More channels for civic voices demanded

More channels for civic voices demanded
#CoffeeClub at Ulster Unionist Party conference
by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation
18 October 2014 

At a sidebar coffee club session, organised by lobby firm Stratagem, I asked a room full of Ulster Unionist Party attendees what was the good, the bad and the ugly lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process. With marker in my hand, I stood at the ready in front of two flip charts.

The item emphasised repeatedly by the audience was that when the ordinary public is brought into the process, then greater progress is made on intractable issues. This was the first item to go into The Good column. But with a caveat that this needs to be constantly facilitated and respected among all three main players in any talks process – Northern Ireland politicians, representatives of the British and Irish Governments (both essential), and members of the voluntary and community sector.

What was called for was greater and better channels for civic voices.

I used the framework of the Forum for Cities in Transition, which is an international network of municipalities in divided societies, including cities Nicosia (Cyprus), Mitrovica (Kosovo), Kirkuk (Iraq) and Kaduna (Nigeria).

My starter was physical segregation – the dozens of interfaces in Belfast (which have actually increased since the 1998 Good Friday Agereement) are a disgrace, but there is a solid wall separating the citizens of Nicosia – the only city in Europe with such a partition.

On the other hand, Nicosia has a master plan, initiated by Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communal leaders, on the wisdom that all they want to achieve won’t be done in one generation, but several. This plan is the blueprint all there work to. Belfast doesn’t have a master plan, let alone Northern Ireland.

Indeed, this was a major item to go into The Bad column – Northern Ireland is inadequate in the language of the common good. Where is our ambition, our vision?

Positively, the audience contributed that political violence has all but ceased (“the killings have stopped”); so much more of our society has a greater understanding of others’ perspectives.

The reform of policing in Northern Ireland was acknowledged as a positive result of our peace process – how it is human rights based with constructive engagement with local communities. I suggested that we here are blasé about this, in that in the vast majority of Forum member cities, policing and human security is hotly contested. I also gave examples of training exchanges, organised and facilitated by Forum themselves in Derry-Londonderry and Mitrovica, between members of PSNI and the Kosovo Police.

But if Northern Ireland policing reform was in The Good column, our education system was clearly in The Bad – maintaining five school systems for a relatively small population of 1.8 million is financially unsustainable, it was argued from the floor. A participant argued that as much effort that went into reforming policing should be put toward reforming our education system.

Importantly, a community worker in our group highlighted the opportunity and risk of our young people in Northern Ireland – they are a generation that have gown up in peace, but we mustn’t laden them with the baggage of our past troubles.

Indeed, this directly relates to another item in The Bad column: our collective failure to date to adequately deal with our past, marches and parades. And is this excused more by a lack of funding, or political will? Other divided societies, for example, have not had nearly as much financial resources at their disposal, but have at least prioritised their reconciliation process. Have we really yet?

The Ugly was our stagnant government in Northern Ireland – stability done so well it appears as paralysis.

Another ugly aspect of our peace process is that we are not truly accepting our diversity and multi-cultural society. That is, we may present a positive image abroad, but are we being honest with ourselves? There may be good community relations on the ground, but how much is this supported by our political representatives, collectively and cohesively?

I concluded with an example from the American civil rights movement, when African-Americans approached President Eisenhower with their demands. The Republican leader, like any politician, must have been acutely aware of constant pressures within his own party, when he replied that they must make it so he can’t ignore their demands. It took a few years, but we know how the massive march to Washington and how Martin Luther King’s address made that so.

Likewise, any televised or broadcast media work to their own pressures. If civic society wants media attention, then they must make it so that they cannot be ignored.

And we have our own precedent – when ordinary people and groups galvanised and spoke up during the multi-party talks that led up to the Good Friday Agreement. This was indeed facilitated by governments and welcomed by politicians (at least some, who appreciated the political cover it provided).

So, if we’re going to export our Northern Ireland peace process, let’s be cognisant of what worked, how it worked, and be more honest when we’re sharing our experiences with others dealing with their contested spaces.

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