July 11, 2007

It’s time to get civil society talking

The North-South train is back on track again. It is still too soon to gauge the impact of the amazing series of events which led in May to Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sharing power in Northern Ireland, and the former sitting down with Bertie Ahern to plan the future of North-South cooperation.

However one carriage near the back has already started to move. The October 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement renewed the commitment in the 1998 Belfast Agreement to set up a North South Independent Consultative Forum, which would bring together representatives of civil society on both sides of the border to discuss matters of mutual interest and promote cross-border cooperation.

A group of community activists in the central border region calling themselves the Border Exchange and Action Network used this commitment as the basis for a very interesting and well-attended conference in Armagh in late June called ‘Promoting the Independent North South Consultative Forum’.

The keynote address came from Brian Harvey, the highly regarded social consultant and co-author of the 2005 study of the Southern border region, The Emerald Curtain1. He pointed out that a prototype of the proposed Consultative Forum had existed in the late-1990s in the form of the 109-member Peace 1 Consultative Forum, set up to be representative of the social partners and to provide a critical commentary on that EU funding programme. Its work was endorsed by various observers, including the notoriously hard-headed European Court of Auditors, but the Departments of Finance in Dublin and Belfast buried a largely positive evaluation and it failed to re-appear to oversee the follow-up 2000-2006 Peace 2 Programme.

Harvey pointed to this as evidence that “to some people in some governments, civic forums are not desirable. Forums are critical, they are argumentative, they bring new voices to the table who would not otherwise be heard, they complicate the neat and tidy world of orderly government.”

However in continental Europe the participation of civil society in effective decision-making has become the norm. “European political thinking has now moved well beyond the day when the only valid way to make decisions is by departmental civil servants under the instruction of ministers in the framework of the nation state: decision-making and problem-solving in modern, complex, post-industrial societies necessarily involve a much wider range of actors and participants, what is now called ‘multi-level governance.” In the draft European constitution, the involvement of civil society in such processes is set down as a core value.

Harvey said one of the things which had stuck the authors of The Emerald Curtain was that while it was now routine for voluntary and community organisations in the border region to work across the Irish border (greatly helped by EU funding), the same could not be said for many government departments.

He listed the wide range of particular problems faced by people in the border region – from ‘roaming’ mobile phone charges to the impossibility of accessing services in the other jurisdiction, from incomparable statistics to fire engines that can’t cross the border to deal with emergencies – which in other parts of Europe are now being handled with the help of cross-border civil society networks. In the Rhine Triangle between France, Germany and the Benelux countries, one of the most prosperous and dynamic regions in the whole EU, “it is possible to live on one side of the border and get health services routinely on the other, to use public services on both sides, to be educated on one and have the qualification accepted by the other.” In one German-Dutch region, the EUREGIO based around Gronau-Entschede, no fewer than 250,000 people every year are involved in cross-border activities under the oversight of an assembly elected by 130 local authorities on both sides of the border.

The all-island cooperation chapter of the South’s 2007-2013 National Development Plan2 (which is a ‘common chapter’ with the equivalent Northern plan) for the first time commits both jurisdictions to prepare a report on existing cooperation in the area of social inclusion, to “include the contribution of the voluntary and community sector in promoting north/south inclusion, equality and reconciliation.”

This is good news for those of us who believe that ‘people to people’ cooperation is a crucial part of the reconciliation process on this island. Now we await the announcement of the re-establishment of both the Northern Ireland Civic Forum and the North South Independent Consultative Forum, and watch with interest to see the structure and modus operandi of the latter.

The original 2002 North/South Ministerial Council blueprint for the Consultative Forum was that it should consist of a two six-monthly conferences every year to bring together representatives of civil society from both parts of the island. There has been some criticism of that model from community and voluntary sector people. But it is a starting point. It is a starting point that the politicians, notoriously suspicious of such non-parliamentary parallel universes, seem prepared to work with. So let’s not run ahead of ourselves. Let’s work with what we’ve been offered, and build on it, and yet again we might surprise ourselves by creating something innovative and unique that the rest of the world might want to learn from.

Andy Pollak

1 The Emerald Curtain: The Social Impact of the Irish Border by Brian Harvey, Assumpta Kelly and Sean McGearty
2 National Development Plan 2007-2013 by the Department of Finance (Ireland)