Belfast Telegraph

'Civic Forum will ensure people in Northern Ireland are talking, sharing ideas and working together'

By Colum Eastwood

I was delighted my party leader Alasdair McDonnell included a call to reconvene the Civic Forum in his speech to our Party Conference at the weekend.

A newly reconvened Civic Forum needs to involve the widest possible spectrum of people, from all backgrounds, and with all viewpoints. Given the overwhelming response to the appeal for public submissions to the Haass Talks, it is evident that there is significant desire for engagement from the community and voluntary sector as well as victims and survivors.

Our negotiators at the Haass/O’Sullivan talks, Alex Attwood and Joe Byrne have been very clear from the start that the involvement of civic society is the single biggest strength of the Haass/O’Sullivan talks and these groups are the greatest authority on how to move our society forward.

All too often these groups are ahead of the political parties in terms of addressing disputes and divisions. This is why reconvening the Civic Forum is so vital at this juncture.

In April this year, I spoke in the Northern Ireland Assembly on a debate on the Civic Forum in which I pointed out that the Forum was a key part of creating participative democracy that was envisioned by the Good Friday Agreement.

During this debate unionist members of the Assembly questioned the cost of running the Civic Forum but I pointed out that while listening to civic society had cost us half a million pounds, policing the flag disputes had cost £18 million.

Half a million pounds to ensure that people are talking, sharing ideas, working together, bringing about the best possible government and building a sustainable and shared future seems like good value for money to me.

Next week the Assembly will debate a motion I have moved noting the decision of April 9 this year, on the recall of the Civic Forum and the lack of progress to date.

The motion also calls on the First and deputy First Minister to recall the Civic Forum by the end of January 2014. Given that the Haass/O’Sullivan are due to conclude at Christmas it is now time to harness the energy of civic society and build on their willingness to engage.


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