Almost every week in 2021 the campaigners we support engaged with the powers that be, via emails, consultations, meetings about meetings, phone calls, text messages, DMs. Our message was rooted in existing human rights obligations, constructive, clear and, in case it was misunderstood, also broadcast in every mainstream media outlet on the island, and a few over the water too.
But like the software and hardware we have used for decades to support our campaigns – much of which exploits us – many of these processes of political engagement are redundant in the face of the challenges we are confronting. The majority of civil society organisations are almost completely dependent upon state funds to exist, which cripples capacity to raise grievances and call out attacks on human rights by government policy. We, like other human rights organisations free from state funding, have always had the privilege of being able to create our own rules of engagement, but there remains a fierce institutional resistance to change at every level of government and public services, regardless of which political party has the reins of power.
We need brave leaders in government willing to take risks and embrace change.
It would be encouraging if 2022 was the year when the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey finally implemented the long promised human rights checklist for social security decision makers. Imagine the good that this proposal – already endorsed by every political party, trade union and advice agency – would do for people who are feeding their families from food banks and facing a crippling increase in the costs of living?
It would be brilliant to see action on the ground at Mackie’s in west Belfast to match the island wide message of housing revolution. Imagine a housing Minister stepping up with a bold vision to unite a divided city around a sustainable housing development in the area of highest need and greatest neglect - an exemplar to set the standard for the communities of the future?
It would be a relief to so many if 2022 was the year the Health Minister, Robin Swann - rightly praised for his solid performance in response to the COVID health crisis - committed a significant chunk of his department’s resources to tackling our mental health crisis. Imagine a holistic strategy which addressed the structural harm being done to mental health by government policies and privatised services - a strategy informed and supported by families bereaved by suicide and a coalition of organisations on the front line providing mental health support?
It would be widely welcomed - by all except racists - if local ministers and departments took a stand against the racism of the UK Home Office. Imagine a cross party effort to use local powers in support of the powerless in the asylum system, allowing them to contribute their skills and knowledge to build a kinder economy?
Maybe 2022 is the year it all happens, but we can’t wait around forever listening to excuses like ‘we must consult with our stakeholders’, ‘if we get re-elected’ and ‘our hands are tied by Westminster’. If that’s the case, why are we talking to you?
How much longer can we work in a political reality where politicians can imagine a United Ireland, a United Kingdom, another century for Northern Ireland - but can’t imagine a city beyond interfaces, a sustainable and inclusive neighbourhood, a human rights checklist for civil servants, a job for an asylum seeker or mental health care beyond prescriptions?
On the big issues, like climate and constitutional change, we have to hope that 2022 is the year when political leaders start to show unity of purpose to deliver human rights and the rights of nature, transcending narrow party-political ambition to act in the public interest - like they did when COVID started.
But hope alone won’t put our priorities on the agenda when experts set the tables to plan our future - especially when politicians are locked in a populist popularity contest during elections and the wealthy can pay for access to power.
We’ll have to re-arrange a few of them tables and fill them with experts of our own.
And yet, as understandably cynical as many of us may be about the political systems on this island, dictated as they are by wealth and privilege – ultimately, by hook or by crook, we can disrupt and change these systems to operate in our interests and help shape a future worth having on our small patch of the planet. All over the world we have witnessed the scale and possibility of state interventions in the public interest. We can never again accept empty arguments about the limits of what’s possible. Similarly, all over the world communities are making change happen and waiting for permission from no-one.
We need urgent action at a greater scale than any of us have ever seen before if we are going to meet the challenges ahead – but it’s always worthwhile asking what’s the best use of our time and energy – to look inward as much as outward.
Maybe 2022 is the year when our votes matter most. If we vote for the right politician just one last time in the latest critical, crucial, once in a generation, life-changing, world-changing, constitution-changing election, then maybe, just maybe this year’s promises will last?
But just in case it works out the same as every other election, we’re gonna hedge our bets, dig deeper in the data, make our own tools, plough our own path, create our own projects, help our friends in need and ask them to return the favour when we need it - to help build new power and put a few ideas into action to deliver institutions fit for purpose.
The door will always be open for election candidates to join in the craic when they can escape the circus and we’ll be sure to share the selfies on Twitter as we build a better world together. ;-)
Read Part 1 - ‘Time to Join The Circus’
Read Part 2 - ‘Looking Back on Last Year’