15th May 2009

University of Ulster, Belfast , United Kingdom

The Spring 2009 Day Conference took place at the University of Ulster in Belfast. More than 40 delegates participated in a packed day of papers and discussion. The day was opened by a welcoming address from Maeve Walls, Director of the Voluntary and Community Unit in the Department for Social Development who gave an interesting account of the challenges facing both government and the voluntary sector in the development of government policy towards the voluntary sector in Northern Ireland and said she wished to develop a more strategic and research driven role for her unit.

Her presentation was followed by two papers in the morning session focused on developments on the island of Ireland. Nick Acheson, from the host institution argued that devolution in the UK offered an opportunity to extend comparative research on the voluntary sector by using institutional and neo-institutional theories to predict and understand divergences in voluntary sector policy and practice within the different parts of the UK. He argued that the case of Northern Ireland showed how local factors both in the policy environment and in the social base for voluntary action shaped the way in which relations between the state and the sector developed.

Joe Larragy, from the National University of Ireland, Maynooth gave a paper (written with Freda Donoghue from Trinity College Dublin who was unable to be present) exploring the development of state sector relations in the Republic of Ireland during the ‘Celtic tiger’ years. Rapid secularization and rampant consumerism, coupled with the collapse of trust in the institutions of the Roman Catholic church had created a completely new environment, to which the government had failed to provide a coherent policy response in terms of developing policies towards the sector as a whole. The involvement of the voluntary sector in the ‘community pillar’ of national partnership structures was a significant policy innovation that had formalized the role of the sector in policy-making while exposing important rifts within the sector itself.

Following these two papers there was a short business meeting in which the main item discussed was the imminent launch of the new journal. A contract had been signed with a publisher and the editorial board was being formed. A call for papers would be issued later in the year.

After lunch, Paul Chaney from the University of Wales, reported on his research on the political participation of equalities organizations in Wales. Drawing on institutional theory, he argued that there were significant discontinuities with the situation before devolution and that the legal framework provided by both equalities law and by the two Government of Wales Acts, had provided equalities organizations an increased role in policy-making and had strengthened their capacity. But he noted that there were dangers of co-option and there were worries over the extent of authenticity of the voice being exercised in these new structures.

Pete Alcock from the Third Sector Research Centre discussed the development of policy towards the voluntary sector in England. His paper drew together many of the days’ themes particularly the tension between ‘horizontal’ policies like the compact and the policy environment in particular ‘vertical’ fields, the dangers of isomorphism and takeover, and the tension between service delivery and civic engagement mirrored by the strong centralizing tendency in government evidenced by the Treasury’s interest in the sector, and the rhetorical commitment to localism and empowerment.

The last paper of the day was given by Ruchir Shah, from the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations, who argued that the policy environment in Scotland differed significantly from that in England. Whilst to an extent Scotland had been playing ‘catch-up with England, nevertheless a greater commitment to public services and the political need to develop distinctly Scottish policies had resulted in a separate reflective ‘space’ in Scottish policy-making which had led to a number of specific and distinctively Scottish policy initiatives that did not fully mirror developments elsewhere in the UK.

The day was wound up by Arthur Williamson, Professor Emeritus of Voluntary Action Studies at the University of Ulster. He recalled that it was almost exactly 20 years exactly since the inaugural voluntary sector studies conference at the University of Ulster.

Thanks are due to Roberta Madill and her team in the School of Hospitality at the University of Ulster who provided the catering for the day.