Lesson
  • People must be central
  • Principles, Strategy, Structure and Tactics

    A campaign to tackle homelessness which does not meaningfully involve homeless people will fail to deliver what homeless people want and need.

    Participation and the Practice of Rights organisation (PPR) was founded in Belfast eight years after the Good Friday Agreement by the leading civil rights and equality campaigner, Inez McCormack. Inez and others were frustrated that the post-conflict promises of equality and human rights were being ignored and broken despite the legislative protection of the 1998 British – Irish peace agreement.

    PPR is an organisation which does not accept government funding with policy and organising staff working in support of volunteer led groups of rights holders. PPR is primarily funded through philanthropic fundraising as well as some income from consultancy.

    PPR began work with families who had lost loved ones to suicide and families experiencing housing inequality in North Belfast in 2006. PPR uses a human rights based approach empowering marginalised groups to create change in their communities. PPR fuses human rights policy work with community organising and has applied the approach successfully across a range of issues (mental health, children’s rights to play, domestic violence, right to work, right to welfare, right to culturally appropriate education and housing campaigns specific to refugees, asylum seekers, Irish Travellers, and Catholic families) across three jurisdictions – Ireland, north and south, and Scotland. Each campaign group is led by people affected by the issue who develop human rights indicators and benchmarks for progress against which they monitor government while campaigning for change.

    “It’s the way human rights work
    should be, but isn’t, done”

    Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, speaking about PPR in 2013.

    Participation

    Participation drives the work of PPR. Rights are denied because powerful forces make it so. If rights are to be realised then power needs to change. Those whose rights are denied need to build power of their own and negate power which denies their rights. PPR does not advocate or negotiate on behalf of affected groups. PPR believes that people are more than capable of doing this themselves. The problem is not their capacity to articulate problems and solutions but that they are systematically excluded from decision making about their lives. PPR is about changing the power imbalances which shape service delivery and resource allocation. The participation of affected groups, holding human rights duty-bearers to account is central to PPR’s model.

     

    Empowerment

    Participation empowers affected groups to name their issues, articulate them in human rights terms and name the change they want to see. Particularly for people impacted by poverty and lack of economic, social and cultural rights, PPR’s human rights based approach enables people to see themselves as an agent of change deserving of dignity, rather than merely a subject of government policies. To this end, it is essential for PPR to build the capacity of affected groups so that human rights standards and values are made accessible and put at the service of those who need them most.

     

    Accountability

    The PPR approach enables affected groups to hold duty-bearers to account through the setting of human rights indicators and benchmarks and the development of human rights based campaigns. This sets the terms of engagement with the duty-bearer, and makes it possible to monitor progress in securing human rights over time – in other words, democratising the operational framework for realising human rights standards.

     

    Equality

    PPR is motivated by advancing substantive equality. This goes beyond notions of ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of results’ and sees equality as transformative. This notion of substantive equality requires a restructuring of society in terms of distribution of power and resources, so that institutional structures, which perpetuate oppression of the most marginalised groups in society, can change.

     

    Dignity

    Dignity consists of many overlapping principles, involving respect, privacy, autonomy and self-worth. Dignity is a core human rights principle and a core value of society. The struggle for human dignity underpins all PPR campaigns.
















    Strategies and Tactics used in campaigning

    Under human rights law, the state is not a neutral actor. It is a duty-bearer, with an obligation to take positive action to realise economic and social rights, particularly for its most vulnerable groups. However, the groups working with PPR are aware that this is not the case for the marginalised in society. Indeed legislation, including local and international treaties, are irrelevant to people whose rights are denied. Without developing the power to make states, public authorities and private parties respond, rights are routinely denied.

    With groups of ‘rights holders’ PPR facilitate development sessions to identify issues impacting communities. The affected group establish an evidential baseline using a number of methods including surveys, focus groups, photographic evidence and Freedom of Information requests.  This process allows affected groups to assess the extent to which the issues impact other people like them and frame the issues as human rights issues with specific indicators demonstrating the denial of their rights. For example, pigeon waste on communal landings or dampness on accommodation walls become redefined as a state denial of UNCESCR rights.

    These indicators are launched and measured by the group over a period of time to evaluate if things are getting better on the ground in their community.  This allows the affected group to set their own timeframe and parameters to monitor how government is progressively realising rights, as required by human rights law.

    Because time is not neutral when change is required by the most vulnerable, the groups also set targets for change. These ‘benchmarks’ allow the group to identify the acceptable rate of change/progressive realisation.  The value of the group’s indicators is that they give the group the power to measure and describe if they are feeling the benefits of government responses and decision making, and the policies and programmes put in place to deal with their human rights issues. Rights are real when they are seen and felt on the ground by the groups, not when government makes a statement or produces a strategic document. This approach also sets a useful rhythm for organising set by monitoring intervals.

    PPR is non violent. PPR groups do however experience state violence in the form of threatened evictions, financial sanctions, and shame tactics etc. The various groups who PPR support use a range of tactics during campaigns such as lobbying, public meetings, casework, direct actions, protests, litigation, disruption, surveying, petitions, and continuously framing the narrative by highlighting their messages through media (newspaper, tv, radio, social media) and disseminating information within communities through stickers, murals, leaflets etc.

    Most PPR campaign actions frame issues as human rights breaches, using shame rather than force to make a point. PPR also supports groups to develop local and international allies and experts who put the credibility of their respective offices at the service of the groups and campaigns.

    The Equality Can’t Wait Campaign

    In 2006 PPR began working with residents in the Seven Towers, a high rise complex of seven buildings with 380 dwellings 12 – 16 storeys tall in North Belfast. The towers were built in the 1960’s, and after decades of neglect and poor maintenance, were severely run down, yet families continued to be housed in these poor conditions. A group of predominantly women/mothers started to campaign for change using PPRs human rights based approach.  They conducted research;  surveying and photographing conditions and collecting evidence on dampness, mould, pigeon waste and families living in the towers. They launched indicators and benchmarks for progress with the support of international and domestic human rights and housing experts and set specific time frames during which the public Housing Authority and State Authority would be monitored by the newly established Seven Towers Monitoring Group. By establishing the STMG, they changed the rules of engagement with the state to hold government to account and achieve meaningful change – measured by residents in the form of visible improvements in the conditions of the tower blocks and families moved to better homes.

    The Seven Towers Residents Group leveraged significant improvements and investments from government and the public housing authority including; the removal of pigeon waste from communal landings; a million pound replacement of the sewage system, which frequently overflowed through baths and sinks; balcony repair programmes; new roves to stop leaks; increased and better maintenance responses for residents; compensation for damages to person and property; fire and toxin safety and insulation in multimillion pound PVC Cladding Plans, which originally ignored residents needs; and the re-housing of the majority of families with children into more suitable accommodation.

    However, the issue of 380 families/individuals living in poor high rise accommodation was a symptom of a much greater problem – the failure to build enough homes fit for purpose for a growing Catholic population in a densely packed geographic area surrounded by peace walls – dividing walls between protestant and catholic communities first erected during the war and maintained since despite demographic shifts. These conditions were not only applicable to the women and children living in the towers. This was a systemic issue facing many residents across Belfast. Both communities experience multiple deprivations but not equally and the housing market is particularly skewed on religious lines.

    In 2012 the STRG launched the ‘Equality Can’t Wait’ campaign, now involving families from across Belfast impacted by the issue of homelessness and poor housing provision. They called on government to develop a time bound, resourced strategy to tackle religious inequality in housing. The group mapped the available land and money in the city to build housing.

    Despite the equality legislation at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement which placing legal requirements on Ministers and public bodies, the legacy of housing inequality remains unaddressed. Political decisions continue with impunity which openly ignore the legal requirements of the peace agreement.

    In 2016, according to the public housing authority, the state needed to supply 938 homes in the Catholic areas – North Belfast 1 and 38 in the Protestant areas – North Belfast 2. The state built 112 homes in North Belfast in 2017.  Recently the campaign has focussed on one site in they city – Hillview Retail Park. This is an 11.5 acre site in north Belfast owned by a wealthy private developer. It is one of five ‘windfall’ vacant sites the homeless families mapped out for potential housing. Hillview has been empty for ten years during which time the developer enjoyed large scale state support, including a bailout by the National Asset Management Agency after the economic crash of 2008, charitable rates relief worth £1.8m and recently, planning approval from Belfast City Council for a new retail only venture.

    The developer continues to receive state support at every level despite the overwhelming housing needs in the community and numerous procedural and policy flaws in the planning process which passed his application, as well as unlawful activity at the site (in the form of an illegal market)The retail only venture is supported by the DUP deputy leader and MP for the area, Nigel Dodds and the PUP – political wing of the UVF a loyalist paramilitary group. Together they have mustered forces in opposition to homes for families on the site.

    Families worked with architects to show that the land would be perfect to build a sustainable community guaranteeing jobs and homes to help address historic inequalities and issues affecting working class Protestants and Catholics living adjacent to it. The private developer wants to sell the land to a large retailer to build a supermarket and large car park, identical to that which failed in the past but very profitable in the short term for him.

    The state and public authorities responsible for tackling inequality have perversely actively opposed housing on the site and erected barriers to the participation of families in decisions made about planning in the city.

    To date hundreds of homeless families from across Belfast have joined the Equality Can’t Wait campaign. They have mapped and monitored the available land and money and debunked and dismantled the numerous administrative hurdles erected by the state and public authorities. They have secured widespread support from political parties, the commissions established under the good Friday agreement charged with protecting rights, the United Nations and European commission. They have outreached to and supported other communities campaigning for housing rights across Ireland and Scotland, including many excluded groups – migrants, refugees, travellers, and working class Protestants experiencing housing rights abuses. ECW continue to campaign at the time of writing, monitoring state adherence it human rights standards, disrupting business as usual and building new alliances. ECW recently secured support from four political parties for an independent enquiry into Belfast City Councils planning processes.