Investing in Trust Building and 'Good Relations' in a Public Sector organisation

Karin Eyben, Duncan Morrow, Derick Wilson

Research output: Book/ReportBookpeer-review


‘Why Good Relations?’ For more than thirty years, public life in Northern Ireland has been assailed by conflict and lack of trust forming the backdrop against which everything else in political, social and economic life is measured. People have easily become reduced to mono-cultural identities within the logic of the conflict. These so-called single-identities have limited our capacity to form meaningful relationships and networks which cross into ‘enemy’ territory. The logic of segregation has become the accepted ‘common sense’, implicitly underpinning many approaches to providing facilities and services or funding local organisations. This ‘common sense’ has been evidenced in both formal procedures and programmes underpinning a ‘logic of the ghetto’ or in informal ways of working that replicate and strengthen the ‘logic of silence’. Thus while workplaces have remained formally mixed, they have been regulated by the imposition of the ‘neutral working environment’ which automatically precludes all meaningful interaction on areas of conflict in the name of containing the worst possibilities of conflict. Some residential areas have remained statistically mixed, but usually on the basis of silence and polite interaction. Without doubt, there have been significant social and economic costs. Most importantly for the future, the possibilities for learning together have diminished and this has a long-term impact on resources, employment, knowledge, information and ultimately on this society’s capacity for innovation and the exploitation of new opportunities. Over the years, there have many initiatives aimed at alleviating this situation. The Agreement of 10 April 1998 was the culmination of efforts by many people and groups in political life and civil society. In this Agreement and the subsequent Programme for Government, the development of a culture of equality and the building of trust are recognised as central strands in generating a sustainable society. Our vision – as set out in the Agreement – is of a peaceful, cohesive, inclusive, prosperous, stable and fair society, firmly founded on the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust and the protection and vindication of human rights for all. (Programme for Government, Northern Ireland Executive, 2001) Yet aside from words, there is a yawning absence of any operational core to trust building in Northern Ireland. For many people and institutions in Northern Ireland, the only way to cope with the tensions and dangers of politics was and is to ruthlessly eliminate all trace of them in any inter- community setting. Debates about identity and diversity have been overwhelmingly shaped as parallel claims for self- assertion while debates on equality focused on narrowly quantitative measures which took no account of the costs of social apartheid. Measures aimed at fostering social relationships that were both desirable and sustainable in Northern Ireland have often run at cross-purposes to one another. In 1997, Future Ways identified a need to refocus community relations work on its underlying intentions within the framework of liberal democracy; equity, diversity and interdependence. This implied a desire to articulate the principles which community relations work sought to embody. In theory at least, the articulation of first principles could then release community relations work from the caricature of perceived practice and challenge all elements of society to consider their contribution to real common goals. Since then, the Northern Ireland Act, which translated into United Kingdom law the core elements of the Belfast Agreement, has formally begun to recognise the interconnection between equality and trust-building. Under section 75 of the Act, which established a new single Equality Commission, all public bodies have a duty to provide services paying due regard to the need to promote equality under nine different categories and having regard to the need to promote good relations among people of differing religious or racial background and among those of different political beliefs.In theory at least, the introduction of the good relations dimension into legislation, with regards to political and religious divisions, extended the focus of trust-building beyond traditional community relations work to the core of Northern Ireland society. It did so within a context where the persistent policy preference for addressing community relations at its most visible points of failure – urban ghettos, victims work, work with paramilitaries – or among constituencies accepted as important for the future – children and young people – had ensnared community relations work within a centre-periphery paradigm. Such limited approaches mistakenly presumed a broadly healthy core of society with marginal manifestations of sectarian violence. Such a paradigm suggests that the politically weakest groups in Northern Ireland should be the focus of policy concern. Mistrust and violence were not seen as proper areas of active concern in many areas of Northern Irish society. Indeed, the very ‘bracketing off’ of large areas of activity is held up as success, and has become habitual. Outside the points of greatest stress, tensions are largely contained by silence and legislative exclusion from the public domain. Really paying regard to the need to promote good relations means reversing the core adaptive pattern of learning in Northern Ireland; denial and avoidance. This strategy has been most successful where it has been least visible; in the protected central core of socio-economic life. In spite of thirty years of violence there is a distinct lack of any culture of open-ended innovation in the area of trust-building within the public sector, private sector and even vast areas of the voluntary sector. If good relations are to be taken seriously, however, there must be a move away from the centre-periphery paradigm towards a model which expects change to be led by those with the greatest capacity to model change – i.e. those at the heart of political, social and economic life. While the immediate needs of areas and groups which have suffered disproportionately must continue to receive the lion’s share of public financial support, the possibilities for real change depend at least as much on the active engagement and learningof core public, voluntary and private activity across the whole of Northern Irish society. While the recognition of the need to promote good relations at the core of public life is to be welcomed, it also generates a difficult paradox; real change depends on new commitments rather than legislative coercion. While legislation provides an essential floor, below which rights to equitable treatment and recognition of difference cannot slip without damage to civilisation itself, the long-run sustainability of this society depends on the real commitment of people to the principles underlying the legislation. Trying to enforce something called ‘Good Relations’ may therefore result in worse relations unless it stems from an ongoing dialogue within the community and between the public services and their stakeholders. The lack of any developed mechanisms to work out these issues, means that the commitment to good relations has remained largely theoretical, while employers have focused their attention on avoiding the financial penalties of failing to meet with the requirements of equality- proofing. For organisations to commit to change, they need to be shown that improved relationships have a direct bearing on an improved quality of life and their own capacity to achieve key organisational goals. The result is a yawning gap between the expressed wish in many organisations to contribute to better relationships and the absence of any practical programmes to address this aspiration. Very little progress has been made in devising appropriate models of engagement for a wide range of organisations and sub-cultures across Northern Ireland, leaving legislators in the invidious position of imposing regard for an aspiration (good relations) which nobody has the slightest idea how to translate into practice. Before we proceed with further legislation, which enforces conformity with pre-ordained but practically non-existent outcomes, we need measures which support the development of a culture of learning, and developments which encourages innovation and commitment in pursuit of an agreed vision and values. The notion of community relations or good relations ‘training’ is thus entirely inadequate to the task facing organisations in Northern Ireland. Instruction is inappropriate when exploring open-ended questions and issues. Instead of looking to ‘training’ to deliver good relations in Northern Ireland, the focus must shift to cultures which encourage learning and allow capacity to grow. In a context where there are no fixed models of practice, an invitation to explore the hard, practical implications of equity, diversity and interdependence in an organisation is an invitation on to unmapped territory. Capacity building will require dialogue, open inquiry, problem solving, design, implementation and reflection. The key measure of success in such policy will be the growth of really new capacity across public life in Northern Ireland to deal with difficult, but real, problems. It must not be the instant promotion of surface harmony, which leaves underlying issues untouched. The REDI project in Newry and Mourne District Council grew out of precisely these considerations. While the development of a practical model of evolving good relations was not an expressed goal of the project, it was clear from the publication of the Northern Ireland Act that this was indeed what the project was about. Starting with an empty page, the task of the project was not to address specific issues but to develop a space in which all issues causing conflict and tension in the Council could be acknowledged and shaped into practical ways forward. Among the most important issues was the piloting of a new culture of learning in which the Council sought to move from a perceived partisan culture, a culture which polices neutrality, to one which fosters and protects diversity. The protection and promotion of these questions requires the active participation of many people holding leadership positions with the experiences and concern of others who have a stake in their groups or organisations. As we discovered, generating contexts where people can be at ease rather than patrolled is an extremely delicate and difficult process in Northern Ireland, involving organisations learning to do what they have little or no previous experience of doing and therefore often have every inclination to avoid. The claim of this project is therefore not to have provided a finished model, but to have grasped a very poisonous nettle, drawn its sting a little and found that life together here, with all its discomforting properties, can be imagined and promoted. This project, and others like it, has begun to map out the territory of the question behind good relations in Northern Ireland; how is this to be achieved? Karin Eyben, Duncan Morrow, Derick Wilson14 january 2003
Original languageEnglish
PublisherUlster University
Number of pages64
ISBN (Print)1-85923-167-5
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 14 Jan 2003

Bibliographical note

Reference text: 2
REDI stands for “Relationships in Equity, Diversity and Interdependence”. This evolved from the report by Future Ways
in 1997 on the three principles of Equity, Diversity and Interdependence.
The full report of the REDI process is available from the Future Ways Programme, University of Ulster.
Now the Community Relations Unit (CRU) located within the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFM
and DFM)
Eyben, Morrow and Wilson, A Worthwhile Venture? Practically Investing in Equity, Diversity and Interdependence in
Northern Ireland, University of Ulster , 1997.
Now a directorate within the new Equality Commission
Section on Harassment in the Workplace, ‘The Inside Stories’ – A Trainer’s Resource Pack (Video), Counteract, November 1995
The term Development Group was first used in this work by Brendan McAllister, Director of Mediation Northern Ireland when
developing a partnership project with Future Ways in 1998.
These themes emerge from earlier research by the Future Ways Team. See footnote 5.

Adapted from Senge, P., et al, The Dance of Change, Doubleday Publishing , pp., 16-18, 1999.
See Scoping Study Report held by Newry and Mourne District Council.
Senge, P., et al, The Dance of Change, Doubleday Publishing, p. 420, 1999.
Declaration of Principles – see Appendix A
This Forum was a council sponsored initiative with local community and cultural groups in the town of Newry,
facilitated by Brendan McAllister, Mediation Northern Ireland.
This was a term used by some politicians to denigrate the work of community relations
Phrase taken from Dave Brubaker’s text at the “Organisational Change” Seminar, Belfast, May 2000.
Morrow, Wilson, Eyben, Reconciliation and Social Inclusion in Rural Areas, Rural Community Network, Cookstown, 2000
Bentley, T., Learning Beyond the Classroom, Routledge, 1998.
Senge, P., et al, Schools that Learn, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, p.412., 2000.
Quote from Brendan McAllister, Mediation Northern Ireland
Adapted from Senge, P., Dance of Change, p.41, Doubleday Publishing, 1999.
Adapted from Senge, P., Dance of Change, Doubleday Publishing, 1999.
Senge, P., The Dance of Change, p., 70 , Doubleday Publishing, 1999
Adapted from D. Brubaker. Also included in the EDI Framework Document (Future Ways and Counteract 2001


  • Good relations
  • Equality
  • Public Sector
  • Trust Building
  • Equity
  • Diversity
  • Interdependence
  • Community Relations
  • Reconciliation
  • Race Relations


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