by Adrian Johnston
For almost thirty years, Northern Ireland was synonymous internationally with violence, political instability and economic stagnation with a significant spill-over effect in the southern border counties of Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Conflict, or “The Troubles” as it is often referred to, had an impact on every part of Irish society. It was not a religious conflict; rather, it is understood to be a complex mix of political, economic, social and cultural factors with the constitutional standing of Northern Ireland at the heart of the issue.
The Troubles were marked by issues such as segregation, intimidation, social deprivation and failure to attract economic development. Communities became isolated, and that isolation formed a barrier to civic and political progress. As divisions deepened between the two largest communities in Northern Ireland, Nationalists and Unionists, low levels of social interaction and poor economic conditions became contributing factors to inequality and conflict.
Several earlier attempts to broker political solutions were rejected because the two communities became suspicious and fearful that their own cultural identities were being undermined. With governments unable to gain trust from both sides and the cycle of violence deepening, it was recognized that an independent organisation could act as a fair broker between the communities and deliver the peace dividend.
Since 1986 the International Fund for Ireland has fulfilled that role, promoting economic and social advancement and encouraging contact, dialogue and reconciliation between Unionists and Nationalists throughout Ireland. The Fund has been responsive to emerging needs and responsible for many innovative and often risk-taking projects that helped create the conditions for the Northern Ireland Peace Process and enabled communities to support political progress.
Examples of the Fund’s successes between 1986 and 2016 include:
• Committed over £714 million/€899 million to more than 6,000 peacebuilding projects;
• Created more than 55,000 jobs;
• Engaged more than 15,000 young people on training programmes and
• Helped leverage additional funding on a ratio of 1:2.2 which has resulted in total investment of around £1.5 billion/€2 billion.
Over the course of the Fund’s operation, significant progress has been made in the peace process and the organization has continued to look forward, moving quickly into new areas as challenges and opportunity evolve, and delivering on critical issues that others have been unable or unwilling to engage with. This example of an independent fund supporting civil conflict resolution can serve as a practical model for other regions and societies emerging from conflict and engaging in conflict resolution.
Operation of the Fund
The concept and establishment of the International Fund for Ireland resulted from the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985). It took a long process of lobbying to persuade the international community that it should take a significant step to provide help for Northern Ireland, because this had traditionally been regarded as the sole responsibility of the United Kingdom.
The Fund was established on September 18, 1986 by the British and Irish governments and came into existence as an independent international organization on December 12, 1986. Though initially regarded with suspicion by many Unionists who rejected the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Fund was able to win the support of all communities and to transcend political disputes and tensions due to its international dimension and independence.
The basic concept was to establish a fund under the control of an independent board which would undertake civil society projects using the donations provided by the governments of the United States, European Union, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The establishment of the Fund was a formal recognition of the role that social and economic development should play in finding a resolution to the conflict with the stated aims of:
* promoting economic and social advance in Northern Ireland and the southern border counties; and
* promoting contact, dialogue and reconciliation between Unionists and Nationalists throughout the Island of Ireland.
With these goals in mind, the Fund adopted a flexible and pragmatic long-term approach that directed resources towards targeted programs that would generate long-term strategic and systemic change and enable the Fund to adapt and evolve to changes in the social and political landscape. This strategy has enabled the Fund to evolve its focus over time, take risks to meet emerging challenges, and to retool or remove programs in a way that maximized resources and brought other agencies to the table when the time was right.
Promoting Economic Development
In the first phase of its operations, the Fund brought communities together through economic activity that helped generate the conditions and confidence for early peace-making efforts to succeed, as was the case with the IRA ceasefire in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Building economic stability in disadvantaged areas struggling to attract investment and employment was a key priority. Activities in support of this objective served as a means of promoting greater civic stability, building community confidence and providing opportunities for people to work together for a peaceful and prosperous future. Economic advancement moreover stimulated a sense of community ownership and pride at a local level and fueled an appetite for further change.
Economically focused activity during these years included encouraging community groups to work together to develop properties into thriving centers that combined workspace units and retail outlets with much-needed neutral community facilities. In addition to building community confidence and bringing people together, such projects helped to bring life back to many towns and villages seriously affected by violence and instability.
Given that much of this work was new to the community, the Fund invested considerable time and resources in its earliest days to working in partnership with local communities. Many needed support and encouragement to come together, plan and develop ideas. The Fund supported this process, taking a partnership approach to developing new projects and ideas. The Fund was frequently the first to support such projects, enabling communities to access more funding and build new relationships with partners in the statutory and not-for-profit sectors.
Promoting Social Advancement
The second phase of the Fund’s operation supported the stabilizing of Northern Ireland’s newly formed political institutions and the rebuilding of community cohesion. The progress made at the political level and between communities in many parts of Northern Ireland offered hope that a normalization of relations would take root at all levels.
The Fund was one of the first major supporters of cross-community and cross-border contact programs for young people. Its Wider Horizon Programme provided opportunities for young people to come together on a cross-border and cross-community basis to improve their skills, build their confidence and increase their long-term employment opportunities.
Similar schools-based projects such as Knowledge through Enterprise for Youth (KEY) and Learning and Educating Together (LET) bring teenagers together to learn about common themes such as enterprise, while providing them with opportunities to meet peers from a wide variety of backgrounds.
One of the many challenges facing the Fund in its early days was the issue of poor community capacity. Years of sectarian violence and isolation meant that many communities needed to increase their confidence and ability to deal with problems within their own areas before they could begin to consider cross-community or cross-border relationships.
In many areas there was a lack of leadership. Many of the projects supported and funded, particularly in the Fund’s early years, required very sensitive handling and support. Many of the now longest-established community groups were formed by individuals taking very courageous steps in order to bring about change in their community.
The Fund invested substantial resources in programs such as the Community Leadership Programme, the Communities in Transition Programme and the Community Bridges Programme to build capacity and confidence among participants from affected communities. Funding was also made available to support communities to tackle issues in their own areas, to develop community groups and to take the first steps towards cross-community and cross-border relationships.
Characteristics of the Fund
An evaluation of the Fund, undertaken by Deloitte in 2010, identified its two most commonly viewed characteristics as being “an independent and credible approach with strong international backing” and its “willingness to innovate and to break new ground in support of reconciliation.”
The evaluation acknowledged the distinctive quality of the Fund and highlighted four attributes in particular:
* The flexibility of the Fund.
* The Fund as an innovative risk taker.
* The Fund’s relative lack of bureaucracy compared to other funders.
* The meaningful support given to projects by the Fund’s managing agents and secretariat.
Key features of the Fund, which could have wider global application, can be identified as follows:
First of all, the fact that the Fund was international in terms of its funding, diplomatic support and accountability meant that the local community understood that it was not a case of direct government intervention. This enabled the Fund to avoid the suspicion of partisanship that is often attached to government funding. This had the additional benefit of enabling the Fund to be directly involved in projects on which the two sovereign governments could not easily act. The international donors appointed observers to the board to assist its work. The observers have offered the Fund diplomatic support as well as an independent perspective which has greatly enhanced its effectiveness.
The second key element has been the independence of the board. This has been vitally important in ensuring that the choice of projects for investment has been based on an objective view of perceived need and potential impact and has been an important aspect in building trust at community level. The board members’ diverse range of skills has also contributed to the success of the Fund
The third key element has been the development of a rigorous but flexible process of identifying, assessing, monitoring and evaluating projects. The Fund has always been willing to nurture projects which, although difficult, were deemed important in the overall context. While being strong on procedural controls, it has often acted according to the principle: “first money on the table.” This vital flexibility has enabled promoters of projects to have time to gather support from the community and to secure other funding sources.
A fourth important element has been the strong administrative support provided by the Joint Secretariat, which has offices in Belfast and Dublin, headed by joint directors general on secondment to the Fund from the Northern Ireland and the Irish administrations. The Fund has also benefited from assistance by an Advisory Committee comprising senior officials of the two sovereign governments.
The final key element is the fact that the Fund did not build up a large bureaucratic organization to administer projects but worked in partnership with a small number of regional development officers, agents and appropriate sections of local government to generate and develop projects. This provided a unique opportunity for public officials on both sides of the border to work together for the first time, building trust and sharing common experiences.
Principles for Success
While the Northern Ireland Conflict, as all other conflicts, possesses unique features, resolving the conflict required intense engagement by the two sovereign governments as well as the support of the international community.
The key elements of the International Fund for Ireland model can be applicable to most other conflict situations. The Fund’s experience suggests the following principles for success:
* Establish an independent board comprising people representative of the various strands of the community in conflict. Ensure that the board is truly independent of the local sovereign government but that it is capable of constructive collaboration with government agencies.
* Select a strong and independent chair and board who will command trust from all but retain demonstrable independence.
* Provide active donor participation to ensure accountability and offer diplomatic support.
* Ensure that the administration is as streamlined and effective as possible, with the body engaging with partners as much as possible.
* Provide appropriate accountability and evaluation but in a manner that does not restrict the potential of the body to be flexible and effective.
* Set out a clear initial vision and strategy but be prepared to adapt to evolving needs and review at appropriate intervals.
* Ensure that investment is targeted to the greatest extent possible towards sustainable projects. These are often “bricks-and-mortar” community facilities with income streams that help local economies or strong organizations to carry on the work successfully long after the body has ceased to operate. It is important to remember that some investment may be required in building communities’ skills and expertise before this can be achieved.
* In the view of the International Fund for Ireland, these elements have provided the greatest opportunity for efficient and effective donor input to conflict areas and can deliver far and away the best value for money for donors and the greatest impact for recipients.
Given its history over the last 30 years, the Fund is committed to sharing its experiences as a model for intervention for other organizations and regions seeking to resolve conflict and to create stable civic societies.
The Fund’s Current Focus
Operating as an independent organization, the Fund is uniquely positioned to support constructive cross-community dialogue on a range of difficult issues that stem from the legacy of violence. It has encouraged communities to find solutions to divisive issues and to remain engaged in the peace process when political structures have struggled.
The Fund can take credit for underpinning the peace process, for securing legislation that enables young people from different backgrounds to learn together, and for resolving complex social divisions and removing physical barriers or so-called “Peace Walls” that divide communities.
However, many serious and persistent issues are still unresolved and there remains a viable threat to undermine the fragile peace. In its most recent years, the Fund has focused on delivering targeted interventions that can consolidate and sustain community and political progress.
The Fund’s Community Consolidation – Peace Consolidation 2016- 2020 program is designed to help tackle many of the most complicated challenges. Thanks to its independence, the Fund is uniquely positioned to address these issues, and it is available and willing to go where others cannot and to take the necessary risks for a lasting peace. It is a quality that remains as important today as it was when the Fund started in 1986.
The Fund has never shied away from sharing the lessons from its programs nor from working in partnership with policy makers and funding bodies on both sides of the Irish border and in other international areas emerging from conflict. Our door is open and it is our hope that the Fund’s history, achievements and work will encourage others to continue to strive to build sustainable peace for this and future generations.
To find out more about the International Fund for Ireland, visit www. internationalfundforireland.com