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.


  • Brian Walker

    This has often been raised by Slugger. One problem is the politicians’ fear of being upstaged by civil society. Look at the limitations imposed on the little panel squeezed out of them by the NIO in Fresh Start and the fate of the civic forum promised in the GFA .Nothing I presume has happened.

    Another problem lies in civil society themselves who have a clients’ relationship with the politicians, partly cosy, partly fearful. If they seem too close to one party, the other might take against them.

    Business and finance, the unions and the voluntary sector all feel more comfortable staying above the battle and lobbying case by case. Only when parties begin to welcome public pressure in favour of the common interest against their core vote will civil society as a whole count.

    Until then, they’ll prefer to work quietly through endless consultation processes in the hope of winning minor victories.

    It would help though if they banded together to fund an independent think tank to come up with policy ideas they could back and submit to the politicians. Policy formation is haphazard and piecemeal and plays a pathetically small part in public debate.

  • Brian O’Neill

    I suppose Slugger is the closest thing we have to a think tank in Northern Ireland. We have actually thought about doing longer pieces and putting them into a book format.

  • Zig70

    I’m naturally opposed to a civic society involvement in politics as it often seems to materialize as doss jobs for societies privileged that we have to pay for and shows little on the way of hard results or penalties. Politics isn’t easy and those who try should at least get some kudos for it. If we have civic society input, it should encompass all social classes and be voluntary.

  • Brian Walker

    well Brian.. Slugger is more of a forum surely. A think tank ideally has a spread of expertise, number crunching skills and above all, decent funding and great contacts as sponsors ans customers eg
    locally Oxford Economics, Nevin Institute, NICVA and in a different field CAJ. Maybe Slugger would like to build up a network of the interested? But it’s a big challenge.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Yeah I know. I mean slugger is a platform for ideas.

    I do think we could do some kind of think tank lite. Who knows. Just talking out loud…

  • Nevin
  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    It can also be (far too often) a platform for the same old stale propaganda and axe grinding. Slugger broadcasts the disharmonious and competing agendas of 2 antithetical identities: interesting for snapshots but not conducive to a think tank nor a civic body of influence with the overarching principle of the common good.

  • Nevin

    Assembly Community Connect:

    What is Assembly Community Connect?
    Assembly Community Connect works to enhance connections between the Assembly and the Community through education and outreach.

    Assembly Community Connect provides free training, information and support for the local community.

    Who can get involved?
    Assembly Community Connect is open to all individuals that wish to engage with the Assembly, its processes and structures.