Constitutional change and devolution – is there a role for philanthropy?


Martin O'Brien


I think it’s fair to say that many of us working in philanthropy were entirely unprepared for the deep divisions and polarisation exposed and brought about by Brexit. We are still coming to terms with it and adapting our efforts to address the new challenges which it presents, coupled of course with the impact of a global pandemic. Meanwhile a new problem is sneaking up on us and I fear we are similarly unprepared. 

Brexit has unleashed a growing debate about future constitutional arrangements, devolution and relationships in and between these two islands. The recent election results in Scotland, greater debate in Wales about devolution, increasing demands for a poll in Northern Ireland about its future in the UK or as part of Ireland, and rising English nationalism and broader changes to the devolution framework are some of the manifestations of this.   The existing arrangements are under considerable strain. The issues are unlikely to go away. Rather they seem set to intensify, exacerbated by the increasing centralisation of power in Westminster. Alongside this the UK government is considering limiting people’s ability to challenge its decisions in courts and to mount public protest. The government has also established a review into the operation of Human Rights Act.   

What role, if any, is there for philanthropy to play in helping to respond to this situation and to support the discussion about change, in a way that counters increasing polarisation and division and enhances the possibilities of working for greater social justice? 

I’m particularly concerned about this for Northern Ireland where the consequences of a poorly managed and/or misinformed discussion can be profoundly destabilising. We have already witnessed this in relation to Brexit and we’ve recently seen some warnings of what can result again in terms of violence on our streets. It’s essential that as broader UK initiatives and debates unfold that there is a more conflict sensitive approach to their potentially negative consequences in Northern Ireland. Sadly, that has been almost entirely lacking in recent years. However, this is not just a worry for Northern Ireland. Unless change is managed carefully it could have deeply damaging consequences in Britain and also across the island of Ireland.

What might philanthropy do?

Firstly, the root of many of our problems is that options and debates are almost always presented as binary choices. This is especially true when considering constitutional change. Philanthropy could do more to support those working on constitutional options and devolution, while ensuring that discussion reaches beyond academia and the political/policy spheres. Supporting the development of preferenda, deliberative processes and citizens’ assemblies could be very helpful. Citizens’ assemblies have played an important role in Ireland on controversial issues of constitutional reform such as abortion and same sex marriage. We could also learn from current approaches to constitutional reframing that are happening in Chile, where there is a welcome emphasis on citizen participation. 

Secondly, Brexit has taught us that slogans often tell you very little about what you are voting for and what it will all mean in practice. Much more effort is needed to put the flesh on the bones of proposals so that they move beyond the slogans to give a clearer idea about what is on offer to people and how it will be delivered. In this context having an effective independent media which engages fully in the effort to explain, inform, question and educate is a key requirement especially when it comes to hugely significant choices and debates. There is also an obvious need for more community engagement and education around both developing proposals and engaging in their substance. Can philanthropy support such efforts? Can it resource organisations that can inform and draw learning from the hopes, concerns and priorities of people in local communities? In particular, can it help engagement with young people who will be the inheritors of whatever decisions are made?

Thirdly, is it possible to structure conversations about the future more closely to the kind of values which should underpin any new arrangements.   What kind of values do we want our society and its institutions to embody and deliver? In doing so is it possible to build diverse and unusual partnerships and alliances which transcend inherited traditional divisions and soften the more polarising conversations? Can philanthropy provide support for work which fosters greater consensus and reaches out more effectively to those who are undecided (the ‘movable middle’), the disengaged and the alienated? Can it fund initiatives that increase our engagement and understanding of those who are entirely disengaged, and can it also support the difficult work of local activists who are positing democratic options and forms of activism as alternatives to a resort to violence and hatred?

Finally, in the Northern Ireland context there is the continuing need to support community-based peacebuilding. The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement provides the bedrock for a sustainable peace but the important process of explaining it to a new generation and monitoring its implementation remains. Over the period since Brexit, we have seen threats of violence, street protests and the political use of the spectre of violence. However, less visible has been the tireless effort by many community activists, on all sides of our community, to prevent the escalation of violence. Their work needs to be recognised and acknowledged, but also supported through timely and flexible funding for local initiatives.

In conclusion there seems to a be significant gap in ensuring that the discussion about change and future constitutional arrangements takes place in a deep and informed way, minimising further polarisation and division. Precisely because philanthropy is not likely to be invested in any particular constitutional outcome it’s well placed to play a constructive role – it can be bold and courageous.

Martin O’Brien is director of the Social Change Initiative and former senior vice-president at Atlantic Philanthropies.

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