Class is a bigger and more significant division in Northern Ireland than is the religious divide, argues the chief executive of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland Andrew McCracken. “Whilst there’s the really visible gap between orange and green, the more fundamental and more important gap is the gap between rich and poor and the bubbles of society that we live in,” says Andrew in the latest Forward Together podcast.
He continues: “The thing I really care about, that’s part of the answer to that question about how we strengthen civic society is how do we create meaningful bridges and relationships between those bubbles that we all live in.”
Andrew argues that there needs to be a greater focus within the community sector on common themes – such as mental health and suicide – and less on identity issues that divide society.
“It’s about the rich and poor, the class gap, about generosity, and giving, and how we do that,” he says. “There’s also something about democracy and [finding a] voice that I think is really important and that the Foundation is supporting projects around.
“So it seems to me that if we want to really transform civic society, the current mechanisms for democracy that we have aren’t all the tools that we need in the tool box. And that’s true across the UK.” He adds: “There’s all kinds of additional ways of doing democracy that aren’t just about the ballot box. So we funded Northern Ireland’s first independent citizens’ assembly [looking at social care] in November.
“So that’s where you get people who are demographically representative of all of Northern Ireland. Invite them to take two weekends to be briefed by experts, debate policy [and then] issuing some recommendations on that policy issue. We were overwhelmed by the response… Within two days, we had 300 volunteers, saying, yes, I’ll set aside two weekends of my time to do this….
“We were able to have a meaningful conversation and come up with some recommendations together. And it was bloody hard work. But we did it. For me that’s a transformation of civic society that’s giving people the confidence that we’re able to participate and make decisions together in a way that isn’t about fighting the old political battles….
“I think that’s a tool that can be used locally as well as nationally to solve a problem. The model of citizens’ assembly that we did is really expensive. And so it wouldn’t necessarily be the most sustainable way to run a hundred of those across Northern Ireland.”
While Andrew is a strong supporter of educational integration, he does so to promote wider social integration, not just about bringing together children from different religious traditions. “It’s about mixing people from different backgrounds across wealth and class, [not just] Protestant, Catholic mixing. The education system is just a massive issue that we need to solve. The trend in the transfer test system sorts kids based on whether they’re rich or poor – and puts the rich kids in one set of schools and the poorer kids in another set of schools.
“In other words, there’s two sets of integration problems, of challenges at school. One is the religious differentiation. The other is that broadly wealthy middle class families get their kids into the grammar schools and the poor kids go to the non selective schools. And with all respect for the people working really hard on the Protestant / Catholic issue, if you give me a thousand pounds to do something about those problems, I’d put it onto the class issue – the rich and poor issue – because it gets even less of a time in the spotlight.”
Andrew stresses that one of the biggest predictors on whether a child goes into a grammar school is that they are not on free school meals. “And that is not right. I don’t believe that if you have free school meals that makes you more or less intelligent.” The result, argues Andrew, is “a terrible system”.
When looking to the future, Andrew argues more attention needs to be placed on social deprivation. “Poverty, marginalisation, people who don’t have a fair chance in life. Those issues are hugely important and personally to me, much more important than issues about identity and constitution. And there’s a strong argument that they are a big chunk of the root causes of conflict.”
The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.
- Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.
Paul Gosling is editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects.