Northern Ireland Interfaith Forum


Minister announces plans to establish a Faith Forum for Social Development

Statement in the Assembly by the Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie    2nd

February 2010


Minister announces plans to establish a Faith Forum for Social Development  (see paragraph 10)



1.   I welcome the opportunity to debate the contribution that faith-based organisations make to society in Northern Ireland. I thank Michelle McIlveen, Simon Hamilton and Mervyn Storey for tabling this very important motion. The motion seeks to recognise the range of services that are provided by church- and faith-based organisations. In that respect, I have no hesitation in confirming my belief that churches and faith-based groups play a significant and important role in meeting the needs of people in all our most needy and hard-to-reach communities.


2.   Denominational, interdenominational and nondenominational faith groups have always been at the forefront of caring for local people in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland. It is interesting to note that, in the past, before the foundation of our present health and social welfare systems in the 1940s, churches were the cornerstone of charitable work and caring for people, families and children. For example, Bryson House, which is one of our biggest local charities, owes its creation to men and women of the Christian faith who cared about the poor people in their midst. Today, faith-based groups such as the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Salvation Army are possibly the best-known and highest-profile groups that provide services to the most in need. Year after year, their joint Christmas appeal is extremely successful in attracting support from many local companies and organisations and in collecting substantial donations of money and toys from kind-hearted people across the community. Jonathan Bell made reference to that. However, they do not do good work at Christmas alone; they make an all-year commitment to caring for people who are most in need. Many other faith-based groups work in our midst; and there are too many to name during today’s debate. Some are large and serve across all the North of Ireland while others are much smaller and focus, serve and engage with individuals and small groups of local people. All those faith groups draw volunteers from their own membership and are each making a valuable contribution to their local community in helping to serve those who are most in need. I cannot think of any area of need to which a faith-based group somewhere does not make a valued contribution. Faith organisations serve those who are struggling with poverty, personal debt, homelessness, poor health — including addiction and drug and alcohol abuse — suicide and mental illness. They also help children and adults with learning difficulties, and deal with family breakdown, violence in the home and the neglect of children.


3.   A research-based report commissioned by Youthnet in 2006 presented statistics that suggested that more than two thirds of all organised youth work in Northern Ireland was credited to churches and faith groups. In recognising the extent and wide range of deprivation and social need that the faith-based organisations work to alleviate, I want to record my appreciation for the huge contribution to improving quality of life that churches and faith-based groups make in our society. Faith-based groups make a massive contribution in Northern Ireland, probably more so than anywhere else in Great Britain or in Ireland generally. I also believe that it is widely accepted across all our churches that faith-based groups can do more and wish to do even more. A few years ago, an interdepartmental task force reported that, as part of its work of looking into hard-toreach communities, the Churches had, in some cases, withdrawn from serving the needs of local communities as a result of inter- and intra-community tensions associated with our most troubled history. That situation was mentioned earlier by Mervyn Storey. Indeed, many of our Church leaders provided the evidence to support that view and led a call from within the Churches to look for new ways of engagement with those who needed help but were not actively involved in any particular church community.


4.   Mr Shannon: Is the Minister aware that, sometimes, the Churches endeavour to address those issues collectively? For example, the church groups in Newtownards and Comber have, in an intergenerational way, tried to address issues and identify the help that is needed in those towns.


5.   The Minister for Social Development: I thank Mr Shannon for his comment. He has given a good example of what happens not just in his constituency of Strangford but across Northern Ireland. It is encouraging to hear more and more reports of Church leaders encouraging their members to reach out with compassion and to speak a message of love — a model of practical service to those who are most in need — rather than sit comfortably in warm, well-maintained church buildings, looking after the needs of their own members.


6.   As the drive for faith-based work in the community has gathered momentum, I have been pleased to provide financial support to the Churches Community Work Alliance (CCWA) Northern Ireland, which is a regional infrastructure body that is tasked with increasing the work of faith-based groups that seek to serve disadvantaged people. The CCWA funding contract sets challenging targets for expanding, developing and improving the effect that local faith groups can have on their community. I am satisfied that they are developing that work well in a growing number of churches across many denominational and independent groups. As an organisation, the CCWA is modelling the benefits and advantages of collaboration when independent and interdenominational groups come together to serve and to share resources and expertise, thus maximising their potential to make a difference.  


7.   Mr Storey: Will the Minister give way?


8.   The Minister for Social Development: I must go on; I apologise, but I have little time.


9.   Another example of DSD’s work with local Churches is the “Don’t miss out” campaign, which was launched by the Social Security Agency in November 2009. The campaign was designed to provide information on benefit uptake to those aged over 65. All four main denominational Churches in four council areas provided posters and leaflets to members and visitors attending church services and programmed activities for elderly people. As part of our efforts to increase benefit uptake among elderly people, the agency will review the success of that campaign and the contribution made by the Churches. Again, the willingness of the four main denominational Churches in assisting the agency in that campaign is further testimony to their desire to partner with statutory authorities to help the needy. If I had more time, I could inform Members about the involvement of the Church of Ireland diocese of Derry and Raphoe in an interesting pilot project to increase the number of faith-based volunteers working with disadvantaged individuals in their local community. Similarly, I was pleased to secure funding to help to initiate a small pilot project at the City Church in Belfast. The project recruits volunteers from local faith communities to address problems associated with migrant worker families, as well as other community problems, in the area of south Belfast in which the City Church is based. Both projects are excellent examples of faith-led initiatives that demonstrate the caring heart of a faith community towards the poor and needy, the disadvantaged and the excluded.


10.        The debate provides me with the opportunity to advise the House of another new initiative, which, after extensive negotiations and discussions, will soon be announced publicly. I am currently agreeing and finalising proposals to establish a two-year pilot faith forum for social development. The forum will draw its members from churches and faith groups across Northern Ireland that have demonstrated a sustained commitment to serving those in need in our community, regardless of their individual faith, religion or creed. Officials in the Department’s voluntary and community unit will meet with the forum quarterly to discuss relevant policy areas. At those meetings, the officials will also hear suggestions from faith-based organisations on how my Department can better partner with faith groups in harnessing and unlocking their potential to reach and help the people and communities in greatest need.


11.        I expect that most Members recognise the biblical basis for the involvement of the Christian Church in social action through stories such as the Good Samaritan, which promotes the importance of being a good and caring neighbour, calls for widows and orphans to be looked after and upholds the principle of feeding the hungry and caring for the poor. I wonder how many Members are aware that that principle of charitable giving and demonstrating consideration for others less fortunate is shared by all major world faiths. For that reason, it is important to ensure that a small number of places on the new pilot faith forum are allocated to members who are able to represent and advise on the contribution that can be made by our minority non- Christian faith communities. Northern Ireland is a growing, multicultural society with an increasing size and range of faith communities. I am confident that Members will recognise the value of involving such representatives at the outset of the initiative. Although the creation of interfaith respect and mutual understanding will not be the primary objectives of such a faith forum, I am confident that those are highly likely to be most welcome spin-offs from its work.


12.        The motion also calls on me to commission a study similar to the Welsh Assembly’s report ‘Faith in Wales: Counting for Communities’. In recognition of the comments that I and others have made during the wider debate and given the immeasurable contribution made by faith communities to society here in Northern Ireland, I remain unconvinced about the long-term benefits of spending scarce financial resources on such a report. However, I do want to be helpful, and I am interested in consulting the future members of the faith forum on that matter. I propose to allocate a small annual budget to the pilot faith forum for the express purpose of carrying out research that will help the forum to be better placed to advise on and influence policy matters and project initiatives proposed by my Department. Several possible research proposals are currently under consideration. I will welcome more detailed proposals from the faith forum once it has had a chance to find its feet and deliberate on its priorities for research projects.  


13.        Many issues have been raised during the debate. I believe that members of all faith groups have demonstrated their commitment to the needy; not because they want recognition, but because it is a fundamental element of their personal faith. It is an expression of their beliefs and values, and that is something that is central and pivotal to each of us. It is appropriate for the Assembly and its Members to recognise the contribution and capacity of all those faith-based organisations and all who carry out such work in partnership with statutory authorities in order to make a difference in local communities across Northern Ireland. I am pleased that the House has recognised the significant and valuable role that is played by faith based organisations in our society. I assure Members that my intention is to continue to work with faithbased organisations to further unlock and increase their potential to work as partners with all statutory bodies and agencies for the good of all our people, especially those in most need. I will respond to Members on individual matters if I have not addressed them in the body of my speech. I am happy to have further discussions with Members on this important topic.