National contexts and voluntary action: The voluntary sector and government in Northern Ireland – the end of a marriage of convenience?
Acheson, Nick (2009)

by Dr Nick Acheson

There is a pressing need to develop a comparative research agenda across the UK that draws on international comparative research into the developing role of the third sector in welfare state modernization. Such an agenda requires new theorizing and this paper suggests that neo-institutional theories and theories of the public sphere offer a promising framework. By way of illustration, the paper argues that relations between the voluntary sector and government in Northern Ireland have been conducted through a marriage of convenience dating back to the early 1990s. The policy framework that guided the marriage came to a natural end in December 2008 and it is likely that relationships will become more fraught in the future. The paper summarises evidence of the size and nature of the sector in Northern Ireland and how this has been changing, and relates its development to the context of the ‘peace process’ and the peculiar nature of the political settlement of the ‘Good Friday’ agreement of 1998 that led to the reinstatement of devolution. It argues that the way in which the sector is structured by the deep sectarian divisions in civil society in Northern Ireland have left it both vulnerable to state capture and politically weak. In more straightened times ahead, it runs the risk of being relegated to a subservient role.

Nick’s presentation is available here (Powerpoint format).

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