CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: New Thinking for New Times (Report No. 1)

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New Thinking for
New Times

The following publication has been contributed by Democratic Dialogue. The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

New Thinking for New Times
Report No. 1

by Democratic Dialogue (1995)

ISBN 1 900281 00 7 Paperback 55pp

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This publication is copyright Democratic Dialogue 1995 and is included on this site by permission of the publisher. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the publisher, Democratic Dialogue. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

Democratic Dialogue
Report No 1
August 1995

Democratic Dialogue
5 University Street
Belfast BT7 1FY
Tel: 01232-232230/232228
Fax: 01232-232228/233334

© Democratic Dialogue 1995
ISBN 1 900281 00 7

Cover design by Dunbar Design
Photographs by Lesley Doyle
Cartoons by Ian Fraser
Printed by Regency Press

New Thinking for
New Times


Introduction ROBIN WILSON
The new context of politics ANTHONY GIDDENS
Modernisation and social partnership RORY O'DONNELL
Talking, and listening GERALDINE DONAGHY
Debating points KATE FEARON
Revising opinions ROBIN WILSON
Appendices:     DD mission statement
                DD management committee
                DD patrons


This is the first report from Democratic Dialogue, a new think tank based in Belfast.

Democratic Dialogue gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, and a confidential Irish philanthropic source.

It also acknowledges the initial help and advice of Geoff Mulgan of Demos and James Cornford, former director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Further copies of this report are available from Democratic Dialogue, at the address on the inside front cover, price £5 (£10 institutions) plus postage and packing.

Democratic Dialogue aims to publish six reports per year-the themes of the initial substantive reports are indicated inside. Readers may wish to return the enclosed subscription slip, to avail of reduced-rate payment for all reports, free copies of DD's newsletter and notification of all DD events.


Robin Wilson

The Opsahl Commission on ways for ward for Northern Ireland-and, in particular, the process of making submissions and the public hearings that followed-said something very striking. Whether it had been there all along, and hadn't been tapped, or whether it was newly emerging, what was evident was a willingness to participate in public debate in a way that perhaps hadn't been evident before in Northern Ireland. And not only to participate-but to be prepared, as at the hearings, to present an argument, explain it and defend it.

One of the notions the leading social theorist Anthony Giddens develops in his latest book, Beyond Left and Right (Polity Press), is what he calls 'fundamentalism', which he defines as not only the defence of a traditional view but making that defence in a traditional way. The Opsahl Commission showed an encouraging willingness on the part of many people in Northern Ireland, whether they held traditional or nontraditional views, to defend them in a rational and serious way.

In the aftermath of the commission in 1993, I began to think there might be merit in taking this process further, via the formation of a think tank. Then last autumn the paramilitary ceasefires took place, and again what was striking to any observer was how public meetings were happening all over the place-whether about specific issues like policing or Question Time-type discussions, where members of the different parties expressed their views before a public audience and took their questions.

Those two experiences encouraged me to believe there could be scope for such a new project in Northern Ireland. In some respects what we do will be similar to think tanks in Britain-generate reports on issues and hopefully help elevate discussion. As we say in our mission statement[1], "Democratic Dialogue seeks to provide an independent inspiration for reflective thinking upon the critical issues confronting the people of Northern Ireland."

What we envisage will make us a bit different, however, a bit more attuned to the regional situation, and that is our stress on a participatory ethos. We are not planning to ask individual academics to sit alone in front of their word processors in some ivory tower for two months at a time and generate tablets of stone.

We are, certainly, going to rely heavily on people who have particular intellectual expertise, but we also want to ensure that our office in Belfast becomes a hive of activity for brainstorming sessions, focus groups or meetings. We want to ensure our work includes public seminars, conferences and so on, at which real debate can take place, with as many people involved as possible, on the issues which are going to be addressed in final form in published reports. And, after these reports are published, we want to ensure the widest possible debate around them, in the media and elsewhere.

In line with that aspiration, we decided to make the launch of Democratic Dialogue a conference in itself, rather than a media event. Though the notice was short, the net of invitees was cast as widely as possible: political parties, interested academics, the community and voluntary sector, women s organisations, churches, trade unions, business and so on. Around 125 people attended; many more apologised for their inability to do so but asked to be kept informed.

Our thanks are due to Maggie Beirne, who efficiently helped organise the event until our assistant director, Kate Fearon, was appointed; to Kate herself, who hit the ground running when she started just a fortnight before the conference; to Breidge Gadd, of our management committee, who chaired it so ably; and to Geraldine Donaghy, also of the committee, who presented its proposals on a programme of work to the conference.

Indeed, all members of the committee[2], especially our chair, Beverley Jones, deserve praise for the way Democratic Dialogue has got up and running within the space of a few months. They have proved a very efficient team to work with. We are also mindful of the valuable support of our six respected patrons[3].

The conference heard two stimulating addresses, from Prof Giddens, of Cambridge University, and Rory O'Donnell, director of the National Economic and Social Council in the republic, and these are reproduced inside. Prof Giddens set out a sweeping panorama of the new context of politics into which Northern Ireland will blinkingly emerge, should the current fragile peace be sustained.

Largely unrecognised in the north, the republic has seen rapid social and economic progress in recent years. A key factor has been the emergence of a régime of social partnership, whose outlines and significance Mr O'Donnell very effectively charted.

These speeches were by way of appetisers for the discussion, introduced by Ms Donaghy, of Democratic Dialogue's draft workplan. Her remarks are also reproduced inside, as are highlights of the wide-ranging and enlightening debate which followed. Many delegates also kindly completed the evaluation sheets, which gave further guidance to the committee.

The report concludes with the revised workplan on which, in the light of this feedback, Democratic Dialogue is embarked. In doing so, it sets out our stall.

What was encouraging about the conference was that it suggested there may be more than a few customers.

[1]   See appendix 1
[2]   See appendix 2
[3]   See appendix 3

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Democratic Dialogue {external_link}
53 University Street, Belfast, BT7 1FY Northern Ireland
Phone: -44-28-9022-0050 Fax: -44-28-9022-0051

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