Learning to Listen

There is immense frustration across Northern Ireland’s community sector that the Civic Forum collapsed in 2002 and was not replaced. Demands are increasing for citizens’ assemblies, or similar, to provide an alternative voice to that of politicians, especially in the absence of the Assembly and Executive.

Avila Kilmurray was a founder of the Women’s Coalition which led demands for the Civic Forum as part of the Good Friday Agreement negotiations. Avila makes the point that it was also the Women’s Coalition that negotiated into the GFA sections on recognising and supporting victims of the Troubles; women’s representation; community development; and a focus on housing.

“The idea of the citizen’s voice, civic forum, civic assembly, whatever you call it, we thought was particularly important in Northern Ireland because of the conflict,” reflected Avila. “And because politics anyway, particularly in a contested society, draws the oxygen out from so many other issues, because everything is focused on (a) the constitutional question and (b) how you stop the violence.”

Other concerns that were never mentioned, said Avila, included domestic violence – with civil servants saying at the time that it was not an issue, proven by the fact that no one raised it with them.

Avila was speaking at an event to initiate a series of in-depth consultative events run by the Holywell Trust that provided mechanisms for ‘other’ voices to be heard.

These were the ‘Thirty’ conversations – so-called as they each brought together around thirty individuals who were interested in drilling down into contentious matters of concern, leading to them formulating detailed recommendations on how to make progress. Those topics were legacy; education; and providing a forum for civic voices, separately, in Belfast and Derry.

Catherine Cooke was one of the ‘Thirty’ participants, who is steeped in community activity in the North West, but said that what she particularly valued from the events was listening to voices that are seldom heard. “We only hear from politicians,” she says. “People came from different walks of life and it made it interesting to hear what was their priority. It was getting an insight into a new perspective.”

Grainne McCloskey, another participant, said: “I thought it was a really interesting concept, innovative to be thinking about it 25 years on [from the Good Friday Agreement].” She added: “I thought it was one of best facilitated events I have ever attended,” providing exactly the right level of engagement in discussions, bringing expert voices in, as well as mixed participation from those attending.

Grainne added that “a lot of things that were in the peace process are hidden from the average person in the street, not through any kind of cover up”, but because the public are not engaged in the detail of the Good Friday Agreement and party politics.

“Since attending, I’m much more switched on.” She added: “I can see in my work there is a change in the way I think about it…. now when I’m shaping something where people are coming together, I make a point of pointing out some of our commonalities… There’s a lot of differences, but there are a lot of common approaches too.”

Fiona Corvan of the Holywell Trust said the concept had been inspired by the success of the Citizen’s Assemblies in the South. “We wanted to give people the chance to learn and to be engaged in some divisive issues – we looked at civic engagement 25 years on from the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and reconciling the past with a future focus.”

Fiona added: “It was heartening to see that people are really interested in the issues that affect them and that are shaping our society. Quite often they are not given the chance to influence or have their say. And there is a culture of misinformation or lack of information.

“We can be so consumed by news and headline news, that quite often we miss complexities and nuances around those big issues…. One of the things we are proud of is that we used a model that works elsewhere and used the learning from that on a smaller scale.”

The events were financially supported by The Executive Office through its Together Building a United Community programme.

The podcast is available at the Holywell Trust website along with previous episodes. A video explaining the Thirty concept can also be accessed on the Holywell website, as can the recommendations from the series of events.

Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

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