Time for civic society to engage more in our political process…

At the height of the stream of public revelations about RHI in December 2016, a press release on The Executive Office’s website declared the names of six appointments to the Northern Ireland ‘compact civic panel’.

Arlene Foster described this news as ‘‘another example of us getting on with the work. It presents a unique opportunity to take a fresh approach to dealing with the strategic issues which Government deal with and which impact directly on people’s lives’’.

Martin McGuinness added: “Dialogue and debate with civic society is an important element of our continued social, economic and political progress. Creating an environment that enables inclusive, open, and respectful discussion with the wider civic society is a pre-requisite for progress. Through dialogue and greater awareness, we will be better placed to meet challenges head on’’.

Fast forward a few months and listen to today’s voices on the teatime news regarding social, economic and political progress in Northern Ireland.  Silence from our compact civic panel!

The terms of reference for the group can be found in Appendix F7 of the Fresh Start Agreement).  Essentially the panel is selected, shaped and funded by the Executive to produce a couple of reports a year.

In the absence of a legitimate authority for the panel to report to, blaming MLAs could be an acceptable argument for their lack of public profile.

However, it would be interesting to know which two topics they have chosen to consider, who they have engaged with or how many times they have met. If anyone knows where to find this, please let me know.

The proposal for a civic structure that sits under the control of Stormont has been through years of examination, consultation and review since 1998. Time and money have been spent on deliberations about the structure and process, nominations, funding and relationship with the Executive.

Exactly what constitutes civic society is a question which political philosophers have been writing about for centuries, so it is unlikely that a clear definition will emerge from all of these discussions, particularly in a society that has so many dividing lines.

Originally drawn from ten sectors and consisting of sixty paid members, the establishment of a Civic Forum was prescribed within the text of the Good Friday Agreement.   In October 2000, at the Forum’s inaugural meeting, the then Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon stated that: ‘’Northern Ireland’s new civic forum is an essential part of the peace process and must act as a gateway between politicians and society’’.

If, after nearly 20 years, a panel of experts reporting to the Executive is the formalised way in which our civic society is embedded into our political culture, it might be better described as acting more as a gatekeeper than a gateway.

Recently, a more public attempt to let politicians know that they cannot leave us drifting into dire economic and social consequences was in the form of an open letter signed by business and voluntary sector leaders. Was this informal approach more useful in acting as a gateway between politicians and society?

Instead of comments about our elected representatives doing nothing, I would be interested to hear views about how we could help ourselves by creating fresh ideas about what civic society is and how we could leverage it to create a louder voice, which would be heard but not controlled by elected representatives.

Helen McNeill graduated in Spanish and Politics and has an innate interest in politics, society and people.