Day one of Xchange Summer School #xss16 – participative democracy, faith and wellbeing

xchange_bannerPeter Tatchell opened the third annual Xchange Summer School with an introduction to his journey into activism through his fundamentalist Christian parents who urged him: “don’t follow the crowd – do your own thing”. He was inspired by the black civil rights movement and characters like Gandhi, Pankhurst and MLK. While a proponent of working within the system (eg, within the parliamentary political system) Peter also felt there was a place for non-violent direct action and finished with an example of the power of private citizen’s arrest and his encounter with Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe in London in October 1999.

After visits to Enniskillen and Derry, this year’s event was held in the Life Church in Belfast. The first panel was Changing the Conversation on … Participative Democracy. Slugger’s Mick Fealty looked back to olden times to understand modern times and argued that “the cracks in the narrative allow new stories and contexts to arise”.

Disability Action’s Karen Hall talked about success in overcoming barriers to voter registration and physical access to polling stations.

Sinn Féin’s Daithí McKay questioned why elections don’t happen at the weekend or over two days to boost participation, and why in an age of internet banking does voting continue to be so old-fashioned and lacking transformation.

UUP’s Mike Nesbitt disagreed that the focus needed to be on changing democratic processes but instead argued that devolution had stopped “on the hill” and not extended into our streets and homes. He saw potential in the community planning function of local government. Later during the discussion he candidly admitted that we may see a lot more delivery from the DUP and Sinn Féin during this Assembly mandate which may be to the detriment of the UUP when they next go to the polls. “So be it” be said.

SDLP’s Claire Hanna saw the next five years of Assembly mandate as an opportunity for smaller parties to show themselves to be different and to diversify. Politicians were always being approached for comment: “Every day we’re asked our opinions on everything from space travel to speed bumps”. She said that taking a particular political outlook – nationalist or unionist – should not be equated with to being sectarian. During the discussion the notion of a civic forum was raised. Claire urged delegates to chase up what happened to the “compact civic advisory panel” from the Fresh Start Agreement.

Green Party MLA Clare Bailey talked about her upbringing, the activism she saw in her family home, and told the audience about being part of the first intake into the integrated school Lagan College. Children continue to struggle to engage with politics.

Peter Tatchell offered a critique of the Westminster electoral system – with the government decided by 40 key marginal constituencies.

03 Keep the FaithAfter lunch the discussion moved to Changing the Conversation around Keeping the Faith. Buddhist Garret O’Fachtna talked about hard core passions and suggested that the tragic shootings in Orlando came out of a culture that denied humanity. Presbyterian university chaplain Cheryl Meban outlined why she believed that religion could get below our illusions and why the best way to make change is to engage with who people are with grace. Later she spoke about religion challenging oppression, giving the examples of the role of women, trafficking and attitudes to migration. “Future generations will look back at us driving round in our cars, consuming more than we need … we need to be more just.”

Formed school principal and commentator Michelle Marken described herself as a reluctant religionist. She wanted to see a balance struck between society being a religion-free zone and religious totalitarianism. During the discussion time she queried why the way to cure the ills of the NI education system was supposedly to shrink down to a single (integrated) education system and loose the plurality and choice. She answered a question about why Catholic schools dominate the top of league tables by suggesting that the Catholic ethos seemed to more coherently combine faith + community + home.

Leader of the Corrymeela Community Pádriag Ó Tuama spoke poetically about supposed Biblical clarity and the fault lines in Biblical “heroes”. NI Human Rights Commissioner Les Allamby had noticed that some people who would meet him as head of the Law Centre NI NGO would no longer meet him at the NIHRC. He also admitted that he received hate mail around abortion and Ashers Bakery. (NIHRC isn’t participating in the Ashers case – that’s the Equality Commission.)

The audio recording of the Keep the Faith panel failed, so you can’t listen back to the conversation!

The final panel of Thursday looked at societal wellbeing. Fergus Cumiskey urged institutions like the Health Trusts to speak opening about the number of people who die by suicide while under their care and to commit to reduce the number. His organisation Contact NI (which runs the Lifeline crisis helpline) have moved to a policy of involving families and friends when working with people contemplating suicide. Switching from service provider to service user, Caitriona Cassidy gave a very moving and personal testimony of her mental health difficulties and how Lifeline had saved her life on a number of occasions. She warned that “if a person was coping they wouldn’t be self-harming”.

VOYPIC’s Vivian McConvey linked lessons from working with children in care to societal wellbeing. She finished by giving a report card for Northern Ireland which included the comments “good to high if interested in the topic”, “a bit flightly particularly when over the age of 21” and “can lack attention to detail [when delivering]”.

The final speaker was Robert Egger who pioneered social enterprises that ran kitchens making meals with left over food. Several US Presidents have rolled up their sleeves and joined in. Robert noted that those serving in food kitchens can learn from those they serve.

Tomorrow morning the summer school continues with a walking tour of Belfast led by Daniel Jewsbury and a conversation about “A city with 7 quarters” in the Sunflower Bar.