Good Friday Agreement codifies civic rules of the Northern Ireland game

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Although the DUP dismisses the Good Friday Agreement for all its faults, it is hard to deny that that long-negotiated document set the framework under which our politics takes place, with its separation of powers (perhaps too separate), all-inclusive Executive (though lack of collective responsibility), and peculiar voting systems (bifurcated communal designations).

Yet this Belfast Agreement contains crucial elements that would be found in any enduring democracy — equality of treatment under the law, mutual respect for one’s national identities, and a pledge to develop human rights and improve community relations.

It is easy to feel disappointed by a loss of optimism since the euphoric achievement of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement fifteen years ago.

But that would be a cynical exercise of faulting party politics, while neglecting the potential of a new Northern Ireland.

And why would we leave it only to politicians to deliver a new Northern Ireland?

One vital dimension of our society that helped us reach agreement is our civility.

Our collective civility towards one another thankfully outweighed our barbarism towards one another.

As is often said, you can’t legislate for peace. But we need to give better recognition of how we behave towards one another outside the framework of formal law.

I call this the “civic rules of the game”.

This was part of a “civic conversation” sponsored and convened by RSA Ireland (and facilitated by the International Futures Forum), chaired by Denis Stewart and held at the Linen Hall Library, Belfast.

I argue that the Good Friday Agreement codifies a set of civic rules of the game, but too many of us haven’t noticed.

What are the civic rules of the game?

Our conversation started with talking about respect — our historical context of respect for neighbours, theories of social capital etc. This might be constrained by the power of the churches and the level of segregation in a community.

There are also the rules of protest. Civil disobedience is OK –- but what are you trying to achieve, what is your strategy, and how are you going to communicate what you are doing?  Who decides what uncivic behaviour is, and should transgressors be punished and how?

How do we make altruism the norm — giving more to society than taking from it. There are issues about existing distributions between the better off and the less well off.  What is the role of the state –- in the original shared future policy, the document described the state as a neutral arbitrator, able to facilitate change.  We need a longer conversation on that –- the role of the state in civic society is important.

We talked about the rules of debating -– better ‘critiquing’.  Learning the skills of conversation, critiquing, risk-taking, exploring ideas. Debate is win/lose; critique is not.  Lawyers are trained to understand and represent the other point of view. This skill needs to become more widely evident in our public discourse, not least among politicians and community leaders. We meet politicians and community leaders who seem to understand another person’s point of view. But on a public stage they behave very differently.

The role of the arts came up. If you want a civic conversation that does not step into big politics then do it through the arts: ICAN and the Theatre of Witness programme at the Playhouse Theatre are amazing, as are Replay Productions’ engagement with young people.

Self-esteem is a necessary prerequisite to have the courage to critique. There is a lot of work to be done with/through our school system for the benefit of young people –- and their parents/carers as well. Inter-generational projects are valuable. We need to get serious about where some of the problems lie.

There is potential to share our rich cultural stories (arts, science, technology, etc.). As UK City of Culture 2013, Derry-Londonderry is turning that into an asset. We should be able to do that across the whole of Northern Ireland.

We concluded with Denis’s suggestion that we could think about the possibility of developing a sort of ‘Northern Irish Constitution’ -– through conversational processes that mixed the political and the civic aspects of our society. Mari Fitzduff (founding director of the Community Relations Council) has said that people rarely change identities, but they can change behaviour according to norms and incentives.

So let’s write down some norms.

What are the values of Northern Ireland? What are our aspirations and desires?

Can we grow a genuinely shared Northern Irish identity, not as a national identity but as a civic identity? Our national identity is already established:  British, Irish or both.

How do we then codify the rules of civic engagement, reflecting our values?

I very much want you to be part of further civic conversations. Starting now with your comments please.

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