New Thinking for
Talking, and listening
Only in being challenged and con fronted about our thinking
will barriers and mindsets be broken.
What distinguishes Democratic Dialogue in this regard is the philosophical
basis its participants share, as to the extent that people, and
their beliefs, are capable of changing. Change is possible,
through challenge, and one fundamental means of challenge is to
question ideas and beliefs - and, in particular, the language
we use to convey them.
Over the past 25 years, Northern Ireland has developed a considerable
glossary, rich in concepts and cliches. Ones that spring to mind
are 'democratic deficit', 'parity of esteem', the 'peace process
and so on. But too often language, if isn't analysed in itself,
acts as a barrier to understanding instead of enhancing it.
We in Democratic Dialogue challenge ourselves, and others, to
adopt a new and transparent approach to reconstructing debate
around key issues in Northern Ireland, as we start out on what
we hope to be a peaceful and new future.
The last thing, however, that Democratic Dialogue needs to do
is to reinvent the wheel. So before indicating what the management
committee of Democratic Dialogue thought might be useful for this
new think tank to do, let me set out some criteria we have discussed
as to what, perhaps, it should not do.
The first of these is that we don't want to tread insensitively
on anyone's toes or clumsily nudge anyone aside. We don't want
to duplicate what others are doing. That is to say, we want what
Democratic Dialogue does to be distinctive. That is not to say,
however, that we are afraid to stamp old or currently researched
topics with our own brand of inquiry and consultation.
Secondly, and importantly, we do not want to operate in a remote
or overly academic manner. This isn't to downplay the impact and
importance of ideas or intellectuals; ideas are, after all, what
we are about, and intellectuals will play a crucial role in putting
their finger on the pulse.
But we would stress the participatory and inclusive nature of
the process upon which Democratic Dialogue is embarked. There
is a role, of course, for academics - as there is for politicians
and church representatives - but there also has to be a role for
the excluded groups in our society, such as the community and
voluntary sectors, trade unions and even interested individuals.
Whether the format, in future, is brainstorming sessions, seminars,
focus groups or whatever, we must engage wider interests and grassroots
voices in the preparation of our publications, as we address the
substantive issues that confront us. We hope that our round table
in our offices in University Street in Belfast will quickly become
worn through the discussions around it.
But, thirdly, Democratic Dialogue is not just a debating society.
If the work it generates does not appear relevant or useful, then
it will have failed to hit the target. It has, in other words,
to make an impact. It is not, nor can it be, a campaigning organisation.
But it does not intend to produce publications that will simply
gather dust on the shelf.
Nevertheless, if Democratic Dialogue should not reinvent the wheel,
at the risk of mixing metaphors, it must be prepared to grasp
the nettle - and focus on the key, critical issues that face us.
The first category is those issues which are widely recognised
as crunch political concerns, but are often deemed too difficult
for polite conversation. Whatever other things Democratic Dialogue
can promise to be, polite is certainly not going to be one of
The second is those issues which have been historically neglected
because of the narrow focus of the 'troubles' political agenda,
or because of the marginalised character of those groups who have
articulated them. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that - mostly
wrongs in our view - in neither case is such negligence appropriate
to the new context and the demands it places upon us all.
This leads me on to what the management committee thought would
be a useful programme of work for the coming months.
Beginning later in the year, we envisage a report emerging
every two months or so on a substantive theme. Suggested topics
which we have flagged up initially include social exclusion, 'creating
positive cultures', women in Northern Ireland life, 'reconstituting
politics' and the fair employment review. Let me explain the basis
of our selection.
- Social exclusion has become a critical issue which
hasn't really been addressed by any of the political parties -
or indeed, at a conceptual level, by any of the voluntary sector
groups. Particularly in the context of the new European peace-and-reconciliation
funding package for Northern Ireland - since the socially excluded
are a target group within that measure - it is incumbent on Democratic
Dialogue to address this and look at who exactly is excluded,
and how they are affected. This is going to be a very challenging
- Identity politics are another key concern, which are never
far removed from the reality of life in Northern Ireland. This
summer's clashes in Belfast have reminded us of the power of identity
politics, and its ability to sustain tension and threat. Parity
of esteem has become the buzz phrase, but we have a long way to
go to determine how we create positive cultures - how, in
practice, we address these deeply felt perceptions of identity
in a time of rapid and, for many, unsettling change.
- The position of women in Northern Ireland is another
neglected area. Northern Ireland's biggest oppressed minority
- its female majority - has a very big claim to a portion of the
peace dividend. It has been women who have, to a large extent,
borne the brunt of keeping the sunny side up in the hot spots
of Northern Ireland. And it is to the key issues of addressing
how we engage women in the political process, how we engage women
in public life in Northern Ireland, that Democratic Dialogue feels
we need to turn.
- Fourthly, reconstituting politics. Must post-ceasefire
politics be the same as pre-ceasefire politics? The obvious answer
is no. But to talk of reconstituting politics raises far more
questions than ready answers. What sort of principles should a
new politics be based on? How should these be written down and
translated into reality, and what new roles emerge for political
parties and the wider public? The whole arena of participatory
politics engages people right across the spectrum of life in Northern
Ireland. One of the emerging themes is: how does one involve everyone
in the political process? Long since has gone the 19th-century
notion of the parliamentarian who holds the key to public life.
There has to be a role for everyone.
- Finally, fair employment. The idea seems to have become
widely accepted, yet recent debate in the United States reminds
us how very fraught the associated issues remain. The 1989 Northern
Ireland legislation is under review by the Stanley Advisory Commission
on Human Rights. It is certain to raise difficult challenges.
These were some of our ideas for a programme of work for
the coming year, stemming from the criteria I outlined earlier.
In such a rolling programme, there would be room for adjustment
over time, as well as the incorporation of smaller or perhaps
less public pieces of work. In particular, there would be scope
for specifically contracted work, which, if Democratic Dialogue
is to have a future beyond its initial two-year span, will have
to loom larger over time.
The process is important too: Democratic Dialogue will continue
to be grateful for comments as to how it does things and what
it does. We hope that will be a continuing conversation.
Prof Giddens talked about how, in some global hotspots, bullets
have been substituted by talk. It called to mind an expression
of Winston Churchill: "Jaw-jaw is much better than war-war."
A more contemporary illustration is perhaps the current BT advertisement,
with Bob Hoskins: "It's good to talk."
Democratic Dialogue believes it is good to talk. But we
don't just want to talk: we want to listen too.
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