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Conference 2023


Conference Report

Introducing the Conference, Professor Katy Hayward said that this 25th anniversary year of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was a good time to start thinking about the governance of Northern Ireland. Its legitimacy must derive from something more positive than merely being preferable to conflict. The Agreement clearly has legitimacy in terms of its principles and values, but in terms of practice, there is still a way to go. She reminded the meeting of these words from the Declaration of Support to the Agreement: "we will endeavour to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements. We pledge that we will, in good faith, work to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements to be established under this agreement".

Micheál Martin TD, Tánaiste, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence, gave the opening speech of the Conference. He said that this was a moment of complexity and nuance, even strain, in the relationships detailed in the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement. In truth the great hope of 1998 had not delivered sufficiently for the people of Northern Ireland. The British Government's unilateral departure from an agreed approach to legacy issues was a matter of regret. But the hard work, good will and partnership that brought about the Agreement - an amazing act of collective imagination - could be harnessed again to create a new moment of hope for these islands. Much could be done by sharing experiences and by using the North/ South bodies to deliver better healthcare, better food, better jobs to the benefit of all. His Shared Island initiative was an investment in connections, in partnerships, in building trust. We must listen to the voices of the young and the voices of those who call themselves Irish in Northern Ireland, Northern Irish in Northern Ireland, both Irish and British, and those who don't identify as such. We must empower civil society and business leaders. And we must see the Executive and Assembly restored.

(The full text of the Tánaiste's address is at

The Rt Hon Chris Heaton-Harris MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, also called for the restoration of the Stormont institutions in his speech on the second day of the Conference. He said that political dysfunction was limiting opportunities for the people of Northern Ireland. The Executive must get back in place so that ministers can take the tough decisions needed to balance the budget and raise the necessary revenue. He had urged the party leaders to work with the Civil Service to agree a sustainable and credible Programme for Government that would deliver better outcomes for Northern Ireland from day one. He was fully aware of the calls for him to step in and take the decisions that the absent Executive was neglecting but made no apology for holding firm to his belief in devolution, in power-sharing, and in that historic Belfast/Good Friday Agreement which was signed 25 years ago.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Inequalities in the allocation of public housing in Northern Ireland were a major catalyst in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's, and the NIHE was founded in response to the Cameron Report on the causes of violent disturbance. In the second session of the Conference, Grainia Long, the first female CEO of the housing executive, gave a perceptive overview of public housing policy since then, the NIHE being the first and largest public housing body in the UK.

Grainia addressed the challenges of the early days of NIHE. In Belfast alone, 14,000 homes were damaged by the violence and there were over 5,000 squatters. 12% of Belfast's population was forced to leave their homes.

While contesting over the years with rent strikes, the robbery of collection agents, sectarian and anti-social behaviour, and after 550,00 allocations of housing, not a single case of unfair allocation has been proven in the last 50 years. This was, as Grainia said, a tribute to the over 3,300 staff who work for NIHE.

In providing an insight into the challenges faced during each decade of the Troubles, Grainia brought the conference up to date with current issues. The conflict still shapes housing provision in Northern Ireland, with segregation between communities. There is a shortage of houses, and the waiting list has grown by 19% in recent years. New communities arriving in the province create pressure points, and the need at this time of climate change to future proof existing housing stock also demands creative and long-term strategic response. One signifier of the social context for public housing was the fact that in the 70's and 80's most people in NIHE housing were in work; today most are on benefits.

Grainia presented the conference with a vision for public housing in Northern Ireland and a realistic analysis of the challenges that have shaped the organisation in the past and which inform the present and will determine its future.

The Rt Hon Mark Drakeford MS, First Minister of Wales, Angus Robertson MSP Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, and Conor Murphy MLA, former Minister of Finance, took part in a lively panel debate on devolution and levelling up. Among the subjects they discussed were the adequacy or otherwise of the current inter-governmental institutions, increasing levels of inequality, and constitutional change. The question-and-answer session that followed was very lively too.

In a thought-provoking speech, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury, discussed the changing face of Britain. The coronation service of King Charles III in May this year, which the archbishop led, was a moment to draw upon our common history, to be honest about who and where we are, and to look with hope to the future. But who are we? We are the nation that saw its banking system collapse only 15 years ago, a nation post Brexit, post Covid, fighting a huge European war at one remove, and facing the long-term existential threats from climate change. What is our purpose? If nations identify themselves in terms of calling, what is ours, now that "our pomp of yesterday" has faded? One answer was in the coronation service: that power is given for the purpose of service, not domination: for others, not for self.

The archbishop said there was a danger of the entirely false idea prevailing that for most of us we are essentially autonomous human actors, protected by markets, who have the right to live without all but the most essential restraints on what we make of ourselves. But national identity, although symbolized in national institutions, is lived in locality and through a host of intermediate institutions - political parties, public bodies and the family or household among them. And the vast complexity of societies, economies, domestic and international influences and of 'events', requires leadership towards a consensus on the agreed values of the society. That leadership will always be human and fallible, but it must be courageous, collaborative, compassionate and resilient, willing to lose office for what is right.

(The text of the archbishop's speech is at

Taking up the theme of the changing face of Britain, four young people, largely from Unionist or Loyalist backgrounds, together in a conversation that was wide-ranging, deeply honest, often very moving and always good-humored. Segregation, economic deprivation, paramilitarism, drug addiction, classism, racism and identity were among the issues they discussed but although their perspectives differed, they found much to agree upon. A perception was that times were harder now than in the past - "the world I grew up in, that doesn't exist anymore. It doesn't exist. You know, and I think that is the problem. When you don't have a lot of resources, you don't have a massive amount of hope. If you take away someone's hope, what else is there?" They called for funding back to the previous levels for education and the voluntary and community sectors, and they wanted older politicians to engage. One said: "I can't remember the last time a politician held an event and said, Anyone show up, give us your thoughts".

They gave grounds for hope themselves, however, as all four were working towards positive change, through their community activism and journalism or other work. They recognized that identity is multi-layered and complex and that attempts to define it narrowly are not always helpful. A consensus was that young people needed to move on from inherited narratives of the past, "to decide what do we hold on to and what do we let go of in order to formulate a different way".

The question that the Most Reverend Dr Michael Jackson, archbishop of Dublin, asked in a sermon preached on the Sunday of the conference was: can atonement offer a way forward in the impasse of reconciliation? Reconciliation is very positive but is it enough or should we also strive towards atonement, literally 'at-one-ment', reintegration of disparate people as people rather than with reconciliation of tribal alienation. "Atonement with an outcome of solidarity, it begins with an end-result of cohesion, it presupposes something already in existence beyond the on-going trench-warfare of concession without gift, of two steps forwards and two steps backwards which is what reconciliation has long ago begun to look like in the eyes of far too many."

The concept of atonement in biblical terms is connected with the Year of Jubilee. "Why not work towards such a year in 2048, the 50th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement for the whole of Ireland and so surprise ourselves and those to whom we leave a legacy?"

(The text of the archbishop's sermon is at

The Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Steve Baker MP, introduced the final session of the conference by citing a hierarchy of needs running from safety, identity, community, productivity to joy. Arts and culture came within the joy category. Northern Ireland had been able to use creative arts not only for their own values but as a major new industry, including both being the backdrop to and a large-scale provider of creative inputs to the world's biggest television show, Game of Thrones.

Professor Paul Moore, Professor of Creative Technology at Ulster University, set out the role and achievements to date of Future Screen NI. Ulster University, with Queen's University and other partners in the project, had won UK funding in a challenge contest, which required 90% of the acquired funds to be spent outside the University. It had comfortably exceeded the targets it had been set, creating 571 jobs in five years and investments of £131 million from a start fund of £5 million. They had decided to present the programme in terms of business and investment, instead of arts and culture, and this had transformed access to capital. One element was in making an effective outreach through the 'Future Foundation' programme to enable artists and other creatives greatly to expand their impact by providing awareness of AI.

Paul also made a presentation about Studio Ulster, a virtual reality facility being built on groundwork prepared by Future Screen NI in the Belfast Harbour development. Two artists, Corinna Askin and Louise Taylor, then spoke about how their artistic work had been given far greater reach and range following approaches by Future Screen NI. Corinna's work linked drawn animal characters to the spaces of a garden project in Belfast, enabling children to connect them into natural settings. Louise's involved taking embroidery work being undertaken by different people but linked online, to a more ambitious level, associated also with the use of embroidery as therapy. In turn, this linked to an NGO that she set up to give support in the management of grief. Spin off benefits included extra provision of contracts to employers with a local heritage, including Ulster Carpets and Lough Neagh (who were getting to build embroidery frames).

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