INCORE conference: ” Breaking the logjam? “

I attended a day long conference, “Breaking the log-jam?”, hosted by INCORE (an organisation that aims to address management and resolution of conflict via research and training).

The most interesting speeches were from Professor Paul Arthur (University of Ulster) and Mark Durkan (Leader of the SDLP). Here is a summary of Durkan’s remarks:

He started by saying that privatising sections of the Agreement to separate parties has been a big mistake, and even gave the example of policing and the SDLP. He proposed that all (pro-Agreement) parties should hold the same sheet of paper, e.g. a common response to the Joint Declaration.

If the Agreement suffers from collective ambiguity, then the solution is more ‘collective certainty’. He said that any agreement now should be a collective one. There needs to be an end to the pantomime of ‘Saving David’ or ‘Squaring Gerry’.

In regards to the number of Executive Departments, he said that the SDLP did not want the situation of a straight hand-me-down portfolios from the existing NI Civil Service. Instead, he wanted a first-day-at-school experience for everyone.

In regards to collective responsibility, he argued that only the Minister for Finance and Personnel had any real accountability to the Assembly (legislature), because of the need for their cross-community support for the overall budget and the Programme for Government. He acknowledged the general lack of Ministerial accountability.

His opinion was that the allocation of budget money should be less with Executive Departments and more with service deliverers (e.g. community groups). He gave the example of his establishment of Executive Programme Funds, motivated by his frustration with a conservative civil service.

He suggested that the Civic Forum could review its own remit and structures. A potential role for it would be to comment on particular consultation documents (and especially those that involve issues that it would be better suited to reply to, e.g. community relations).

He also suggested that the Programme for Government process should not be an annual and mostly bureaucratic one, but instead one for an entire term of an Assembly. He wanted this to be a serious process, one of civic partnership, and made reference to the partnership model applied in the Republic of Ireland.

He argued that the Agreement needs to work for all, especially victims, who have not been served well so far. He mentioned how it was the SDLP and Alliance Party who fought hard for a reference to a victims and survivors forum, which was objected to by the UUP (who patronise victims) and Sinn Fein (who ghettoise victims). There needs to be a better form of remembrance, so it doesn’t die with the victims/survivors. [Perhaps this is another role for the Civic Forum, because the issue is beyond party politics.]

Furthermore, Mark commented on the discussion of a truth and reconciliation forum. He said that the South African model may be/is not so relevant, but made reference to the South African legislation that set it up: there needs to be “a moral basis from which to leave the past behind.”

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