We need a national conversation

A deep and wide process of engagement with citizens to co-create a future vision for N(n)orthern Ireland could help jolt our peace process and our politicians out of the stalemate we find ourselves in.


I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in a few far-flung places, including Pakistan, DRC and Rwanda – each of which have longstanding conflicts, many strongly driven by an inability to peacefully resolve issues over tribal, ethnic or religious identity.

One thing that’s undeniably similar about all these conflicts is that they’re inter-generational and cyclical.

Violence comes and violence goes depending on the specific circumstances of the times, but unless the underlying division and root causes get addressed, the fuel always remains to feed the fire.

Closer to home it feels like our peace process is underachieving: there has been very little forward motion in the past few years.

Perhaps it has simply completed the task it was designed to do (i.e. stop most of the violence and get devolved institutions up and running) and we should stop expecting it to take things further.

Whatever the truth our politicians and institutions seem unable or unwilling to take on the deeper transformation needed to make peace permanent.

That requires finding new ways to tackle a multitude of critical issues we face as a society – segregation, the crisis in public finances, chronic poverty and inequality, a health service unable to meet increasing demand, to name a few.

In January I visited the Basque Country (or the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain if you prefer) to learn about that region’s impressive socio-economic and political transformation over the past twenty years.

We met a whole range of stakeholders, including the world’s largest cooperative, the Mondragon Corporation, and former Basque President Juan José Ibarretxe.

His term in office coincided with the transformation of the Basque Country from high unemployment and economic stagnation into a socially-conscious industrial powerhouse with higher per capita income and lower inequality than any other region of Spain, (as well as most of the EU).

Ibarretxe cites the region’s successful efforts in building social cohesion and developing a sense of shared identity as the single most important factor in the socio-economic transformation. Their mantra “all together or not at all”, something we would do well to adopt in Northern Ireland.

Our peace process has created a historic window of opportunity to forge a new sense of shared identity and purpose, but that window won’t stay open forever.

Perhaps it’s time to give citizens a chance to create a better vision for the future.

With a sufficient critical mass, politicians would find it very hard not to listen and change tack. They might even welcome the permission it would give them to step back from a dangerous game of brinkmanship.

Whatever their constitutional endgame, they must know it will be a disaster for all of us if it doesn’t build in a recognition that the most important relationships are the ones between people who live in this un-nameable place.

If we can’t create some kind of shared vision about what we want to be good at collectively – what we want to be known for – we’re in big trouble.

So what would a national conversation look like and what could it achieve?

The process would need to be co-designed and driven by those with a passion for and an expertise in civic engagement – community and voluntary groups, independent funders, academia and activists.

The media would need to be a key partner. And yes politicians should be involved too, but without being in the driving seat for once.

Of course change of the order seen in the Basque Country doesn’t come about overnight. Nor does it come about solely on the back of any single initiative, however ambitious.

But sustained efforts to change the culture of engagement over a number of years can, as the Basque example demonstrates, build a ‘social contract’ between the governing and the governed with positive consequences for society and the economy as a whole.

With that disclaimer in mind here’s a couple of models of national conversation initiatives from not too far away:

  1. The Belgian G1000 – this crowdfunded process took place during Belgium’s recent political crisis in 2011 where the country went without a government for 589 days. The process was based on the premise that if the politicians can’t find a solution, citizens should have a go themselves at articulating a future vision for the country. It began by crowdsourcing broad themes online, then a citizen summit was organized with 1000 randomly selected citizens and finally a representative 32 member citizens panel to consider the key issues identified in greater depth and compile a series of recommendations.
  1. The Irish Constitutional Convention – set up in 2012 to consider what changes were needed to the Irish Constitution to render it more suitable for the 21st Century, the convention consisted of 100 people – an independent Chairperson, 66 randomly selected citizens, stratified to be broadly representative of Irish society, and 33 elected representatives (including 4 representing NI). Over a period of more than two years the Convention received thousands of written submissions, held a series of (live-streamed) public meetings and ultimately produced a series of recommendation to which the Irish Government was required by law to respond. Whilst a number of key recommendations have not been acted upon, the Convention’s key success has been the equal marriage referendum which passed with a resounding yes vote in May.


Obviously a model suitable to our local circumstances would need to be developed, one that had a realistic prospect of influencing future Programmes for Government, as well as political and institutional reform more broadly.

I’m not the only one thinking along these lines – there’s clear synergy with the Carnegie Roundtable on Wellbeing and the Make It Work campaign for example.

There are also clear linkages with other aspects of my work in the Building Change Trust around open government, civic activism and social innovation.

Individually all of these initiatives are really important, but if they, and plenty of others, could all be brought together as a broad coalition with an agreed process and objective, it could help stimulate the genuine solidarity and positive vision that society in Northern Ireland sorely lacks.


Paul Braithwaite leads the Building Change Trust’s work on Social Innovation and Creative Space for Civic Thinking. You can connect with him on Twitter @Paul_BCT

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