Creating a new mechanism for consulting with civic society is part of the talks negotiations aimed at getting Stormont back, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long has disclosed. Naomi is a newly elected MEP, former MP and has just resigned her role as an MLA. She was interviewed in the latest Forward Together podcast.
“We need to find a role for engaging with civil society,” suggests Naomi. “I think there is a lot of good work that goes on in our communities. And as elected representatives, we’re all very conscious of that. But I don’t think we ever really lived up to the objective of finding a proper mechanism through which those of us who were elected members of the community would be able to formally engage with civic society.”
She continues: “One of the things that we have been looking at, certainly in terms of the talks and the discussions we have been having, is how do we get something which is akin to the Civic Forum, which was there originally, but is able to engage with an Assembly… and would actually be a good platform for us to engage with. That is one of the strands of work that we have been looking at as part of the discussions that are ongoing, to get the Assembly restored.”
Naomi believes that the former Civic Forum was built on structural faults. “I think it was large and unwieldy. But I think, moreover, there wasn’t the real commitment from the political side to believe that engagement with the wider community would bear any fruit…. So what we have had are [political] parties that are more focused on their leadership role and less on the engagement side.”
A stronger mechanism for consulting civic society and communities could be the basis to reform the two party dominance of the current governance structures, suggests Naomi. She explains: “We’ve gone from a situation where we had an inclusive process, to one which very rapidly became a four party process, as it was. We had to battle for it to be even a five party process. What emerged more recently was…. [a] two party process, literally just the DUP and Sinn Fein. And it doesn’t work, because if people are locked into very fixed positions and they just repeatedly meet with each other to discuss those positions, there’s no new thinking, there’s no creativity, but there’s also no opportunity to bring new issues or ideas to the table that could allow people to start to move their positions.”
She adds: “I think that there is an appreciation now that wasn’t there over the last few years that we do need input from outside the political sphere in terms of input from the community sector, the voluntary sector, the churches and other organizations who have a genuine vested interest in society and how it works…. I think that there is an appreciation now for civic engagement and the importance of it as a way of dealing with complex and fraught issues that perhaps wasn’t there before. I also think the emergence of the citizens assembly in the south and how that negotiated through what was very sensitive work around and for example, termination of pregnancy and how they would deal with that has led to a new appreciation of the fact that if civic engagement is properly structured and effort isn’t just simply a replication of the political views of the parties in proportion to party size, then it has something new to bring to the table.”
Naomi stresses that the role of citizens’ assemblies is not to be an alternative system of representation, nor a decision-making body, but rather “a mechanism by which you deal with difficult issues.” She adds: “We would certainly want to see some form of civic engagement.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Naomi goes on to say that government in Northern Ireland needs to find a way to ensure that decisions assist an agreed objective of greater integration. “You’ve got to look at every decision that you make in government and you’ve got to look at how that decision will impact on the level of segregation or integration in our society, how it will impact on the ability of people to share their communities or not.” She goes on to say that integrated education helps to create clusters of integrated housing. Naomi also praises the impact of Belfast’s Glider bus system in improving connections across the city and so breach old geographic barriers. “Public transport is crucial” in creating safe ways to improve social integration, she says.
Naomi is clear that the cost of public service segregation and duplication – she quotes studies putting the annual cost at between £750m and £1.5bn – creates incentives to bring society together. “The difficulty, of course, with that is that none of it is unlocked cheaply either. And we have been very honest about that. It is essentially an invest to save opportunity.
“But that’s a very strong argument to take to Treasury when you go and make a pitch for additional funds…. If you say to them, we have a massive hole here in our budget. But if you give us the money, we can spend it in a way that will fix that hole. So in future years, the hole will be smaller. They’re going to be much more interested and invested in that project than they would be otherwise. There is an opportunity to look at the costs of division in our society. Some of those are hard financial costs of duplication, of the violence and the extra policing, and everything else that we require. Some of them are missed opportunity costs, things that we can’t do and miss out on because of division. It’s really important that we look at those costs and see how we minimise those. One way is at a policy level and the other way is by investing to restructure what we do. We have a massive problem, for example, in the sustainability of our education system.”
Naomi goes on to say that while the Stormont House Agreement is not perfect in dealing with legacy issues, it “is possibly the last chance we’re going to have to do anything that looks anything like a comprehensive process”. She does not support a statute of limitations or amnesty in relation to past events. Her priorities for dealing with the past are for transparency, adoption of the Stormont House Agreement, pensions for victims, plus investment in counselling services for people with continuing trauma and in social care for people as they deal with their injuries as they get older.
She believes that the constitutional conversations need to take place within the context of the Good Friday Agreement, and the working of its institutions. Naomi adds that the conversation “should not be just led by politicians” and should feature a major role for civil society. She opposes an early calling of a border poll.
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.
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.