Political morality, power, education … believing you are right or being open to debate? #p4cmorals + What’s Platform for Change’s purpose?

Platform for Change’s look at political morality suffered from wet weather, a low turnout, an imbalanced panel and a topic that the room tended to engage with in a relatively passionless way.

Robin Wilson chaired the evening, peppering the panellists’ contributions with quotations and observations. I’ve noted my sense of what I heard in the post below. However, for more full and exact quotes you’ll need to listen to the embedded audio. [Parts one, two, three, four]

part 1 p4cmorals John Joanne MalachiJohn O’Doherty (Rainbow Project) unpicked some of the higher profile moral issues, and described the Minister Edwin Poots as spending tens of thousands of pounds supporting pointless opposition to changes on blood donation from sexually active gay men, or same sex couples adopting.

Joanne Stuart (business consultant) spoke personally, commenting that businesses have to adhere to strict equality legislation and have “to accept everyone’s beliefs within the workplace”. Businesses want “stable, open society, where people want to live and work and be accepted”. Would like to move from popular decision-making to a more evidence-based approach.

Malachi O’Doherty (writer and commentator) brought a bit of balance to the panel (which was devoid of any conservative faith-based voice) and asked whether we could have a 1950s or 1980s sense of public morality to which everyone could be called to adhere to … or whether the notion of morality should be ditched and people held to a set of guidelines no matter what they believed. Morality for a lot of people – including most of the ones who want to be MLAs – was not an optional extra on their lives. He accepted that some would see politicians as hypocrites. He noted that fervent evangelicals and moral liberals equally ‘believe’ that they are right and neither will really weigh up the issues and enter into debate.

Apparently Diane Dodds (DUP MLA) declined an invitation to attend. A pity other representatives of conservative faith weren’t approached: many DUP Belfast Councillors would have been idea panelists. Bernadette Smyth from Precious Life also declined to attend.

part 2 p4cmorals Clare Dave EdnaClaire Bailey (Green Party) ably stood in for Steven Agnew who was stuck up at the Assembly arguing about his climate change amendment. Are homosexuality and abortion public morals or a personal issue. Surely transparency in political donations and environmental destruction should be higher priority public morals. Legislation needs to be based on evidence in order to for the best of all people.

Dave Archard (QUB political philosopher) approached the issue via American philosopher John Rawls who believed that consensus could only be achieved by coercion! Dave responded to Malachi saying that he could think of many secular liberals who were hypocritical and inconsistent. He reminded the audience that Rawls believed that a separation of church and state needs to be a two way separation.

Edna Longley (emeritus professor and cultural critic) described political parties as being conditioned by their historic ties to the Protestant or Catholic churches. Politicians sound like Old Testament prophets or Popes. She wondered at the Attorney General John Larkin’s recent public questioning of the Supreme Court ruling [which upheld a judgement against Christian guesthouse owners] and his suggestion that they had misunderstood the orthodox church position. Edna though that perhaps the Supreme Court had understood it all too well. The orthodox Christian position has shifted and been contended over the years.

part 3 p4cmorals Q and AThe Q&A afterwards wondered whether or not the suggested immorality of elected representatives reflected the public at large. There was a lot of support for the removal of religious instruction (rather than all religion) from education.

Dave Archard stood up for religion saying that it shouldn’t be condemned out of hand as it offers much good – and is recognised as such elsewhere in the UK as well as in other countries. The Catholic church’s strong contributions in South America were one example. However a particular type of religiosity is what is being disputed. Later he also defended politicians, and criticised Russell Brand’s remarks in his Newsnight interview. Dave also remarked that the biggest barrier to progressive transformation in some democracies have been the courts.

Shimna Integrated College and its principal Kevin Lambe got a mention as an example of educational leadership around a range of diversity issues, not just LGBT. John O’Doherty noted that the Rainbow Project works with and in schools right across the educational spectrum.

Malachi explained that DUP and Sinn Fein’s survival depends on continued division and ossification that is toxic.

Clause 6 of the Human Trafficking bill was described as “a solution without a problem”.

The Northern Ireland Life & Times survey points to a societal shift in attitudes towards same sex relationships and marriage. Why are our politicians not reflecting society when we vote for them?

John O’Doherty talked about “Power, Money, Compromise and Fear”.

part 4 p4cmorals Q and AWhile the Malachi O’Doherty and Dave Archard managed to keep the panel from disappearing down a centre-left secular plughole, the conversation was devalued by the absence of one or two robust defenders of some of the moral values that were being so questioned and discredited. Intriguingly one of the issues highlighted in the event’s promotional material – the potential political censorship of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s production at The Mill in Newtownabbey – wasn’t mentioned. Neither was there any real discussion around whether the Executive and Assembly were dealing adequately with poverty in Northern Ireland, or the morality issues behind delaying or implementing the welfare reform bill.

Malachi finished his opening talk saying “it’s a ferment of debate and will be for a very long time.” He might be right!

Platform for Change’s are organising a European Election candidate hustings on the evening of Monday 28 April in the Ormeau Avenue Holiday Inn. All Euro candidates will be invited, on the proviso they speak about European issues (including how the EU affects NI).

– – –

I’m no long certain what Platform for Change’s purpose is.

In the four or five years since its launch Platform for Change has failed to become a source of challenge or policy development. Nights out for social liberals are well and good – and I’m not knocking social liberals or nights out – but the Green-Labour-soft Conservative-sometimes Alliance attendees are hardly being empowered to change anything. The very fact that those involved with NI21 don’t turn up is damning.

Platform for Change has been at its strongest when it’s been shining a spotlight on consensus between parties. Their flag event was probably their most timely and constructive intervention in Belfast politics. But its softly, softly approach has generated some light but practically no heat.

I can’t see any evidence in party or Executive policy that the “three demanding issues” P4C picked out at their launch event have moved an inch: education, Sustainable development, and Intercultural dialogue/community relations. To recap on their February 2010 statements:

Education …

“The vista of unregulated chaos issuing from the abolition of academic selection at 11 should be ended by moving as quickly as possible to a system of examination-based progress at 14. Schools are already organising into area-based partnerships: this should be accelerated so that all pupils have access to the maximum range of curricular choice. To promote intercultural dialogue, area-based partnerships should, as far as is practicable, involve collaborative networks of de facto Protestant, Catholic, integrated and Irish-medium schools.”

Sustainable development …

“Energy policy, economic development, public buildings, public housing stock, investment in innovation, training, transport, planning—all these are devolved. Through adopting a Green New Deal approach the executive could secure and create jobs—from ‘green collar’ insulation jobs to high-tech engineering jobs which build on Northern Ireland’s traditional strengths—and can start to transform our economy while simultaneously tackling fuel poverty.”

Intercultural dialogue / Community relations …

commitments to “intercultural education, including non-formal education, should be a priority across the education system; ‘shared neighbourhoods’ should become the model, and protected by vigorous pursuit of the perpetrators of intimidation, not rehousing of their victims; the Police Service of Northern Ireland must ensure everyone can enjoy the rule of law, providing the necessary security to remove the ‘peace walls’; and the public realm should be protected as the property of all, with zero tolerance of sectarian appropriation by flags and emblems.”

It’s either time for a name change to Platform for Discussion, or time for Platform for Change to reboot.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.