run be a genuine sanction due to the polarised nature of local politics. Moreover, a regional assembly would allow various pressure groups to lobby for policy change, which would be a refreshing development.

Indeed, in such a context, the possibility would arise for additional revenue generation at the margin (which as anyone who knows anything about the inertia of budgets knows, can mean creating much larger room for expenditure manoeuvre). And, since the average taxation rate for the UK, at 33.8 per cent, is the lowest in the EU and eight points below the average of 41.7 per cent, there is surely scope for change before any perverse disincentive effects would arise from a marginal variation in Northern Ireland.

The Scottish Constitutional Convention has proposed[2] that a future parliament for Scotland should not only continue to receive Treasury funding according to the existing 'Barnett formula' - under which Northern Ireland's block grant is also calculated - but should also be able to vary the rate of income tax by up to three percentage points.

More generally, far from having to struggle, like Scotland, to enhance its autonomy, Northern Ireland, would - if the governments in London and Dublin could only have their way - have democracy showered upon it. In such a context, there would be great scope to develop synergistic policy thinking with the republic, itself similarly grappling with intense problems of social exclusion.

But whether a devolved democratic institution will actually be constructed as part of any political settlement in Northern Ireland remains an open question. Both the main political parties - the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Ulster Unionists - appear to have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to such an arrangement, which is disappointing. For it is hard to imagine alternative political structures that could ensure the connections between Northern Ireland and Westminster are simultaneously accountable and efficient.

With the prospect of a regional assembly some way off then, more immediate means have to be found to prise open the closed decision-making surrounding public expenditure matters.

One option would be to revamp and strengthen the Northern Ireland Economic Council, according it an input into the annual round of public expenditure planning. Bringing together trade unions, employers and other groups like consumer bodies, the council could bring a fresh, independent dimension to fiscal management.

Moreover, the social partners would be obliged in the process to adopt a more positive, pro-active approach to government spending, rather than standing timidly on the sidelines, reacting opportunistically to any decision with which they disagree. In the UK, such consultation and policy formation is pooh-poohed as 'old-fashioned corporatism'. But given that the vast bulk of other EU member-states practise it, this argument is unconvincing.[3]

Another worthwhile initiative would be to establish a body like the National Economic and Social Forum in the republic. This has a wider representation than the 'traditional' social partners, making it more able to put on the policy agenda matters more directly relevant to marginalised groups. In Northern Ireland, there is no voice mechanism for these groups to articulate or push forward ideas. As a result, little pressure is brought to bear on civil servants to reassess policy priorities.

A Northern Ireland Economic and Social Forum[4] would include not only representatives of employers and trade unions, but also community, women's and youth organisations, including rural interests. It would provide a broad participatory complement to the intellectual strengths of the NIEC.

Such institutional innovations would create parallel policy structures north and south, providing greater scope for synergistic thinking to emerge, for which Pauline Conroy's acerbic insights show the need. This is especially so in the context of the current work on the elaboration of a 'national anti-poverty strategy' in the republic.

Launching the latter initiative at the United Nations Social Summit in Copenhagen in March, the minister for social welfare, Proinsias de Rossa, pledged his government to "implement proposals to substantially reduce poverty in the shortest possible time and to reduce inequalities". This would entail "mainstreaming" or "poverty-proofing" the policies of all government departments and agencies, he said.[5]

While they might not assuage the democratic deficit within Northern Ireland, such institutional reforms would facilitate a broader public dialogue on government expenditure. This would certainly represent a challenge to government, but it would also throw down the gauntlet to the wide range of interest groups which might benefit from a more open decision-making process.

If various groups are brought closer to policy-making, it is beholden on them to ensure that the views they put forward are as representative as possible of their particular constituencies. Richard Jay raises some awkward questions about the democratic credentials, the internal cohesion and effectiveness of many groups that purport to represent the marginalised. These questions cannot be brushed aside, for ultimately government will only take groups seriously if they are genuinely rooted in the community.

Moreover, more democratic forms of decision-making will inevitably raise demands for social expenditure which government will not be able to meet. Interest groups will have to accept that many of their claims may not be fully met, if at all. Participative structures in relation to public expenditure are not a meal ticket so all groups can get what they want. Rather, they are about ensuring that the widest possible agreement is secured for government programmes. What is at stake is socially embedding public policy.

The voluntary sector, community groups and so on cannot wait for government authorities to unlock the closed decision-making doors before they address questions of representativeness and internal democracy. Two developments are making quick action imperative. One is the growing involvement of district councils in economic development. A big danger is that many councils will adopt a narrow, technocratic approach to this. If they are to be more innovatory and community-oriented, they will have to be confident about the bona fides of groups which may be involved in potential initiatives. This puts considerable responsibility on the 'third sector' to ensure its house is in order.

Secondly, the first tranche of the EU peace money is coming on stream. To its credit, the European Commission has insisted that any project funded under the peace package must have highly participative structures. This represents a key opportunity for all those seeking a more open and democratic style of policy-formation and delivery. If the multitude of EU-funded projects that are established turn out to be successful, then an important bridgehead will have been secured for a more root-and-branch recasting of the bureaucratic method of governance in Northern Ireland.

So far we have spoken mainly of the constraints on the battle against social exclusion in Northern Ireland. Yet this is not a counsel of despair. The block grant system of funding expenditure in the region allows scope for reprioritisation of the very substantial sums involved. And the paramilitary ceasefires, given the potential they generate for a massive reduction in 'law and order' expenditure, hold out the hope, if the overall level of the subvention can be politically held, of a significant transfer towards social renewal.

'Targeting social need' (TSN) was added as a third public expenditure priority, to 'law and order' and 'strengthening the economy', in 1990. It was an ambiguous phrase, perhaps intentionally so, given how 'targeting' has come to connote, in recent Conservative discourse, selectivity and means-testing in welfare policy. Nor did this new priority interrogate in any way that of 'strengthening the economy', to which it was clearly subordinate. For these two reasons, the impact of TSN has been limited.

Even though now, in theory, the displacement of 'law and order' as top priority allows TSN to move up the scale, there is still a fundamental difficulty in how it is implicitly perceived as qualifying, modifying or indeed contradicting the higher goal of 'strengthening the economy'. For as long as this obtains, social exclusion, and the socially excluded, will remain marginal.

Fundamentally, the problem is what is understood by 'strengthening the economy in Northern Ireland-and by the associated media coverage, in which 'So-and-so invests Lx million in Ballymena' stories figure prominently. Reflecting the narrow focus of orthodox economists focus on the firm, this neglects the economic implications of the wider social relationships in which the firm is embedded. For example, the economic costs of inadequate social investment in 'human capital' - education and training - or the fiscal drain of mass unemployment go unrecognised in this outlook.

A further practical problem has been the failure to link TSN to a specific programme, with earmarked funding-as a recent letter to the West Belfast MP, Joseph Hendron, from the minister of state, Michael Ancram, indicated. Asked to identify how much each department was spending in furtherance of TSN, and to quantify its impact, Mr Ancram replied: "It would not be possible separately to identify all TSN related expenditure in the format you have requested and, as TSN is not a specific programme, but runs as a principle through many different programmes, no separate quantitative analysis of its impact is available."[6]

Let us assume that the aim of 'defeating terrorism' has indeed been rendered obsolete (leaving aside its good sense or effectiveness in the past) by the near-elimination of lethal paramilitary violence. The 'law and order' budget for 1995-96 is £889 million. Whether or not it is realistic that any reformed or new police service could be of the size (3,500) of the pre-'troubles' Royal Ulster Constabulary, it is not unreasonable to claim, given a current RUC complement of around 13,000, that a halving of the budget is achievable in the next five years.

Let us recognise also that the separation between the second and third government priorities of 'strengthening the economy' and 'targeting social need' is intellectually, as well as morally, indefensible. In that context, the system of governmental priorities should be scrapped.

The TSN priority and the separately evolved Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment (PAFT) guidelines should be rolled up into a single policy focus, Addressing Social Inclusion, whose twin aims would be the 'poverty-proofing' of all departmental and statutory agency actions and the 'mainstreaming' of hitherto marginal initiatives. It would be subject to regular and independent review.

A new programme should be established, Establishing Social Renewal (ESR). Its mission - to take a phrase from the Combat Poverty Agency submission to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation - should be to "empower the excluded and marginalised to become part of the mainstream, to become stakeholders in society".[7]

There is no shortage of ideas as to what this might contain. On the contrary, the problem would be prioritisation in selecting from Labour's Borne commission,[8] the Liberal Democrats' Dahrendorf commission,[9] the Rowntree inquiry,[10] the Irish Congress of Trade Unions' post-ceasefire document,[11] the CPA submission ... and the many further ideas developed in this report. There is, moreover, the important experience gleaned from the Making Belfast Work (MBW) initiative.

Debate is thus the key, and the programme should be elaborated and delivered in a manner consonant with the emphasis on stakeholding. As the ICTU argues, "In addressing these issues, there has to be a recognition by government that, effectively, there has been a democratic deficit of very significant proportions in Northern Ireland, and it will be vitally important to address issues of community involvement in the regeneration process. This will also mean trying to secure political involvement, as early as possible, in the process, and giving voice to community, voluntary and women's groups, trade unions, employers, political and other organisations, in helping to shape the regeneration programme."[12]

The NIEC and the proposed NIESF could jointly be charged with managing this debate, with the elaboration of the ESR programme. Execution in government would fall primarily to Health and Social Services as lead department, as in the republic and in line with the department's stronger record than any other on TSN, though clearly other departments and agencies would need to be involved.

Crucial would be central political direction and commitment to ensure policy prioritisation. Wherever possible, however, there should be devolution of administration to non-governmental organisations.

This is a logical step beyond the idea of 'partnership' between the various agencies and representatives of the socially excluded, which has acquired a wide currency through MBW and the mechanisms for allocation of the special EU package. It recognises that the process of ensuring that the socially excluded have an equal voice is as important as any outcome in terms of improved life chances.

It is in the arena of welfare in particular that this argument for 'associative democracy',[13] to which Quintin Oliver referred, has strongest purchase, offering as it does a socially responsive alternative model to market or bureaucratic provision. Again, it is not that vast monies are not already available; it is that they are allocated in a process which reproduces social dependency and stigmatisation.

The aims of associationalism in welfare are:

  • that provision is by voluntary self-governing associations which comprise partnerships of providers and recipients, with democratic structures and rights of exit;
  • that such organisations are principally publicly funded and subject to public inspection and standard-setting; and
  • that any voluntary organisation may establish whatever range of services its members choose, thereby providing citizens with choices.[14]

In other words, associationalism represents an accountable and participatory alternative to the progressive agentisation of welfare (including health) provision. Associational structures, being 'closer' to the citizen, are actually easier to establish at a regional level. Indeed, the existing rhetoric of partnership in Northern Ireland, as well as the block grants to intermediary funding bodies (like the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust) under the EU 'peace package', provide important precedents upon which an associational strategy can be pursued.

An instance of associationalism already in practice in Northern Ireland in a different sphere may assist. In education, Northern Ireland's integrated and Irish-language schools operate on associationalist principles. That is to say, they are defined by the involvement of citizens (parents) who have chosen to be their 'consumers', though with a right to withdraw and go elsewhere, and enjoying - eventually - public financial support, in return for inspection and meeting adequate educational standards. This distinguishes these two types of school from the 'controlled' (state) sector and, given the absence of democratic control, the remainder of the 'maintained' (Catholic) sector.

One of the other merits of associationalism, however, is that it responds to the growing taxpayer resistance to meeting the costs of what are perceived to be alien and ineffective welfare systems. A second avenue in this regard is the use of 'hypothecation',[15] the earmarking of taxes for specific purposes. If these were used in combination, it would be possible to demonstrate that tangible, socially useful projects were funded by taxpayers, rather than the latter feeling that their deductions were simply absorbed into an anonymous, bureaucratic state.

The expenditure associated with ESR should be drawn from a progressive saving from the 'law and order' budget, which should have reached 50 per cent by the year 2000 and which would be ring-fenced as it became available - an annual figure, in other words, of some £4-500 million. This clearly could involve political battles with the Treasury, which would be anxious meantime to claw back 'security' savings.

Frankly, part of the rationale for the approach outlined here is to make that politically difficult. Turning swords into ploughshares in Northern Ireland will surely carry a political cachet yet for some years to come.

This is an ambitious proposal, but even its limits should be recognised. Social exclusion is a global phenomenon, by no means confined to Northern Ireland (never mind west Belfast). It is a facet of dramatic economic transformations with enormous implications for the labour market. So there can be no complacency that Fabian-style interventionism will 'solve' the problem. The need for constant evaluation of efforts to address social exclusion, in an open and self-critical way, is therefore paramount.

The 1993 EU green paper on social policy noted that "social exclusion ... by highlighting the flaws in the social fabric … suggests something more than social inequality, and, concomitantly, carries with it the risk of a dual or fragmented society". Since the foundation of the state and beyond, Northern Ireland has of course precisely been a 'dual or fragmented society'.

This social and political context has fostered, on one hand, a privatism and disengagement within J K Galbraith's 'culture of contentment' - the 'coasters' so excoriated in John Hewitt's poem of the same name. On the other, it has encouraged an oppositionalism of demand and protest unconstrained by the realities and responsibilities of power.

So effectively addressing social exclusion in Northern Ireland is, ultimately, about creating an inclusive citizenship. Yet considerable disagreement also exists about what is meant by that term, 'citizenship'.

Most modern democracies, more or less, practise citizenship in the liberal individualist sense. From the perspective of liberal individualism, citizenship is about setting out in a constitution or legislation a plinth of rights and entitlements that upholds the sovereignty and autonomy of the individual. The vision is of individuals having a status that allows them to stand above state and even society. More concretely, the liberal version of citizenship emphasises ideas such as freedom of speech and association, the right to vote, the protection of property rights, the defence of pluralism, the separation of church and state, and so on.

In accepting the arguments for a bill of rights in Northern Ireland, so as to protect the rights of individuals, most political parties have clearly been influenced by this conception of citizenship. But it would be heroic to claim that a bill of rights would create a liberal-democratic society in Northern Ireland. This is essentially because the political and social life of the region is dominated by two communities within which a truncated form of the 'civil republican' version of citizenship seems to prevail.[16]

The civil republican model of citizenship stands in sharp contrast to the liberal individualist version. In particular, it places much more emphasis on the idea of the collective good and the social duties and responsibilities of individuals. Thus civil republicans are strong advocates of political communities and active participation. The idea that citizenship is simply some type of legal status that confers on individuals certain rights against the state is rejected as impoverished. Individuals are regarded as only being fully enriched through social co-operation and in circumstances where they play an active role in public life and abide by community norms and rules.

Civil republicanism is widely seen as being left behind by industrialisation, since full expression of this tradition was in the middle ages, particularly in the Italian republics. Today's society and economy are regarded as too complex and varied to be organised along the homogenous and highly ordered lines implicit in the civil republican perspective.

But a civil republican form of citizenship is as much at play in Northern Ireland as any liberal individualist version. Political and religious divisions inside Northern Ireland since it was formed have always prevented the full emergence of a normal western-style civil society. Moreover, one of the effects of the past 25 years of violence has been the slow but continuous atrophy of the civil society that did exist. In response there has been a hypertrophy of community or group life.

This important social change has taken a number of forms. Perhaps the most tangible sign has been relatively large population shifts which have turned sub-regions into mainly Catholic or mainly Protestant residential areas. Such movements are most noticeable along the border areas, but they are also observable in conurbations such as Belfast and Derry. Another indication of a group-based society in Northern Ireland is the relatively large number of Catholic-only or Protestant-only workplaces.

Other less tangible factors also point to the communal bifurcation of Northern Ireland life. Missing are the shared symbols that bond citizens together, even in an imagined' sense, in other western societies. A simple but striking example is the Northern Ireland soccer team. Almost everywhere the national football team is a unifying force, but in Northern Ireland it is the source of division - with Protestants actively supporting the team whilst Catholics are either indifferent or actively opposed to it.

Activities that are exclusively associated with one community or the other have experienced an upsurge. In the Catholic community, Gaelic games are now more popular than ever and increasing numbers are learning the Irish language. The fact that an Ulster team has won the All-Ireland Gaelic football final in five out of the past six years, after 22 elusive years, speaks volumes about the changed character of the northern Catholic community. For its part, the Protestant community appears to be under a cloud of uncertainty and apprehension, reflected in many school leavers from middle-class families being encouraged to go to universities in Britain. All in all, the co-existence of two distinct communities is a key feature of Northern Ireland society.

At the same time, it would be misleading to push the 'two communities' thesis too far. The Catholic, or Protestant, community is less cohesive and integrated than, say, the historical example of primitive tribal groups in stateless societies or modern intentional communities like the Israeli kibbutzim. Thus neither religious bloc in the region is so well developed that it has its own mechanisms to maintain social control - despite the barbaric efforts of the paramilitaries.

In the past, social order was secured through such devices as sanctions of approval or disapproval, the withdrawal of reciprocity and in extreme cases feuds and vendettas.[17] All these instruments are absent from Northern Ireland, in any overt and developed form. Thus, following Hannah Arendt, the French political philosopher, Catholic and Protestant communities cannot be regarded as communities of action, through which decentralised collectivist solutions are found to the question of order and authority. But they do come near to what Arendt describes as communities of meaning.[18]

According to Arendt, such communities are established by the symbiotic interaction between individuals and a wider group. This interactive process involves individuals defining themselves and their identities in the context of a community, which in turn defines its identity within the wider social context. Thus, communities of meaning are akin to elements of civil republicanism, which emphasises the social setting of individual behaviour or action.

Communities of meaning can take a negative or positive form - or both. On the one hand, they can create support structures that reduce the uncertainties and difficulties of individual life. On the other, they can degenerate into self-absorbed worlds in which individuals and the nature of their group are defined without engaging with other communities. This introspection causes separate communities to lose not only interest in communicating with each other, but, gradually, also the capacity to do so. In the end, each community develops a politics more or less based on its own identity and becomes reluctant to engage in a wider political process that sets out to reach a democratic accommodation between different groups.

Such a scenario appears to have risen in Northern Ireland. The demise of civil society into competing religious blocs has led to the emergence of Protestant - and Catholic - based politics. Little wonder that the compromises and concessions necessary for the two groups to resolve the problems of living together in the same territory are proving so elusive. Yet challenging these inward-looking communities of meaning is a key aspect of the struggle against social exclusion, for they give rise to a dialogue on poverty and deprivation which is ultimately sectarian.

Consider fair employment, one of the most contentious issues in Northern Ireland political life. For the most part, the Fair Employment Act (1989) is firmly rooted in the liberal citizenship tradition:

the aim is to secure the reduction of discrimination against individuals by eliminating from decision-making any consideration based on religion. Any obligations imposed on enterprises, and the duties and responsibilities conferred upon fair employment institutions, are designed to uphold individual liberties and rights. As a result, the legislation can be regarded as symmetrical: both groups, Catholics and Protestants, are equally protected.

But the individualist conception of citizenship underpinning the act fits uneasily with the civil republican notions of citizenship emerging from each religious camp. Take the Catholic community, for instance. While many individual Catholics have undoubtedly benefited from the anti-discrimination legislation, there is still widespread complaint that insufficient attention is being paid to ending the disadvantage of Catholics as a group. Thus all the political representatives of this community make the idea of 'parity of esteem' a central political demand.

A wide range of policies fell within the ambit of this catch-all term, including group justice measures which set out to redress structural imbalances between Catholics and Protestants and initiatives to give equal validation to Gaelic culture. In the abstract, 'parity of esteem' can be seen as a fulcrum to create an equilibrium between two different traditions in Northern Ireland. But, in the context of self-absorbed, antagonistic, community politics, such notions may not take such a benign form - easily slipping into a malign campaign for the triumph of one group over another.

To prevent the malign scenario taking hold, social inclusion strategies must address the inward-looking character of each religious bloc. They must promote a politics of common understanding, so that both communities are sensitive to, and aware of, the demands of the other and are prepared genuinely to engage with one another.

A politics of common understanding is not about attempting to break up each community. Rather, it is about encouraging a dialogue between the two blocs which leads people to reflect on their experience in ways that ultimately alter the interpretative framework of their own community. It is about making communities more outward-looking, more amenable to change and compromise.

A politics of common understanding is not, at least in the first instance, about making specific policies and programmes, but about encouraging a process in which a new conversation is developed between the two groups. The object of this process is not simply to ensure that each community interacts with the other, but to create sufficient mutual tolerance for them to share the same territory and resource base.

For such a process to develop means promoting those institutions and arrangements that connect with each community but can stand apart from them as well. Schools are one such institution. One big issue here is not so much whether they are segregated or integrated but whether the system as a whole contributes to an evolutionary process that reduces religious polarisation. This involves exposing students to themes which, through reflection, discussion and debate, change the perception of not only individuals but communities themselves. Universities have a vital role in this area as well.

A second institution that straddles both communities is the trade union movement. For 25 years, organised labour was able to stand above the violence and maintain a semblance of unity in the workplace. By according to trade unions a central role in the social inclusion agenda, a vocabulary may be developed that is neither triumphalist nor sectarian. Voluntary groups may be able to perform a similar role.

Encouraging conversations and social interactions between the two communities will lead to each being less likely to pursue its own, exclusivist programme. But to give impetus to such a cross-community dialogue requires the government to end its closed system of decision-making. The politics of common understanding will wither on the vine if the present bureaucratic method of government persists.


1 those in the labour force but not in paid employment
2 Key Proposals for Scotland's Parliament, 1995, available from COSLA, Rosebery House, 9 Haymarket Terrace, Edinburgh EH15 5XZ
3 See the remarks by Rory O'Donnell on the republic's experience, in New Thinking for New Times, pp 24-33.
4 an idea developed by Bronagh Hinds, director of the Ulster People's College
5Irish Times, March 9th 1995
6 Irish News, September 20th 1995; the report also suggested that a Central Community Relations Unit request that a £50 annual million budget be allocated to TSN had been turned down
7 Tackling Poverty: A Priority for Peace, available from the CPA, 8 Charlemont Street, Dublin 2
8 Social Justice: Strategies for National Renewal, IPPR/Vintage, London, 1994
9 Report on Wealth Creation and Cohesion in a Free Society, available from Liberal Democrat Publications, S Fordington Green, Dorset
10 Joseph Rowntree Foundation Inquiry into Income and Wealth (2 vols), available from JRF, The Homestead, 40 Water End, York
11 See note 2 in the introduction.
12 ibid, p4
13Paul Hirst, Associative Democracy: New Forms of Economic and Social Governance, Polity, Cambridge, 1994
14 ibid, p176
15 Geoff Mulgan and Robin Murray, Reconnecting Taxation, Demos, London, 1993
16 This distinction is explained in more detail in Chantal Mouffe, 'Democratic Citizenship and the Political Community', in Mouffe ed, Dimensions of Radical Democracy, Versa, London, 1992, p226.
17 M Taylor, Community, Anarchy and Liberty, Cambridge University Press, 1982
18 H Arendt, The Human Condition, Doubleday, New Jersey, 1959

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