February 24, 2022

What kind of Northern Ireland do we want? A summary of our recent conference

by Barbora Staňková, Carnegie UK

In the Autumn of 2021, Carnegie UK, in cooperation with CO3, ran a series of seven workshops with the aim of exploring key lessons learned by organisations, businesses, and the statutory sector during the pandemic, under the overarching theme of “What Kind of Northern Ireland Do We Want?”. We wanted to capture some of the experiences that organisations had in working throughout the pandemic, both positive and negative.

To bring together the learning from these workshops, we invited expert panellists, keynote speakers and politicians to discuss wellbeing and to answer the key question: What kind of Northern Ireland do we want? The event was held on the 3 February using an online format.

Dr Romina Boarini opened the conference by sharing OECD’s Well-being, Inclusion, Sustainability and Equal Opportunity (WISE) Centre findings about wellbeing, the effect of the pandemic, and planning for the future. The WISE Centre provides an international framework for wellbeing that reflects the needs of the OECD population. She began by looking at data around wellbeing in OECD countries during the pandemic. It hardly comes as a surprise that the effect was overall negative:

  • Physical health of the population declined;
  • People adopted more unhealthy habits;
  • There was a clear negative effect on mental health;
  • Work insecurity became a prime concern.

Not all groups of the population felt the effects equally. Factors such as age, gender, race, and ethnicity, as well as jobs, pay, and skills – and many other aspects – impacted how much of an effect the pandemic had on individuals. This was more acute amongst vulnerable groups.

There are common concerns among OECD member-states, such as environmental crises, and reduced wellbeing outcomes for children and young people.

However, across all issues, it is clear that tackling these issues requires a different approach to decision and policy making. Instead of focusing on singular issues, policymakers need to embrace a holistic and integrated approach with a focus on environment and long-term outcomes. Building back better means not only for the people, but also by the people and with the people.

Picking up from Dr. Boarini’s presentation, the panel discussion reflected on the key issues raised during the autumn workshops. Inclusion, in a number of different guises, was key to the panels view of a positive future for Northern Ireland – whether it be disability inclusion in the workplace, mental health services and the importance of hearing lived experience.

The panel discussed the evolving approach to measuring progress and moving from GDP to wellbeing-based measurements, and the role of the Executive in bringing wellbeing into focus. The group agreed on the need for strong leadership with a sense of common purpose, but also a need for clear communication to the public when difficult, but necessary decisions must be made.

Next, we heard from a panel of representatives from five political parties. During the discussion, they were all asked the same question: ‘What are your political visions for the future?’

Councillor Mal O’Hara from the Green Party outlined his party’s vision of a socially and environmentally just society based on the values of peace, security, prosperity and equality. The Green Party appreciates that environment is coming into focus more and more, especially for young people – as Councillor O’Hara said, they are often able to see the larger, global context, which is what we need now.

SDLP Councillor Donal Lyons said that his party wants to find balance – especially in wealth distribution. They want to create a society where everyone is able to fulfil their aspirations, and ensure young people have a place in which they want to live, which is prosperous and environmentally conscious. Finally, he called for better cooperation with civil society, as they are often ahead on pressing issues, such as early-years childcare.

Kellie Armstrong MLA from the Alliance Party said her party are committed to building a shared society. She referenced participatory budgeting as a way of bringing communities into decision-making to achieve coproduction and codesign. The Alliance Party also want to focus on environmental and social issues, as well as the need to invest in the most vulnerable in society. She added that we need to move beyond our past and come together to achieve a better society.

Sinn Féin’s Francie Molloy MP reflected on the name of the conference and said he doesn’t just want Northern Ireland – he wants a united Ireland. As a committed republican, his ideology is framed by the desire for unity across the island of and he said that it was time for a referendum on unity to give a voice to citizens. He also said that Sinn Féin want to see an Environmental Bill quickly enacted across all of Ireland, and see the need for skilled jobs such as engineering. He also emphasised the importance of early childhood care and education.

UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt reflected that what we need is a long-term strategic thinking over short-term politics, which hurts the most vulnerable. He referenced the Mental Health Strategy for NI as a great example of a long-term policy. He wants to work in a framework of a “prosperity agenda” and ensure that people can have a sense of purpose in life. Mr Nesbitt said that what is needed is de-centralisation of power to councils and other local decision-makers.

When asked about what we can do better, there was a sense of agreement that devolution and de-centralisation of power is the way forward. The region needs more financial and policy decisions to be devolved to local councils. Further, politicians need to listen to and cooperate with civil society, and to involve citizens more, such as through mechanisms such as Citizen’s Assemblies.

The last keynote speaker was Executive Office Permanent Secretary Denis McMahon, who outlined the plans of the Executive Office for promoting wellbeing. The draft Programme for Government (PfG) focuses on inclusive society in which people of all backgrounds are respected and in which they can prosper and live fulfilling lives. It sets outcomes of wellbeing as the drivers for government, measured by a series of indicators. He added that we need to understand what matters the most to people through continuous and ongoing civic engagement.

The current PfG outcomes focus on factors such as giving children and young people the best start in life, living and working sustainably with the environment in mind, and having an inclusive and caring society. It shifts the focus to outcomes rather than outputs.

As Mr McMahon said, there is no doubt that we can deliver social change, but what is required is a clear understanding of the relationship between evidence, what policymakers think is needed, and critically, how this contributes to the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

The event completes our Rethinking Northern Ireland Programme. Full reports of the workshops can be found at Rethinking Northern Ireland: Reports from a seminar series on wellbeing in Northern Ireland – Carnegie UK

Videos from young people that contributed to the event focus, and commentary from our workshop leaders, can be found on our YouTube channel at Carnegie UK – YouTube