Belfast Telegraph

A change is going to come and politics must get real

A new civic initiative, Platform for Change, is launched today - its mission to dispel public contempt for politics, writes Robin Wilson

There can be little doubt as to the public mood about politics in Northern Ireland. It ranges from apathy through annoyance to anger.

Anti-politics can be cheap and cynical. But there are genuine concerns behind this sour disposition.

We know from data on public opinion that there is a big shortfall between expectations and what devolution has delivered since 2007.

And we know from falling voter registration and turnout that citizens feel increasingly disengaged.

What captured this disconnection was the revelation during the recent protracted private negotiations at Hillsborough Castle, that two manufacturing firms in the greater Belfast area were planning to close. While skilled jobs were in jeopardy on the street, the agenda at Hillsborough was whether 'Orange feet' would walk on certain streets or not.

Everyone old enough to remember the horrors of the 1970s and 80s is relieved the embers of violence have gradually faded. But this week reminded us just how far from normality Northern Ireland remains - with the car bomb in Newry, the 'punishment' shooting in Derry, the relived horror at the trial of Thomas Devlin's north Belfast killing and the sectarian row over who should receive farm modernisation payments in the west.

Normality, which is undoubtedly what most citizens yearn for, is hardly an unrealistic ambition.

But we will not get there until politics in Northern Ireland conforms to the same, simple universal norms - of democracy, human rights and the rule of law - which have kept intolerance and violence at bay across Europe for decades.

And, over recent months, hundreds of citizens - not Catholics, not Protestants, but citizens - from across the region have come together to chart, on the basis of principles everyone can accept, a new politics for a new Northern Ireland.

This new campaign, launched today in Belfast, is called Platform for Change. It is backed by well-known personalities, but it is mainly supported by unsung heroes and heroines, who have shown their commitment in their daily lives to the public interest and the common good - and by young people who want a politics that is relevant to them.

The platform calls for a collective approach to government, with ministers all singing from the same hymn sheet. It demands a stream of legislation from the Executive, so that the Assembly delivers real results. It calls for avenues to allow business, the unions and the voluntary sector - and individual citizens - to have a real say in government.

The platform includes concrete proposals to reset the education debate in a way which can transcend the deadlock over the 11-Plus.

It itemises how a 'Green New Deal', can give the economic priority of the devolved government real substance.

Plus, it shows how a European approach to intercultural dialogue can heal a society scarred by its proliferating 'peace walls'.

A big milestone is the next Assembly poll, due in 2011. As things stand, this could again prove to be two entirely separate elections - one Catholic, one Protestant - with the agenda dominated by the question of who will, or will not, be First Minister and the possibility that no government is subsequently formed.

We want to see instead those parties that are willing to do so lining up behind the Platform for Change and ensuring the electoral agenda is dominated by policy issues.

If we do get a government elected in which power is genuinely shared, we want to see a discussion about how we can have more flexible power-sharing, founded on equality and mutuality. The current rigid system has proved vulnerable to political shocks.

As a civic initiative, Platform for Change will be led by those citizens who get involved in it. Over the coming months, we will be going on the road across Northern Ireland to stimulate wider debate and participation - and so bring closer the real prospect of change.

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