Swords into ploughshares

Earlier this week I explained on Stormont Today the recent growth in the number of all-party groups bringing together MLAs on matters of mutual interest.

Stormont still has nothing like as many as Westminster, but at the latest count there are 22 all-party groups.

Many are concerned with medical matters, one on sport (rugby to be precise) and another on funerals and bereavements, which, under the heading of forthcoming meetings, notes (accurately in all our individual cases) "to be arranged".

The oldest all-party group, which has survived all of Stormont's periodic crises and suspensions, is the all-party group on International Development.

On Thursday night, I had the privilege of compering the group's second annual awards ceremony in the Stormont Great Hall.

We have witnessed a brawl in the hall, and glitzy balls, but I have never been so much in awe in the hall as I was in announcing a series of awards for a collection of inspiring people.

They have devoted their lives to trying to help people struggling for existence in the poorest parts of the world.

There was a bit of a "swords into ploughshares" theme with awards for Richard Moore, blinded at the age of ten by a plastic bullet, for his charity "Children In Crossfire" and Andrew Jordan, injured as an RUC reservist during the troubles.

He has gone on to raise a quarter of a million pounds for Tearfund.

Holy Cross Girls' School, once in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, was also now justly recognised for its work with a number of schools in Uganda.

Then, leaving our local troubles to one side, there were many stories striking in any context - such as the tale of Franseur Makula, a street child from the slums of Nairobi adopted by missionaries.

He now teaches religion at Campbell College and runs his own charity assisted by volunteers from Northern Ireland, working back in the most deprived areas of Kenya.


For a complete list of winners you can look at the APGID awards twitter feed.

As previously reported here, the all-party group has developed a strategy to partner with North East Uganda.

The next challenge is to try to get a budget line in order to devote some resources to achieving the strategy's goals.

This could be easier said than done, as the big obstacle is that international development is not a devolved matter - instead it is the responsibility of the Department for International Development in London.

MLAs involved in the group have been pressing for a small cash injection, but the executive may be fearful of opposition from those who will ask - at a time of austerity - why resources should be channeled away from local health provision to far off countries.

One MLA talks privately in gloomy terms about officials who "when light appears at the end of the tunnel appear keen to explore only how the tunnel can be made longer".

That said the enthusiasts point to the benefits of development education for school pupils and students, as well as the obvious links between Stormont's international aspirations in relation to trade and sharing expertise in conflict resolution and other areas.

They can point to 20 years of work in this regard by the arms length body NICO, which provides public sector staff from Northern Ireland to other countries.

But perhaps the strongest argument will be that both Scotland and Wales have already funded their own development programmes, so Northern Ireland is now lagging behind.