A discussion on how to strengthen civic society was held as part of a concluding reflection on the Holywell Trust’s series of Forward Together podcasts. The panel was author Julieann Campbell, the commentator Denis Bradley (who was co-chair of the Consultative Group on the Past and former deputy chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board) and Maureen Hetherington of the Junction, plus myself as the person who conducted the interviews for the 35 podcasts.
We began by listening to highlights from the recordings. The now retired Church of Ireland Bishop of Derry and Raphoe Ken Good said in his interview: “I would like our politicians to be speaking less, or be reported less, and for civic forum people to be speaking more, or reported more, or asked more”. Former Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt said: “I would like civic unionism to be more active…. I look quite enviously at civic nationalism”.
Avila Kilmurray of the Social Change Initiative stressed “participative democracy doesn’t replace representative democracy, it enhances it”. Irish language activist Linda Ervine added that “so many people are not voting,” asking “how do we change that, how do we give [people] a greater voice?” And victims campaigner Alan McBride said: “I thought the Civic Forum was a great idea – it’s not a threat to democracy – I would like to see something like that happening again.”
Peter Sheridan, chief executive of Co-operation Ireland and a former senior officer in the RUC, explained in detail how a Citizens’ Assembly in Northern Ireland might work. While Alliance Party leader, and MEP, Naomi Long pointed out that there is now a recognition amongst many politicians that they need to improve civic engagement to address some of the big unresolved challenges.
In the panel discussion I underlined the general support across the interviewees for stronger civic engagement, with the exception of the strong reservations in the interviews with politicians representing the DUP and Sinn Fein – who both appeared concerned that a strong civic society would be at the expense of the perceived legitimacy of the main parties.
Denis Bradley expressed his support for the experience of the Citizens’ Assembly in the Republic. Denis added that he believes that the significance of the problems – including Brexit – that Northern Ireland is currently addressing makes it very likely that some new form of civic engagement will soon emerge.
Julieann Campbell responded: “I think there are people willing to speak, there are people willing to get their hands dirty, to get involved and come up with solutions – but who is out there listening?” She added: “How are we going to change things otherwise? While the will is there, the passion is there, we haven’t got the mechanisms to do it? There’s a vacuum.”
Maureen Hetherington stressed her belief in the Citizens’ Assembly model and said that it was a model that could be mobilised behind. She added that the current political system is not working. “There’s never been a greater opportunity.” Julieann agreed with Peter Sheridan that a Citizens’ Assembly would be an excellent idea to trial in interface areas – drawing on the experience in Derry of resolving parading disputes.
Denis emphasised that the roles of representative democracy and civic engagement are different – but civic engagement can assist politicians to do things where otherwise there is too much resistance. That has been the experience of the Citizens’ Assembly in the Republic.
This latest Forward Together podcast is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.
Further panel discussions will be included in other podcasts to follow over the next four weeks.
- 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 and is Parliamentary Assistant to Sinead McLaughlin MLA, the SDLP’s economy spokesperson.