“Civil society needs to be strengthened to do more than just provide services,” argues Avila Kilmurray, one of the founders of the Women’s Coalition. “Civil society in many ways was the backbone of society in the 70s, 80s, 90s in Northern Ireland, whenever we were in the midst of The Troubles.”
The call for a strong civic society was made in the third interview in the series of more than 30 Forward Together podcasts. These were recorded with leading figures across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to mark 21 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The interviews seek answers to questions about the future of Northern Ireland and the border counties.
Avila fears that civil society organisations have become focused on grant-funded service delivery, at the expense of their strong and independent voice. She believes that politicians in Northern Ireland do not have the self-confidence to encourage an independent civil society to make demands. “I suppose there’s an understandable sense from local politicians, ‘Hey you did a great job, but back in your box’,” she says.
We should now consider the lessons from the use of citizens’ assemblies in the Republic of Ireland, Avila believes. “The assemblies actually proved quite useful for the political system, because they were able to sound-out quite difficult issues.” She regrets the passing of the Civic Forum in Northern Ireland, which was established as the result of a demand from the Women’s Coalition and which “did some interesting reports”, argues Avila.
“I think it was a shame that it was put in abeyance and then never brought back. But I think it was really because there was no understanding that actually participatory democracy doesn’t replace representative democracy – it can actually add an element to it.”
A priority now, adds Avila, is to agree a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. She points out that this is a demand that goes beyond republicanism.
Avila adds that when considering the past it is essential that people’s experiences are heard. She says: “We need to create the space for those stories to actually be shared.”
The aim of the Forward Together podcasts is to promote a wider, more inclusive and engaged conversation about how we make progress and further solidify peace and create a genuinely shared and integrated society. We want that discussion to be mutually respectful, to be forward focused and positive. It considers the real challenges our society faces in the coming years.
This initiative is the result of a partnership between the Holywell Trust peace and reconciliation charity based in Derry/Londonderry and the Slugger O’Toole website. The Forward Together Podcasts are funded through the Media Grant Scheme of the Community Relations Council for Northern Ireland which also provides core support to Holywell Trust.
Listen to the podcast and interview here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.
Paul Gosling is editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects.