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

CAIN Web Service

New Thinking for
New Times

Talking, and listening

Geraldine Donaghy

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 them.

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 subject.

  • 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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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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