‘A stronger role for civic society must be central to getting government back’

Stormont” by stevelavo is licensed under CC BY-ND

International peace negotiator John McKinney has urged the political parties to include a stronger role for civic society in a reformed structure of governance for Northern Ireland.  John – a former chief executive of the Special EU Programmes Body and of Omagh District Council – was speaking in the latest Forward Together podcast.

Asked how civil society in Northern Ireland should be strengthened, John says: “I don’t think we have a framework adequate to do it.  I think we had an opportunity, but that opportunity was missed after the Good Friday Agreement.  We had a Civic Forum that we set up, but it didn’t operate. There are many reasons for that. I don’t think the will was there by political parties. So there is no place for people to have a voice and that’s been compounded as well by the reorganization of local government, where we have 11 rather than 26 [councils]. So that people living away from a centre don’t have a mechanism to make any comment whatsoever.

“There’s no framework where everyone can work within and that was a missed opportunity…..  When we have an operating Assembly, I think it’s a good opportunity to look at the Civic Forum again.  Because if people don’t have somewhere to have a voice, if people don’t have somewhere where we can dialogue and have a dialogue, if  people don’t have a place for engagement, then we are never going to go anywhere. And I think had we had this type of situation, then I think it would have been different.”

So was the Civic Forum the correct structure for civic engagement?  John responds: “Well it’s a structure. There’s nothing magical about the Civic Forum. If you go to any country after conflict – and I have been to many, and worked in many – you need this type of structure. There’s many different models. But you do need it. Let’s have a debate about what the Civic Forum should look like. Every time we talk about citizen engagement here in Northern Ireland, it’s always afterwards. Consultation comes after something has been decided – it’s the wrong way round.

“Some of the countries coming out of conflict would put us in the shade…. I am thinking of Eastern Europe and Cyprus.  I know that Cyprus is not united yet, but they’re working at it. They have dialogue forums involving a hundred different type of organizations, economic organizations, women’s groups, everybody, but all within a framework. And that’s what I like about it.  Working from both sides.  And they give advice to negotiators so that they can think about what it looks like after the agreement.  I think that’s the important thing. I don’t think we ever thought about what it would look like after the Good Friday Agreement.”

John is clear that negotiations for the re-establishment of the Assembly and Executive must consider the role of civic society in the future governance of Northern Ireland and have a plan for making society more integrated.  “It needs to be a wider debate,” he says. “We should be looking now at what is a shared society going to be like when the Assembly is back up and running – and I am hopeful and optimistic that it will be up again.  We should be having that debate now about what it is going to look like.  If you walk up any main street in Strabane, Omagh, Cookstown, and you ask someone, people are fed-up with politics.”

The solution is clear, argues John.  “Like most things in life, it’s about leadership. And there is a complete lack of leadership now. I am not pointing the finger at any political party. It’s just a complete lack of leadership. We have a great opportunity with two parties – one from each side of the divide – working together. If both of them could come together and give some sort of leadership about this new horizon that we’re going into, it must involve civic society, must set-up some sort of mechanisms for doing that. Look at what the mechanisms should be. I think that’s where we have to start and the sooner the better.”

The answer, though, is not necessarily that external brokers need to be brought in to negotiate a solution.  “That’s a very interesting point,” concedes John.  “Yes, a little, but not as much as people would think. People will think that they had this wonderful idea of bringing someone in – maybe as a key mentor as it were, maybe from South Africa or the USA…  Yes it would [help].”  But the essential thing is to have “buy-in” from local people, in Northern Ireland, adds John.  The big problem, he suggests, is that people don’t have the belief that the current process is going to succeed.  “What we need is to have a vision from the top and we need support for that vision. We need faith in that vision.  And we need to feel wanted to be part of that.”

John believes that we could have the Assembly back up and running, even without an Executive being operational.  “I always thought that was something that should have happened,” he says.  “People say it just becomes a talking shop, but there is nothing wrong about talking if people have an idea of where that is going to take them.  Unfortunately, talking for talking sake, as we all know, is a waste of time.  I think [the re-establishment of the Assembly without the Executive] could be an intermediate stop that could be taken.”

The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.


  • Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.



Stormont” by stevelavo is licensed under CC BY-ND

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