Belfast Telegraph

Voices of change must be heard for us to progress

We need new narratives of what society should look like if we are to re-engage with citizens, says Robin Wilson

Can Northern Ireland ever have normal politics? That is the question that will be addressed by a panel of political and civil-society figures in Belfast next Monday evening.

The public event - From a Politics of Identity to a Politics of Ideas - is being organised by the pressure group Platform for Change.

There is no doubting the extent of public dissatisfaction with the political status quo. The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey tested this in its last annual survey. It found:

• 69% of respondents believed the Assembly had achieved little, or nothing;

• 63% agreed that the current Assembly system, requiring agreement across all the parties, was too demanding to work;

• 63% agreed that forcing MLAs to define themselves as 'unionist' or 'nationalist' on election 'just keeps us stuck in the old sectarian camps';

• 66% believed the most important thing for the devolved government was improving community relations, or tackling unemployment, or poverty (as against 13% who thought it should be maintaining the Union or uniting Ireland) and;

• 64% disagreed that the Assembly gave ordinary people more say in how Northern Ireland is governed (than had been the case under direct rule from London).

The diverse panel will bring together a range of speakers, drawn from the politically disaffected to active citizens; from UUP leadership candidate John McCallister, who has advocated that his party go into Opposition at Stormont, to Kellie Turtle, from the Belfast Feminist Network, and Eamonn Deane from Holywell Trust, the Derry cross-community organisation.

Platform for Change was established in 2010 to promote a renewal of public engagement with politics in Northern Ireland. Hundreds of individuals across the region from various walks of life signalled their public support for a platform which advocates:

• a politics focused on the public interest and the common good;

• a cohesive government in which power is genuinely shared;

• an Assembly which gives the citizen a real voice and;

• a vision of a tolerant and inclusive society without dividing lines.

In 2010, Platform for Change arranged a critical round-robin signed by leading community-relations practitioners and experts, which led to the withdrawal of the draft Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) policy document. Last year, it put the issue of an Opposition in the Assembly on the agenda.

Some will argue that there is no need for change, but not only does this not seem to chime with the attitudes of a public emerging from the Troubles and the peace process, more importantly, it doesn't really allow for meaningful political debate: is there, for instance, a 'unionist' or a 'nationalist' economic policy for Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland politics needs new, competing narratives of what such a society looks like if it is to engage citizens and offer them real choices and a real say at elections.

Hopefully, a range of these narratives will be on show at Monday night.

The full line-up is: John McCallister (UUP deputy leader); Dolores Kelly (SDLP deputy leader); Anna Lo (Alliance MLA); Steven Agnew (Green Party MLA); Kellie Turtle (Belfast Feminist Network); Tony McMullan (Co-operative Party; Eamonn Deane (Holywell Trust) and; Trevor Ringland (One Small Step).

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