Ireland needs a national forum for cogent debate

 

OPINION:Citizens need a space in which to discuss politics and society free from media bun fights and political soundbites, writes DEREK SCALLY

I N DENMARK last week, President Mary McAleese said the crisis engulfing Ireland “obliged” us to “to take a step back” and discuss the country’s future. Ireland needs to channel the “righteous anger” people are feeling into national debate, she said, and “the more people who are engaged with that debate, the more valuable and profound the outcome is likely to be”.

But where in Ireland should such a debate take place? Asked whether she favoured a format similar to the National Forum on Europe that toured Ireland in the wake of the first Lisbon vote, Mrs McAleese said: “I don’t think it’s for me to put a shape on it, I don’t want to be prescriptive.”

So who will? There is a palpable need for a national discussion about our political culture and structures, our voting system and the relationship between business and politics. But where exactly should this debate take place? Where can the growing discussion about citizens’ parliaments be co-ordinated and focused?

Dublin think tanks and organisations such as Tasc are committed to public discussion, but have limited reach and limited means. Newspaper opinion and letters pages, television discussion shows and radio phone-ins all play an important role in national debate. But they are limited in reach, and the need to attract audiences can leave discussion subordinated to polemic and populism. Worse, amid a never-ending wave of bad news, many people have begun to ignore the media in an effort to stay sane.

Is there room for a new discussion space parallel to existing channels? The success of the “Leviathan” political cabaret would suggest so. But meaningful, long-term debate demands a national forum with a permanent structure that is open to all citizens and offers a regular programme of discussions and events on issues that affect us all.

For decades, the German state has spent a fortune financing organisations to foster civil society.

In the post-war years, the thinking in West Germany was that financing political education and civic awareness was expensive, yes, but infinitely cheaper than the alternative it had just experienced: a pliable public seduced by a fascist dictatorship into the horror of war.

The German landscape is dominated by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAF) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, linked to the two largest political parties, the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) and opposition Social Democrats (SPD) respectively.

These foundations, and those of the smaller political parties, are funded with public money. In an effort to reflect public opinion, the level of each foundation’s funding depends on their respective parties’ election results.

The organisations are closely audited by parliament, and independently run. Though no lap dogs of their respective parties, there are overlaps in their areas of focus.

The Ebert foundation promotes discussion on globalisation, the labour market, social justice and the developing world; the KAF prioritises civic education, democracy building and European integration. It offers seminars, too, on communication skills and political involvement.

“We know newspapers will always be faster in shaping opinion and explaining daily political events,” says Tobias Wangermann of the KAF in Berlin. “But we know that many people simply repeat what they read in the newspapers. That’s where we begin our work: promoting discussion and thought about the kind of society in which we want to live.”

After political re-education in post-war West Germany, the KAF showed its continued relevance after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

While the German government set about rebuilding the former East Germany’s infrastructure after decades of neglect, the KAF and other organisations built up civil society with seminars on history, economics and democracy.

The oldest political foundation, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), is named after Germany’s first democratically elected president. It began life in 1925 to finance scholarships for German working-class students.

Banned by the Nazis, and re-established in 1946, it has 109 offices worldwide and attracts one-quarter of a million people to over 3,000 events annually. Beyond that, it finances research into everything from the future of social democracy in Europe to German right-wing extremism.

“Our work brings together people from different classes and backgrounds to talk about politics and society,” says Peter Donaiski of the FES Berlin office, “because civil society doesn’t have a phone number you can call and ask to chair a public debate”.

Crucial to good debate, he says, is a formal structure that “gives the possibility to drive on a broad debate relevant to society that is parallel to the lobbying of companies, political parties and other interest groups”.

These publicly funded foundations are supplemented by dozens of privately funded forums, not to mention Catholic and Lutheran academies which discuss issues far beyond narrow religious themes.

It’s a rich tapestry which, though admirable, cannot and should not be imitated in Ireland. For one thing, financing such structures is beyond the means of a small country like Ireland – it was even in the boom era. But what if the biggest hurdle is not in our wallets but in our heads?

The FES London office has made several attempts to start partnerships in Ireland to co-chair discussions and events. The lack of reaction was perceived as a lack of interest, and London director Karl-Heinz Spiegel says the FES has now given up on Ireland.

Three years on, the country is crying out for meaningful public debate beyond media bun fights and political soundbites. This debate needs a home, a place where civil society and politics meet. We have our highly regarded summer schools, but what about the rest of the year? We had a National Forum on Europe, why not one on Ireland?

Whether fixed institution or roadshow, it must be open to all and should be funded by a public-private model.

Such a forum will only come to life when people demand it and see it for what it is: a must-have for national cohesion, something we can no longer afford to do without.


Derek Scally is Berlin Correspondent

MEETINGS OF MINDS: A CITIZEN'S FORUM

A CITIZENS’ FORUM-STYLE meeting will take place at the RDS in Dublin on Saturday.

Organised by Claiming Our Future – an organisation set up initially by Is Féidir Linn, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Environmental Pillar of Social Partnership, Tasc and Social Justice Ireland – it now has a wider representation involving youth, environmental, trade union, rural and justice organisations. Supported financially by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, Atlantic Philanthropies, the One Foundation and the Community Foundation for Ireland, Claiming Our Future says it seeks to “build public and political support for progressive long-term economic, environmental and social change”. On Saturday, 1,000 participants will debate the values and priorities for a new civil society coalition which the organisers hope will reshape Ireland. Further information via: www.claimingourfuture.ie