Addresses by Bishop Noel Treanor and Mr Cormac Wilson, at launch of ‘Challenging Poverty in Northern Ireland’
1 December 2010
Addresses by Bishop Noel Treanor and Mr Cormac Wilson, at launch of Challenging Poverty in Northern Ireland, Belfast City Hall
The following are key extracts from the address by Bishop Noel Treanor at the launch today of the document Challenging Poverty in Northern Ireland, produced jointly by the Northern Ireland Catholic Commission on Social Affairs (NICCOSA), the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Mary’s University College, Belfast. The full text of Bishop Treanor’s address follows as does the text of the address given by Mr Cormac Wilson, President of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (Northern Region) at the same event. Key Extracts from Bishop Treanor’s address:
- “Those long trapped in the cycle of economic and social exclusion watched others on even quite modest incomes climb on to what seemed like an express train to greater wealth… Today we know that this train was destined to speed off the tracks, leaving in its wake thousands of new poor.”
- “As Christmas approaches, people are worried. Confidence is low. Hope in the future is in short supply…. There are few postcodes in Northern Ireland today where there is not some family living in fear of the next bill, of not being able to heat the house, of not having enough money for Christmas presents for the children, or of not having food on the table at the end of the month. Losing established wealth and becoming poor, perhaps for the first time in your life is a crushing and traumatic experience, often compounded by the emotional distress of leaving the stability of a much loved family home. This is the new and stark dimension of the poverty in our midst.”
- “The European Union – the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council – recognised from the outset that effective action against poverty requires active partnership between the public, private and voluntary sectors as a key vector for increasing public ownership of policies and actions promoting social inclusion… the battle against poverty requires more than policy and action from the political sector. It requires mutual recognition of the respective competence, experience and reach of all of the sectors who work with and have the capacity to address poverty and social exclusion.”
- “We are blessed in Northern Ireland with extraordinary levels of individual generosity and social concern. Let me take this opportunity to appeal for a new mobilisation of voluntary participation to tackle poverty and social exclusion in our society. We need more people to become involved in organisations like SVDP, Christians Against Poverty and other voluntary initiatives which provide practical support, including a caring word and a listening ear to those in need around us.”
- “Is there anyone so poor that they cannot give something of their time, talent or resources to help others? Important as they are, state-based systems of support will always find it difficult to replicate the dignity, friendship and personal support given by someone who is there to help for no other reason than that they care and that they are willing to give freely of their time to listen.”
- “Northern Ireland remains one of the most economically peripheral and disadvantaged regions of the EU… Growing our social market economy is vital to the integral development of the future economy in which profit and capital are at the service of people. Voluntary participation and subsidiary action are the entrepreneurial capital of the social market economy. They are essential in guiding the economy to its human and social ends.”
- “Let me also say a particular word to my sisters and brothers in the Christian Churches. Our political leaders, indeed society itself asks us to play our part in witnessing to and working for a more cohesive, shared and reconciled society. Our own Christian conviction draws us to work more collaboratively for the kind of society which reflects the attitudes and values revealed to us by Jesus in his call to build-up the Kingdom of justice, peace, holiness and love… My hope is that the document we have published today will serve as a catalyst to further dialogue about how as followers of Jesus we can bear common witness to our mutual concern to see poverty and its causes addressed at every level in Northern Ireland.”
Full text of Bishop Treanor’s address:
Lord Mayor, thank you for your warm welcome and your support from the outset for this joint initiative by the Northern Ireland Catholic Council for Social Affairs (NICCOSA), the Society of St Vincent de Paul and St. Mary’s University College. On behalf of all three sponsoring organisations I also want to thank the Minister for Social Development, Mr Alex Attwood for taking time out of his busy schedule to be with us this morning. I want to thank each of our distinguished panellists for contributing their invaluable experience and expertise to the discussion that will take place shortly and Mr Conor Bradford, who will chair that discussion, no doubt with the same dexterity and skill with which he manages so many challenging issues – not to mention challenging politicians and church people – on Good Morning Ulster!
I also extend a special word of thanks to each one of you for being here. We are delighted to have so many representatives from the Churches, from academia, from voluntary agencies and from political life. A very special word of welcome to those students who are here because this theme is relevant to their course or research: it is to you that our society turns with particular hope that the response to social need in the future will be rooted in a rigorous scientific analysis and in those values which give centre-place to the inherent dignity of every person, including the right to participation and a just standard of living
Honoured speakers, distinguished guests, our theme could hardly be more urgent or timely. All around us, the streets are cheerful with the sights and sounds of Christmas. Shopkeepers and their hardworking staff wait anxiously to see if pre-Christmas trade will bring the much needed uplift to sustain jobs and businesses after a difficult year for the bottom line. At the same time people walking through those streets are masking exceptional levels of uncertainty and fear.
According to the most recent Consumer Confidence Index for Northern Ireland[i], at least one in four of the people we pass in the streets believe they will be significantly worse of next year than they are today. People are worried. Confidence is low. Hope in the future is in short supply.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that the confluence of global economic events, the fear of imminent cut-backs in the Northern Ireland Budget and the dramatic reversal of fortune for the economy in the south of Ireland have given rise to new types of poverty as well as to new levels of poverty in our midst. On the one hand, the situation of those who have long lived below the poverty line has become even more precarious. As the document we have published today points out, the welcome growth in employment and wealth that followed the Good Friday Agreement was not matched by a corresponding reduction in established levels of poverty and social exclusion. If anything, social inequalities grew. Those long trapped in the cycle of economic and social exclusion watched others on even quite modest incomes climb on to what seemed like an express train to greater wealth through property acquisition, easy credit and easy access to various forms of ‘spread betting’ on the international markets.
Today we know that this train was actually destined to speed off the tracks, leaving in its wake thousands of new poor. I am referring of course to those people who now feel trapped by unprecedented levels of debt, who live in fear of losing even the modest means and assets they had and who, often behind the appearance of material comfort, mask excruciating levels of stress and anxiety in the midst of daily financial struggle. In this environment the traditional stereotypes of poverty and financial distress have been completely transformed.
There are few postcodes in Northern Ireland today where there is not some family living in fear of the next bill, of not being able to heat the house, of not having enough money for Christmas presents for the children, or of not having food on the table at the end of the month.
Losing established wealth and becoming poor, perhaps for the first time in your life is a crushing and traumatic experience, often compounded by the emotional distress of leaving the stability of a much loved family home. This is the new and stark dimension of poverty which I suspect organisations like St. Vincent de Paul, Christians Against Poverty, the Anti-Poverty Network and the Citizen’s Advice Bureau are having to respond to on a daily basis. It is certainly an important part of the reality which confronts us as we consider the theme of Challenging Poverty in Northern Ireland.
It was partly a desire to acknowledge and assess these new dimensions of poverty which motivated the three sponsoring organisations to put together the text we have launched today. It was also motivated by a desire to make a practical contribution to the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, 2010.
This initiative emerged out of the EU Social Agenda 2005-10, which complements and supports the Lisbon Strategy. The specific idea of having a ‘Year’ dedicated to combating poverty and social exclusion was the result of a joint decision of both the European Parliament and the Council in 2008. The communiqué announcing the decision explicitly recognised that:
‘The problem of poverty and social exclusion has broad, complex and multidimensional forms. They relate to a large number of factors, such as income and living standards, the need for educational and decent work opportunities, effective social protection systems, housing, access to good quality health and other services, as well as active citizenship. Stakeholders across all relevant policy areas should therefore be involved.’ [ii]
The European Union – the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council – recognised from the outset that effective action against poverty requires active partnership between the public, private and voluntary sectors as a key vector for increasing public ownership of policies and actions promoting social inclusion. A key objective of the initiative therefore was the development of shared responsibility, participation and cohesion, ‘emphasising both collective and individual responsibility in the fight against poverty and social exclusion, as well as the importance of active promotion and support of voluntary activities.’[iii] In other words, the Parliament and Council recognised that promoting the social dimension of economic growth and the active participation of citizens in the battle against poverty requires more than policy and action from the political sector. It requires mutual recognition of the respective competence, experience and reach of all of the sectors who work with and have the capacity to address poverty and social exclusion.
That is why in organising our event today we have sought to reflect the range of actors who are engaged in addressing the different dimensions of this issue. Our hope is that today’s event will help in some small way to consolidate existing cross-sectoral relationships, encourage the creation of new relationships for action and provide a basis for further conversations about how we as Churches, politicians, academics, community and voluntary organisations can work more cohesively to address the urgent challenge of poverty and social exclusion as it confronts us here in Northern Ireland.
Today we offer the publication Challenging Poverty in Northern Ireland as part of our contribution to that ongoing conversation. The document is not framed or presented as an exhaustive treatment of the issue. It seeks rather to do three things:
In section one it seeks to give a voice to those who are experiencing poverty through the experience of those who are working to support them, largely in a voluntary capacity.
The staff from St Mary’s University College undertook a series of interviews with people working in this capacity in an effort to move beyond the usual quantitative surveys of social exclusion to a methodology based on community dialogue. This had the advantage of highlighting the importance of social solidarity and community participation in addressing social exclusion and individual need. The community based ethos of organisations such as St Vincent de Paul, with its strong links between Parish and the local community – irrespective of religious affiliation – testifies to the effectiveness of this modus in challenging poverty and its causes.
Important as they are, state-based systems of support will always find it difficult to replicate the dignity, friendship and personal support given by someone who is there to help for no other reason than that they care and that they are willing to give freely of their time to listen. Let me therefore take this opportunity to pay tribute to all those who give of their time, talent and resources to help those around them who are in need. We are blessed in Northern Ireland with extraordinary levels of individual generosity and social concern. Let me take this opportunity to appeal for a new mobilisation of voluntary participation to tackle poverty and social exclusion in our society.
We need more people to become involved in organisations like SVDP, Christians Against Poverty and other voluntary initiatives which provide practical support, including a caring word and a listening ear to those in need around us. Is there anyone so poor that they cannot give something of their time, talent or resources to help others?
Growing our social market economy is vital to the integral development of the future economy in which profit and capital are at the service of people. Voluntary participation and subsidiary action are the entrepreneurial capital of the social market economy. They are essential in guiding the economy to its human and social ends.
The second section of the document highlights the extent of the challenge that we face in the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. Drawing on a range of surveys it summarises the key features of poverty and social exclusion identified by statutory organisations and non-governmental agencies in the region. It makes for stark reading. I know I found it disturbing to discover, for example, that the Kenway report on Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion in Northern Ireland [iv] established that prior to August 2006 there was an absence of official data on poverty in the region and that, where such data existed, it was inaccurate. This was compounded by the fact that this inaccurate data had been used over the years to shape the policies by which various Government departments sought to address poverty in Northern Ireland. The headline statistics of the more recent and accurate data are stark. They include:
– That Northern Ireland remains one of the most economically peripheral and disadvantaged regions of the EU;
– That approximately 110,000 children in Northern Ireland are living in income poverty, with 20% living in what the UN has described as ‘persistent poverty’, more than double the rest of the regions in the UK. This has to be one of the most disturbing and challenging statistics of all. Let me take this opportunity to pay particular tribute to those groups who work specifically to address the issue of childhood poverty, some of whom are represented here this morning.
Your work is vital. Your voice is vital in challenging all of us in the Churches, in politics, in civil and voluntary organisations to demonstrate our commitment to our stated values by working to alleviate the unconscionable levels of poverty which afflict so many children in our society. Other headline statistics which reflect the scale of the challenge include:
– 41% of individuals in lone parent families live in poverty;
– 33% of pensioners in rural areas live in poverty, highlighting the often forgotten theme of rural poverty and the distinctive issues associated with it;
– Northern Ireland has a higher proportion of households who are in receipt of tax credits than any other region in the UK, in other words, a higher proportion of ‘working poor’;
– 22% of the population of working age lack any qualifications, higher than any region in the UK;
– Health inequalities between poor and the better off remain significant;
– Homelessness has increased markedly in recent years.
I could go on but the other statistics in the document only serve to confirm what these headline statistics already tell us, that poverty and social exclusion is a fundamental and long standing issue in Northern Ireland which no government initiative or policy to date has comprehensively addressed.
And this brings me to the third section of the document. It is entitled Faith and Poverty. It seeks to highlight some of the key spiritual and moral principles from the Judeao-Christian tradition that motivate and inspire voluntary and charitable organisations such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul. It draws particular attention to four key principles which are not exclusively Catholic but which have an honoured place in Catholic Social teaching. They include:
– the principle of respect for the innate dignity and equality of the human person, recognising that every person is unique, social and open to God, with universal, inviolable and inalienable rights;
– the principle of the common good, recognising that the good of each person is bound up with the good of the community and with our capacity as human beings to flourish together;
– the principle of subsidiarity, recognising that the primary relationships in society are family and small social groups and that these can often act more effectively in addressing social need than national or regional structures;
– the principle of solidarity, holding that there is an essential bond between all people, that we are interdependent with a responsibility for the good of all and of each individual.
The European Parliament and Council as well as many individual states within the EU are increasingly recognising the role of Churches and faith based organisations as key actors in the social economy. Without compromise to the appropriate autonomy of Church and State in their respective areas of competence, there is an increasing willingness on the part of Governments and non-faith based organisations across the EU to dialogue, support and actively collaborate with Church based organisations in mutual pursuit of the common good. This includes a shared commitment to the eradication of poverty and to addressing social exclusion.
Here in Northern Ireland, the Churches and faith based organisations make a particularly significant contribution to the social economy. The level of funding, capital resources and volunteer time and skill brought to bear on addressing individual and social need by Churches is irreplaceable and generally acknowledged by Government and other actors in this field.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank those Members of the Legislative Assembly who initiated the Social Justice Network, bringing together voluntary and faith based organisations with local politicians to explore opportunities for joint action in addressing social need. I also thank Minister Attwood and his predecessor for establishing the Community Faiths’ Forum, a forum for mutual collaboration between DSD and the faith communities in support of local initiatives and the common good. I hope that today’s event will further consolidate these important initiatives and the commitment to dialogue and collaboration on issues of mutual interest and concern.
Let me also say a particular word to my sisters and brothers in the Christian Churches. Our political leaders, indeed society itself asks us to play our part in witnessing to and working for a more cohesive, shared and reconciled society. Our own Christian conviction draws us to work more collaboratively for the kind of society which reflects the attitudes and values revealed to us by Jesus in his call to build-up the Kingdom of justice, peace, holiness and love.
My hope is that the document we have published today will serve as a catalyst to further dialogue about how as followers of Jesus we can bear common witness to our mutual concern to see poverty and its causes addressed at every level in Northern Ireland.
The European organisations of our Churches are already taking path-finding steps in this arena. In response to the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion, Caritas Europa, the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of the European Churches (CSC of CEC), the Secretariat of COMECE and Eurodiaconia held a joint conference on poverty in the European Parliament in Brussels in September. At the end of the Conference they issued a comprehensive statement entitled New Ways of Solidarity: A Joint Commitment to Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion.
In that statement they express their joint commitment to 14 principles, including the preferential option for the poor, just participation in society, social solidarity, a living wage for all and respect for Sunday as a weekly day of rest.
The Churches also concluded jointly that ‘The full impact of the [global economic] crisis has not yet been seen, nor have the long-term structural, cultural and spiritual effects of the crisis for [individuals and] groups at risk, effects which could exacerbate social fragmentation in our societies.’[v] That is the urgency and the scale of the task we face. It is matched only by the vivid description of the experience of poverty given by one of the community workers in the document being launched today. He described it as ‘Having a hole in the soul’! That’s how deep it goes. That’s how all-embracing the issue is we are discussing today. In thanking you all again for being here, in commending this document to your critique and reflection, let me once again express the hope that working together, in mutual respect and support, we might all begin to heal a terrible scar that has marked so many of the citizens of this region for far too long.
[i] Northern Bank, Consumer Confidence Index, July 2010
[ii] Decision No 1098/2008/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council, 22 October 2008, Preface n.13
[iii] Ibid., Article 2, 1b.
[iv] Kenway, Peter et al (2006), Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion in Northern Ireland, York, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
[v] Eurodiaconia, Caritas Europa, CSC of CEC, COMECE, Do not deny justice to your poor people (Ex 23:6): Proposals for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion in the EU, September 2010, p.15
Good morning. You are all very welcome to this event to mark the publication of Challenging Poverty in Northern Ireland. The Report captures a range of voices speaking about poverty and social exclusion in Northern Ireland and provides a comprehensive, up-to-date and representative picture of poverty in this community. It also provides the Society of St Vincent de Paul with much food for thought regarding our role and our activities as we move into an uncertain and challenging future for people on low incomes.
I want to thank the authors and the other members of the working group for the production of this document showcasing the work of faith in action, and especially of the various works which SVP is involved in. The Society was founded in Paris in 1833 and introduced and established in Ireland in 1844, almost 170 years ago. Its formation was a result of a challenge by university students who stated “Show us your Christianity in action rather than words”. And so, to this day, we are a local charity who turns concern into action. Indeed no act of charity is foreign to the Society.
But the key message that I wish to communicate with you today is that the SVP GIVES HOPE. This is the theme of our Christmas appeal which I will talk more about later. I should stress the Society attempts to give hope to all who are in need. There is a perception in Northern Ireland that we are a Catholic charity for a Catholic people. However I should point out, poverty does not discriminate, nor do we. Immaterial of who you are or what you are, if you have a genuine need we will endeavour to help.
The Society of St Vincent de Paul is the largest single charity in the whole of Ireland. The current membership exceeds 9,500 volunteers, of which over 1,900 are based throughout NI in 182 conferences. Conferences are simply small groups of parish based volunteers. These volunteers are representative of all ages, come from all types of backgrounds and bring a variety of skills to the Society.
Are we getting more calls for assistance than ever before? In a word…Yes. Calls are up across the country by about 35%. In some areas the figures are nearer 50%. We are gearing up for an avalanche of calls for assistance in the coming weeks due to the uncertain economic situation. As Governments both sides of the border consider massive and scything cuts to welfare benefits and services and public sector jobs, there is a huge concern for the future wellbeing of our communities and those we assist.
We are beginning to see people approach us who have never sought help from us before – people who were in work and benefited from recent peace and prosperity. As the economic situation worsens, the social impact is being felt across the community as the ‘New poor’ struggle with debts and worry about repayments on their homes and on other loans and outstanding arrears.
People who were donors to charities like the SVP are now themselves coming to us because of financial difficulties. They need us now more than ever and so we are relying on the continued generosity of those in our society who are still in a position to give to us, and to other charities working to alleviate poverty.
We depend almost entirely on donations from the public to help those most in need. And with such a large increase in the demand for our help, public support is needed more than ever, especially as Christmas approaches. Incomes are falling and the pressures on families at this time are as intense as ever, and indeed increasing.
This tends to be a season where many people feel they have no option but to use the services of moneylenders, both licensed and unlicensed. This can often result in a viscous spiral of debt, repayments that are unmanageable with huge strains on mental health, relationships and family circles. As a key charity assisting people out of unsustainable debt, I am appealing to you today to remind people in your communities of the stresses and dangers of moneylenders, particularly in the run-up to Christmas, and of the support that we and other organizations such as the Citizens Advice Bureaux, Credit Consumer Counselling Service and the charity, Christians Against Poverty, can provide.
Who do we help and how? Retaining strict confidentiality, allow me to outline a few brief examples:
The situation of families struggling to pay utility bills is particularly common and SVP assists households very significantly in tackling fuel poverty. Indeed, we know that fuel poverty is at a very high level in Northern Ireland. One example which came to the Society’s attention was an unemployed couple with four children struggling to manage on benefits. When visited by our volunteers, the mother explained that she had very little money to keep going until the end of the week. They were struggling to put food on the table and replace beds for their young children. To add to their troubles, their washing machine broke down.
Another team of volunteers described to us how they had visited a migrant family with no entitlement to benefits and had a new addition to the family. One volunteer said, and I quote: “The lady handed me her three week old baby and asked ‘what am I to do?’”
I can assure you that the Society responded positively and appropriately to bring relief to each of these all too common requests.
In response to situations such as these, the SVP in Northern Ireland spent £2.7m on people and families in need during 2009. This is how your money was spent:
• Family & Individual Support £1,087k
• Food/Hampers £364k
• Clothing/Furniture £358k
• Fuel, Gas, Electricity £477k
• Outings/Holidays £261k
• Overseas Twinning £40k
• Education & Jobs £103k
• Home Management £18k
As well as expending over £2.7m in direct financial assistance, other essential household furniture items were also distributed. We make more than 2,700 visits weekly across the North of Ireland. Home visitation with people and families remains the cornerstone of our work.
Members continue to visit people who are struggling, who are disadvantaged and vulnerable by offering spiritual, financial and material assistance. Alongside home visitation, our work comprises a wide range of activities including:
• Breakfast and Afterschool Clubs
• A Holiday Home for Older people
• Cross Community Work
• Crèches & Child Day Care
• Placement Opportunities
• Home Management Courses
• New Furniture & White Goods Outlets
• 28 ‘Vincents’ Clothing Outlets
• Hospital & Prison Visitation
• Twinning with Ghana
Last year (2009) across the island of Ireland the Society spent approximately €30m on direct assistance to individuals and families. Of this the SVP provided €9.7m on direct financial support, €7.6m on food, €4.2m on education support and €5.8m on helping people with their energy bills.
This year we know that those figures will have increased. That is why we need public support at this time. As I said at the beginning of my address, the Theme of the 2010 SVP Annual Appeal is GIVE HOPE.
We launched our annual appeal and a call for donations on 22 November. Considering the current economic climate across Ireland, North and South, HOPE is a commodity that thousands of people need.
Church-gate collections are taking place over the next few weeks, especially during SVP Week from 5 to 12 December, culminating with SVP Sunday on 12 December.
At a time when the Society faces more challenges than ever before, I would urge you to spread the word, and be part of supporting the SVP Annual Appeal this year as we are dependant on an ever-giving generous public and the dedication of our volunteers.
In conclusion, to quote St Francis of Assisi “Go out and spread the good news and use words if necessary” (Actions speak louder than words), or as Mother Teresa said, “God does not create poverty, but we do by our failure to share”.
For further information on donating to our appeal, please contact:
Telephone: (028) 9035 1561, Web: www.svp-ni.org
Sincere thanks for your attendance and attention this morning.
Martin Long, Director of Communications 00353 (0) 86 172 7678