Over the past year we’ve heard many laments about the vacuum in decision taking but little specifically critical of politics from leaders of society. That’s par for the course for people who have been keeping our show on the road for decades. Few of them had little respect for political parties who in their view held society back. But now twenty years after the GFA and after a year – or many years by another measure – of deadlock, can civic society do more than keep everyday life going and begin to make a constructive impression on our politics? That’s the real question that for me lies behind the two open letters ostensibly about human rights, one each from civic nationalists and civic unionists and some others.
Can they eventually learn to operate in harness? Or with their rich mix of experience, are they better placed to act as more flexible proxies for the political parties to explore new positions across the divide, free of electoral and related constraints?
The question crystallised for me after a robust twitter exchange with one of our most creative and critical political reformers Robin Wilson. Robin has had the often thankless tasks of writing monitoring reports on the early years of power sharing and offering advice to the Assembly on how to function better. The Peace Monitoring report he wrote for long ago 2015 -16 is one of short series that is unrivaled in sweep and insight.
I’m sorry to say Robin had nothing good to say about the emergence of two groups calling themselves civic nationalists, and civic unionists and others.
“Time was when civic-society organisations in NI were powerful enough to stem polarisation–as when trade union peace marches of 1993 –> ceasefires in <1 year. A group of Catholics, calling themselves ‘civic nationalists’, signed one platform, provoking a group of Protestants, calling themselves ‘civic unionists’, to sign an alternative one. Grim”
When I called that a perverse reading, Robin replied that there was
a statistical correlation between religious background of signatories and professed ideology is 100% (or very close), on both sides. Argument that any nationalism can be ‘civic’ is weak anyway but where there’s such an obvious ‘ethnic’ association it’s unsupportable to so claim.
Class dismissed. But there are compelling issues here. Is it an oxymoron to attach the word “civic” to either unionist or nationalist? Is the benign label “civic” in front of them designed only to conceal partisanship behind a cloak of objectivity? Hopefully not. They are familiar signifiers rather than labels of allegiance; otherwise “civil society” would be limited to our few assorted socialists, Greens, Alliance party supporters, the professionally and personally unaligned and the genuinely uninterested. If “civic” still has meaning, it indicates a commitment to think freely beyond an acknowledged background in the interests of “the citizen.”
But most important is Robin Wilson’s advice.
“Don’t sign up for an intracommunal (one sided) list if you are interested in intercommunal dialogue (across the divide). The first stymies the second, rather than stimulating it.”
Is he right? And if he is, who then is the dialogue between?
But the implied challenge should be accepted. Can a real dialogue be held to contribute to the resolution of the most divisive issues and produce practical ideas for a shared future which stand a chance of overcoming inertia and sectarian pressures? Such dialogues exist of course but they are usually held between otherwise described sectors, economic, professional, generational, ecclesiastic and above all academic. Why not political but uncommitted to party?
The civic forum was to be their focus; another moribund feature of the GFA, which Robin Wilson notably championed. The parties blocked it, fearing a rival for public influence. If not in state-sponsored form, such a forum or forums are long overdue. A Citizens’s Assembly as described here by Robin is another. There is a need to hear both from people chosen at random and self-selecting people with influence in many areas. In whatever form fresh and constant dialogue looking for outcomes must surely be held, with our without the declared support of the politicians, to help chart paths through some of our seemingly intractible problems.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London