Potential key role for North’s civil society in breaking impasse

Citizens’ assembly to articulate fears and aspirations would benefit North

Voting taking place at a meeting of the Convention on the Constitution in Malahide, Co Dublin, in 2013. Photograph: Eric Luke

Voting taking place at a meeting of the Convention on the Constitution in Malahide, Co Dublin, in 2013. Photograph: Eric Luke

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Peace processes are long-term endeavours. Societies evolve, the economic climate shifts, political leaders change. The UK votes to leave the European Union.

Brexit is the latest stress test facing the Belfast Agreement, a political settlement which I was party to in April 1998. Twenty years on, the negotiations on Brexit have raised the spectre of division once again. The situation offers a stark reminder that to be sustained, the issues which continue to divide us must be given constant attention over the long term.

The world has undoubtedly seen a surge in political elites sowing polarisation and division

This stress test was not the first, nor will it be the last. We know that great care was taken in wording the Belfast Agreement to capture the complex web of relationships and interdependencies whether north-south on the island of Ireland, east-west between UK and Ireland and indeed with the EU itself. Whether that web remains in place depends very much on how well those interests remain accounted for.

Lisbon treaty

In June 2008, 53.4 per cent of Irish voters rejected a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would enable Ireland to ratify the Lisbon treaty of the EU. Soon after, The Irish Times posted a poll asking No voters why they opposed the treaty. Some 40 per cent of respondents did so because they didn’t understand it. Few would. The text was long, dense and legal, so it wasn’t a surprise so many had reservations.

Following the No vote, the message hit home that citizens need to be genuinely informed and involved in major decisions that will affect everyone in society. The remarkable 2012-2014 Constitutional Convention, and the Citizens’ Assembly that succeeded it, have been invaluable in this regard. Ireland should be proud of the processes it created. Among other achievements, contentious issues were resolved that have typically been too hot for politicians to handle.

We have much to learn from such creativity. I have advocated – so far unsuccessfully – for a successor to the Civic Forum that briefly existed in Northern Ireland between 2000-2002. For social cohesion to withstand political turmoil, particularly where communities are so divided, voices drawn from across civic society must be cultivated and given space to bloom.

The world has undoubtedly seen a surge in political elites sowing polarisation and division. In many cases, we see politicians who are afraid to compromise for fear of losing legitimacy in the eyes of their base. Engaging civic society can help break this un-virtuous circle.

This is a crucial moment for civil society and for political parties to forge partnerships rather than break them

For 25 years, Interpeace has supported similar initiatives around the world: from cross-border community dialogue in the African Great Lakes to identifying points of agreement shared by both sides in Cyprus, another island that has experienced long-standing division. There, a bi-communal Interpeace project has enabled points of convergence to be found on common issues of concern. By nurturing such spaces, trust can be built. An accommodation reached more easily. Peace sustained.

Fears and aspirations

So why aren’t we learning from these participatory processes? Would we be so fractured and wounded if people from across these isles – and from across the aisles – had been brought together to discuss the issues of Brexit, to express their fears and aspirations, to relate to each other and receive independent advice?

This is not about whether a second referendum on Brexit should be held. It is rather the wisdom of engaging civic society to sustain the momentum for positive change that deserves much wider currency. It has been shown to work in Ireland as well as in conflicted societies around the world.

This is a crucial moment for civil society and for political parties to forge partnerships rather than break them. We need champions who speak up for inclusion. We have been witness to the kind of voices that are empathetic as well as assertive. When those voices assemble, mountains can move.

Monica McWilliams is the chair of Interpeace and participated in the Belfast Agreement negotiations as a member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition

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