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Malachi O'Doherty: The Civic Forum promised to replace impassioned debate with informed discussion ... is that why the big parties let it wither and die?

The consultative body, which last met in 2002, could hold the solution to the systemic deadlock at Stormont, writes Malachi O'Doherty


Members of the Northern Ireland Civic Forum meeting back in 2002

Members of the Northern Ireland Civic Forum meeting back in 2002

Members of the Northern Ireland Civic Forum meeting back in 2002

When you hear a politician in Northern Ireland declare a commitment to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, allow yourself to scoff. None of those who speak about the Agreement as if it is holy writ cares to implement paragraph 34. That clause established a Civic Forum.

Politicians of opposing views may be up for power-sharing and cross-border bodies and a border poll, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but they are virtually united in wishing to exclude unelected citizens from their debates and the business of politics. Yet the architects of the agreement made a place for them.

The idea was to create a body of expertise which would advise the Assembly, drawing on connections with wider society, experience of business, the media, culture and arts, the voluntary sector; what might roughly be described as "the real world". And the last thing any political party wants is to fund people who might contradict them.

So the Civic Forum lasted two years. After the suspension of the Assembly in 2002, no one had the slightest interest in resurrecting it.

The agreement says the Civic Forum "will comprise representatives of the business, trade union and voluntary sectors and such other sectors as agreed by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. It will act as a consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural issues".

It wasn't to be a second tier of government, like the House of Lords, or the Irish senate. At its worst - and we probably had a good view of the worst it could be - it was a cantankerous talking-shop.

Many of the issues which were irritants within community politics were aired in the forum. I covered one meeting in which the chair, Chris Gibson, promised to look into the provision of Irish language translation facilities for a member who felt that her identity was not adequately catered for. As if there wasn't enough haggling about identity in the Assembly itself.

But we might have indulged the first generation of the forum so soon after the end of the Troubles, indeed years still before decommissioning.

And we might realistically have allowed it to mature and evolve into a consultative body that could dilute the factional ardour of the big parties - if given a chance.

But factional parties don't want their ardour diluted. We inherited from the agreement a standing deadlock between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

To be fair, a major part of the blame goes to the reworking of the agreement at St Andrews, so that voters were incentivised to support the biggest party in their community and dispense with the smaller ones.

The outworking of this is that unionists now vote to block the growth of Sinn Fein and republicans and nationalists vote to curtail the DUP. They are effectively in competition for the top job.

When they are canvassing at election time, they say things like, "If you don't want one of them to be First Minister, there's only one way to stop that happening and it's not to give your number one to the SDLP/UUs (delete as appropriate)."

This consolidation of the factions produces an even greater need for other voices concerned with civic interests.

Perhaps the Civic Forum was never really sold to us. Its potential was never explained - let alone developed.

And it was, even by prescription of the agreement, at the mercy of the First and deputy First Ministers, who would always have the power to squash it if they didn't like what it was doing.

So, what might it have done? There is a phenomenon in Northern Irish life that is much commented on by visitors and lightly assumed by ourselves: we are nice people.

Most of us are not nearly as contentious, factional, devious, or caustic as the people we elect to the big parties contending for the greater number of Executive seats.

We get berated sometimes - and even berate ourselves - with the simple wisdom that we deserve the parties we vote for.

The logic of this is that we must all be secretly impassioned, aching every day with the urge to preserve the Union, or destroy it. Actually, we get on with our own lives and even mutter about how those ghastly parties are failing us. Though we put them there. The Civic Forum idea recognised that our politics tended towards the sectarian, that our parties became dangerous concentrations of our anxieties and that this tendency would inhibit their ability to work together.

So, it sought a means of bringing not only the expertise of different segments of society into the political discussion, but also the ordinary civil decency of most people.

It is that civility and spirit of accommodation which enables all the other segments of society to function.

If unionists and nationalists working in the health service, or the police, were to place their ideological divisions before their work, the way politicians do, then those sectors would stagnate and deadlock as well.

If we had a Civic Forum what might it have done? Take a question like whether we need an Irish Language Act. The Civic Forum might have discussed this to advise culture ministers before they ruled it out and hardened division.

If the Forum had a budget, they might have commissioned polls to gauge opinion. And, if the Civic Forum had not been suspended and had even been allowed to continue to meet and debate when the Assembly couldn't, then it could now be feeding ideas into a talks process, or a pre-talks process, on how resolutions might be reached.

In the Republic, a Citizens' Assembly debated whether or not a referendum should be held to admit the possibility of legislating to allow abortion. Most of the political parties thought the issue was toxic, yet the Citizen's Assembly argued that attitudes in the country were much more liberal than those being aired in Dail debates. The referendum went ahead and the Citizens' Assembly's perspective was endorsed.

It did not rely just on its own deliberations, but commissioned research and polling.

We have a system of government which tends towards deadlock. It rewards contention.

Parties that confront each other across the factional divide grow stronger, garner more votes for being awkward.

It may be that this simple fact of political life here means that power-sharing has already come to an end.

But, if it can be restored, it will have to be in some way protected against its own toxins, its own inherent tendency towards deadlock and breakdown.

And the Civic Forum can contribute to that by calling the parties back to informed, rather than impassioned, debate.

Belfast Telegraph

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