13 February 1997 Edition
A vision in focus
SF discussion document put under the microscope
How many ard fheiseanna have you been to where delegates stream to the podium to ask the perennial question, ``whatever happened the review promised at the previous ard fheis of current party policy?''
Last weekend Sinn Féin took the latest in a series of positive steps towards redressing that imbalance in developing, debating and formulating party policy. The topic this time was the role of the community in economic development, which is the theme of Sinn Féin's new disscusion document, Putting People First.
Monaghan Town was the setting for the one day conference with a morning internal session where party members dissected the new document. In the afternoon party members heard the views of Avila Kilmurray, director of the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust and Combat Poverty Agency director Hugh Frazer on Putting People First. There were apologies from Ulster Bank chairperson George Quigley who had wished to attend.
The aim of the internal part of the day's conference was to set formally in place a practice of policy development which Sinn Féin has never had before and to make the process as democratic and participatory as possible. Activists had an opportunity outside of an ard fheis format to discuss policy development and more importantly have an input into policy development.
The morning's debate was lively with both praise and constructive criticism of the document. Belfast City Councillor Máirtín O Muilleoir described it as one of the most difficult issues to tackle. He told the conference, ``I like to think of Sinn Féin not just as a party of protest but as a party of power'' and that we should think of Putting People First as ``a starting point''. Clones UDC councillor Pat Treanor wanted the party to develop the concept of community banking while Bairbre De Brún raised education issues.
Ard Chomhairle member, Councillor Caoimhghín O Caoileáin, opened the afternoon session of the conference. O Caoileáin welcomed the afternoon's speakers. He emphasised that the document ``presents in some detail Sinn Féin's economic and social objectives and the underlying philosophy which drives our thinking''.
Addressing the speakers and other invited groups O Caoileáin said, ``There are many people here today from many different backgrounds and representing diverse interests. I realise that many of you will not agree with much of what Sinn Féin stands for and our republican objectives. However, I think the last few years have shown that we share much common ground''.
O Caoileáin also promised that ``Sinn Féin does not view Putting People First as yet another set of policy principles and proposals that merely sit on bookshelves of republican activists and representatives, but one that can and will act as the basis for effective local community activity''.
Avila Kilmurray, director of the NIVT told the conference that she viewed Putting People First as an ``advocacy document'' rather than policy. She asked what did we mean by ``Putting People First'', emphasising that you can only empower through experience of concrete action rather than theory. She said she found the language of the document ``jargonised'' and asked how does the emphasis on the social economy sit with the socialist views that seem to underpin the document. Can it deliver our objectives? She also felt that the document overplayed the effects of British imperialism.
Combat Poverty Director Hugh Frazer told the conference that the topic is ``extraordinarily important'' and that major social and economic change such as is envisaged in Putting People First is a hard thing to achieve.
Frazer welcomed the discussion and said he had ``learnt by reading the document'' and that ``it raised important issues'', but countered this by saying that ``the use of violence...is a fundamental hindrance to adressing the deep-seated problem of poverty and social exclusion''.
He felt that the document was ``primarily orientated'' to the Six Counties and not enough on the 26 Counties. Frazer though did emphasise that ``the greatest challenge we face....as we approach the 21st century is to build a more inclusive and fair society''.
This was taken up by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams who closed the conference saying that ``the Irish are not a selfish people. Citizens want economic planning which improves the quality of life for all, instead of perpetuating a golden elite'' and that ``we recognise the absolute imperative of bringing about economic and social change within our society''
``For our part we have a vision for a future which sees local communities having a central role in creating a new Ireland. Our document and this conference have helped focus on these issues.
Putting People First
Sinn Féin's discussion document, Putting People First, on the role of the community in economic development was debated and dissected by party members and invited guests from the voluntary and governmental sectors last weekend. Below we carry an edited extract.
The right to local control
Communities throughout Ireland experience extensive economic and social deprivation. They alone cannot overcome this but they must play a central role in helping to plan and implement the regeneration of their own neighbourhoods.
The social economy draws out a vital distinction between private profit and interest and commercial viability and collective self help.
Community economic regeneration is a key process for ensuring that responses to disadvantage are community-led, strategically driven and correspond directly to local social need. Sinn Féin believes it is essential that future planning at the local and national levels can no longer be achieved without community participation from beginning to end.
Strategic partnerships between communities and public sector agencies are needed for successful local regeneration. Such strategies need to have the following principles enshrined:
Sinn Féin believes community economic regeneration and the partnership concept can offer considerable positive economic change if it is inclusive.
The social economy
By promoting the social economy local communities can begin to develop practical solutions in the shape of sustainable regeneration strategies. In recent years Ireland has witnessed the emergence of many community-based regeneration initiatives. Collectively they represent a new departure in progressive economic development. Sinn Féin believes this flourishing innovation within local communities represents a new third sector which will ultimately position the social economy alongside the public and private sectors.
Redefining economic needs
The social economy realigns local economic development with a community development perspective. It places people's needs at the centre of regeneration. This allows communities in partnership to redefine enterprise and employment as needing also to be socially productive. Local activity within the social economy reveals the potential for dynamic innovation.
Local regeneration activity is invariably integrated. Examples include:
Impacting on local environmental and ecological concerns whilst developing job creation through recycling enterprises;
Redressing low skills attainment within communities by developing training programmes linked directly into new multi media technology;
Providing appropriate local childcare services which simultaneously creates employment, and allow parents to pursue opportunities to access education, training or enter employment themselves.
The social economy model is applicable to all communities whether urban, rural, fishing. Sinn Féin identifies its potential to develop on a national basis. Good examples which have come to the fore in recent years include local regeneration in communities throughout North and West Belfast; Bogside and Creggan in Derry; and Tyrone. In the 26 Counties we have witnessed a revival in the credit union movement along with the emergence of thriving local currency networks. Other positive factors have been the increasing number of new local development associations particularly in western regions as well as urban settings throughout the state.
Implications of the Social Economy
The importance of the social economy for broader economic policy is multifaceted in its impact upon community-based initiatives.
Firstly, it is a process based on a people-centred perspective and sustainable economic activity and job creation.
Secondly, the social economy stimulates an innovative approach to developing local enterprise.
Thirdly, it demonstrates that local development and democratic practices are not only complimentary but co-dependent.
Fourthly, social economy activity can facilitate practical cross community co-operation between nationalists and unionists in the Six Counties and highlights the potential for co-operation on issues of mutual economic concern.
Lastly, the social economy creates a structured interface, between local community economic regeneration and the responsibility of the private and public sectors. It also establishes key democratic principles for the advancement of all future economic development planning and activity throughout Ireland.
Outcomes of the social economy
Sinn Féin is convinced that the social economy has an enormously important role to play in the regeneration of communities and their neighbourhoods in terms of:
Establishing sustainable local economic and social infrastructures;
Setting in place essential building blocks for the eventual construction of a democratic island based economy.
A national forum should be appointed to inform the development of an island based social economy strategy. This should address the potential of community enterprise banking
Social economy activity can facilitate practical cross community co-operation between nationalists and unionists in the Six Counties
facilities and the function of social capital in supporting local communities development activities.
Similar consideration should be devoted to research, development and training in the social economy field as is directed into conventional economic activity and preparing communities for private or foreign investment.
We believe the concept of the peace dividend, particularly relating to US investment and the IFI expenditure must be realigned in support of authentic community regeneration strategies.
At local level the private sector, local government and public bodies must become more pro-actively concerned with the development of strategic partnerships with communities and the social economy.
Sinn Féin believes that through a synergy between the social economy's innovation, the public and private sector and foreign investment, new pioneering development strategies can be implemented to bring about a sustainable future for Ireland's urban, rural and fishing communities.