Belfast Telegraph

What will it take to improve the level of political debate here? Is a Civic Forum a starting point for change?

By Malachi O'Doherty

Do you remember when we used to think that devolution and power-sharing would be our salvation? Who thinks that now?

Maybe a few of those who get salaries out of it do, but even most of them must now be feeling a little ashamed of how badly they have done.

This is what the hand of history delivered, a dysfunctional Government for an irredeemably divided society and a record of horrific failure.

The collapse of plans for a new training college for the police, prison and fire services is just the latest in a line of similarly celebrated big plans that came to nothing. The rapid transit rail service that was talked up a few years ago is likely now to be a bus lane.

There was the multi-sports stadium and the peace centre at the Maze, the Irish Language Act and the Ulster-Scots academy. But trust that they won't ultimately botch the long-delayed cross-border electricity interconnector, or there'll be a run on candles. Do you think Stormont could manage candles?

We are in an economic crisis and a political crisis. Our woes would at least be coming one at a time if we took the trouble to sort them out as they appeared, but we don't, so now they are accumulating.

We say we want a knowledge-based economy, but we cut university places. We've always had an orchestra, but we can't afford one anymore.

We spend millions defending sectarian protest at the expense of Culture Night and events which bring people together.

And while we have cuts to make all round us, £44m is to be spent shifting a Government department, DARD, to Ballykelly, of all places.

That should put 700 more cars on the road out of Derry every morning and bring down the price of property in Downpatrick and Killyleagh.

Some good may come of it; even a blundering Executive like ours is entitled to strike lucky from some of its daft ideas. I mean, isn't that what we're all waiting for?

But did it have to be like this? Did we have to have structures which are self-deadlocking? Did we have to draw our political leaders from such a drab pool?

Some, like Martin McGuinness, have had leadership roles for decades and got used to making critical life-and-death decisions, but perhaps he has not really grasped that politics is the art of the possible, having been committed to making so many impossible demands over the years.

Peter Robinson is a logical and passionate man. He even has an ice bowl named after him.

But, really, if you were building an administration from scratch would you pick the top men in the two most truculent and obstreperous, mutually opposed organisations in the country and bind them to each other like this? You would not.

We are past the point where we can regard this as a miracle and a breakthrough; now it just looks like a bad idea. It would have been a miracle if it had worked.

Now we are faced with massive cuts and a few gambles. The cuts will be in services and jobs, with redundancies across the public sector.

One of the big gambles is that we can cut corporation tax and attract big investors. Since so many of those companies are so adept at tax avoidance already, this might not be the incentive we are being told it is. At least for some in DARD, the consolation for being made redundant will be that they won't have to live in Ballykelly, or drive there every day if they can't sell their negative-equity-strapped houses.

But did you notice that we are three weeks into political talks to resolve flags, parades, the past and whatever you're having yourself?

No, me neither. There are several facets to our problem, including sectarian division, ineptitude, a delusion that we have been riding the wave of a miraculous transformation and shortage of money.

But all our problems have to be solved with clear-headed thinking, professional expertise and a capacity for agreement. None of which we have. Blame, if you like, the hundreds of thousands of people who no longer vote.

There is a self-perpetuating character to our crisis. Pub conversations and dinner party chit-chat all over the land are about how useless Stormont is.

Tell the moaners that they should go out to vote to change it and they have the reasonable complaint that it wouldn't change anything.

Who do you vote for to make a difference? The majority is still going to vote for the patron parties of sectarian factions.

There have been a few brave adventures into radical reform. The Green Party, God love them. Platform for Change, a coalition of well-meaning intellectuals and liberals with ideas, but no thrust.

There is little prospect of making a difference unless you are in a party that has a real chance of power, and for the interminably disheartening future that means Sinn Fein or the DUP.

There was supposed to be a platform for the expression of different ideas - the Civic Forum.

The one thing you can be sure of these days is that when someone talks about the need to fully implement the Agreement they do not mean the Civic Forum. The last thing the Executive parties want is a second chamber of smart alecks debating how badly they are doing.

And that's why we need it.

It was a bit of a laugh the first time round, with community groups arguing for Irish language translation facilities and similar irrelevancies. The Civic Forum could be a pooling of expertise from all sectors of society that would talk sense to the Assembly and keep the rest of us authoritatively informed. It could also be a taster of political life for those with talent who might be of some service to the country, but who right now baulk at the idea of having to sit and look across the chamber at all those drab faces.

In the long-term we are going to have to go for a form of government here that is not fixated on identity politics and the preservation of sectarian traditions, because a talent for chauvinism and division doesn't translate into a talent for solving serious practical problems and running a region.

A start might be restoring the Civic Forum, putting our best and brightest to work on it and providing through it a vision of what pragmatic, meritocratic political administration might actually look like.

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