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

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New Thinking for
New Times

Debating points

Kate Fearon

'You are being too ambitious'; you are not being ambitious enough'. 'You must stay at grassroots level'; 'you must involve the middle classes'. 'You must work with politicians, not against them'; 'you must seek an alternative to the political party structure'.

This section records the issues which the conference participants identified as important, in both the plenary session and their completed evaluation sheets: what they said on the proposed agenda of Democratic Dialogue, the role of young people, the basic principles of democracy itself and - overarching all these - the absolute need for dialogue at any and all levels.

Below, we highlight some of the comments, suggestions and questions the participants offered, together with some of the answers from the invited speakers, grouped according to the major themes which emerged.

Although young people had been identified by Democratic Dialogue as key contributors to the conference, various factors - not least that it was examination season - led to their being under - represented on the day. However, those who were there had no hesitation in expressing typical youth perspectives:

I am a 23-year-old woman in Northern Ireland who is very, very interested in politics, but currently there is no political party in this state that I could vote for. That means I've no stake in my future. There is a group of people in Northern Ireland that have been totally excluded from politics or anything else that has happened in the last 25 years: young people. I want to know what Democratic Dialogue are going to do for the young people in Northern Ireland. Are they going to consult them?

Young, gifted and ... hacked off with local politics

This viewpoint was echoed by older participants, who spoke of a different kind of agenda young people might have:

The existing political agenda, not only in Northern Ireland but in large parts of the world, is perceived by young people as being of very limited relevance to their experience, for example because they live in a more global world, they don't accept traditional structures and so on. We need to find ways of specifically trying to encourage dialogue amongst young people around issues that young people themselves identify as being crucial. The question of the different kind of agenda young people will tend to present, and how Democratic Dialogue can best create a forum which could address that issue, is something that we need to explore.

Other delegates prioritised the role of young people to an even greater degree:

Our young people are our future. The young people are the people that we want to work for, to ensure that they don't have to go through the same agony and horrors, and terrorism and tragedy, that we have had to go through. I can sympathise with the young people when they say that no political party is paying attention to the bread-and-butter issues.
The idea of a changing world-view, for both older and younger generations, was developed further: we are moving away from traditional thinking, and in this younger people are taking the lead. It is something Democratic Dialogue should maintain and develop. As one attendee put it,
I want to say that older people would have no difficulty in subscribing to a youthful agenda, and in that sense I would like to congratulate Democratic Dialogue on taking the first steps to establishing a youthful and new agenda. I took on board the remarks that were made about the changing position and the changing global atmosphere that we live in and the fact that greater and greater numbers of people are not seeing the world - and this goes for older people as well - in the same traditional terms as it was seen hitherto.

Globalisation, touched on by Anthony Giddens, was the subject of further discussion during the ensuing debate. Both the positive and negative offshoots of this new, yet inescapable, phenomenon were illustrated by Prof Giddens - for example, global co-operation as evidenced by the economic ties of a structure such as the European Union, and, conversely, the ignorance, alienation and sometimes violence of fundamentalism:

Globalisation doesn't mean, of course, the development of big systems. It means a shake-out of local systems. If you get demands for, say, local autonomy, local nationalism, what do they represent? Localisation. An emphasis on the significance of local initiative, the resurgence of various forms, anyway, of local organisation - these are made possible precisely by globalisat ion. One shouldn't exaggerate, but as for the idea of partnership as has been described - a sort of network of authority - some of the most successful sites of economic development in the European Union are those that precisely apply such a model.

In previous times you got along with other people, often just from being separate from them. Geographical separation was the condition of a globally cosmopolitan world. It can no longer be so when everyone is in touch with one another, especially through electronic media. It's a very different situation for us, and consideration of fundamentalism is really very important. It has application in any domain. It doesn't have to be religious fundamentalism, it doesn't have to be ethnic fundamentalism; it can invade any domain where there's a refusal of dialogue.

In response to a question on social exclusion - particularly in terms of the long-term unemployed, Rory O'Donnell argued that the notion that all the unemployed were excluded, and not represented in dialogues between employers and government (in the republic), was debatable. He felt the trade unions could argue, with some merit, that many unemployed people were represented through the unemployed centres they ran. He argued that the difficult issue was that unemployed people were excluded much more from access to everyday things than from these bargaining processes.

Mr O'Donnell suggested that there was a "functional logic to this kind of partnership" between the employers, trade unions and the state, even if at that level the unemployed remained excluded. In local partnerships, however, representation was quite different, with community groups, unemployed groups and so on represented, as was entirely appropriate. He felt the challenge was to find ways of representing the socially excluded that were meaningful and effective.

Expanding on his notion of dialogic democracy - which he distinguished from participatory democracy - Prof Giddens again referred to how the life-plan systems of today "aren't the same as they used to be". In many domains, there was a renegotiation of authority, in which it was recognised that both sides had contributions to be made. This not only applied in business, but in the family and gender relationships, and in many other domains of the modern world - where in essence what was at stake was a negotiated system of authority. The distinction between participatory democracy and dialogic democracy was that the latter required institutionalised fora in which people not only participated but discussed with one another and reached decisions - by the force of better argument, rather than by force itself.

The core of the discussion, however, focused firmly on the need for dialogue - with, in particular, the idea that Democratic Dialogue should pioneer a regular forum for discussion. Contributions were extensive, yet self-explanatory. People were, contrary to common opinion, very sure of what they wanted, as the excerpts below demonstrate:

  • I think it goes without saying that in the last ten months big and small initiatives have been very useful in underpinning the peace process. I think that there's an obvious need for more dialogue at this level. At this particular time, there's an imbalance in the process of dialogue that is actually taking place in the country. There is an absence of seriousness on the part of the British government in terms of their contribution to the process of dialogue, which is absolutely essential if we're going to go forward to find a political settlement to this long-standing conflict. I thought it was very interesting the way Prof Giddens linked together the global, the local and the personal. What has happened in the past 10 months, arising out of 25 years of conflict, is that expectations have arisen that the opportunities provided by the two ceasefires will indeed bring more dialogue - bring more people out to discuss, in a more serious way, institutions which do reflect the diversity of the Irish people, and can, actually, help ensure that we don't find ourselves slipping back to events prior to August of last year.

  • We welcome dialogue and we welcome the fact that Democratic Dialogue is going to promote it. There isn't enough of it. Very few people are involved in dialogue: political party membership, for example, is very low. We should let people practise dialogue, work out different ways of facing procedures, different ways of making decisions and also look at the political parties - how they are structured, the membership - because people have wanted to get involved for a long time. At the same time they haven't heard anybody offer a satisfactory alternative to political parties.

  • As a coalface community worker, one who has lived and worked in north Belfast over some of the most hectic times, witnessing the violence at first hand, I would refer you to a statement in the Frameworks document, which states that the British government will act as facilitator in conjunction with the Irish government, the Americans and Europe to allow the people from here to establish a system for themselves. Regarding what delegates said when they stated that dialogue was not being allowed, I would ask Democratic Dialogue to urge the government, to make representations to the government to please start getting their act together and please let people talk because, if we don't talk, we're going to go back to where we were before. No preconditions. We don't need them.

  • There are some people who are interested in the academic world-view. Some people will be very interested in the practicalities at local level. If you try and bring these two together in discussion, it won't work. You'll be working at two different levels. So we have to get together and think intelligently about who we get together and talk about different aspects, and also at what levels they will be discussing it. Then you should bring those together to get the true direction that we should be taking. In order for this to work, we will have to encourage a self belief in the people of Northern Ireland that they can make the change.

  • The main constitutional parties don't want to get involved in dialogue, particularly with community workers and the smaller parties. Is there any possibility that Democratic Dialogue could set up an alternative forum for so-called round-table talks and any future Northern Ireland assembly? There is a difference between representative democracy and participatory democracy, and elected representatives have never represented the people of Northern Ireland.

Democratic Dialogue did mean this as a genuinely consultative conference, and we took careful note of what people said. We have by no means presented an exhaustive account of the day's proceedings in this rather eclectic sample of quotes, themes, suggestions and questions - even some answers - in this section. We hope, however, that it reflects the experience of those present, and that it conveys, to those who were not, a flavour, not only of the day but also of the organisation.

Democratic Dialogue certainly acquired a definite taste of what people in Northern Ireland might want from it. It will continue to identify and create platforms for the promotion of dialogue.

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Revising Opinions

Robin Wilson

On the strength of the foregoing feedback, Democratic Dialogue's management committee revised its workplan in two ways.

First, the most popular theme recorded on conference participants' evaluation sheets - where they could prioritise the proposals Ms Donaghy advanced on behalf of the committee, or nominate their own - turned out to be 'reconstituting politics'. This, plus the strong calls for political dialogue at the conference, led the committee to push this theme up its agenda, following only the social exclusion report (the latter having such strong topicality in the context of the European Union peace package).

The idea of a parallel political forum, suggested at the conference, may gel neatly with preparatory work on this report. Such a forum could give the smaller parties more of a say - another theme raised, by the 'fringe' parties, at the conference - as well as providing a voice for interested citizens. It could look at cross-party concerns, like the lack of attraction of young people and women into Northern Ireland politics. And, by not being structured as a negotiating table, it might generate broader multiparty involvement more quickly than the conventional talks-table structure might permit. Views on this idea - from party and non-party sources - would be very welcome.

Secondly, no doubt in part because of the Standing Advisory Commission review of the issue, fair employment was not seen as a priority for DD. But, as the conference debate highlighted, issues around young people and distinct youth agendas were a common concern. So the committee decided to substitute a report in that broad area, with the precise themes to be worked out through establishing a discussion group of young people themselves and those involved in education. Anyone interested in taking part in that group should contact the DD office.

Thus the revised DD programme, with provisional publication dates, is:

1. Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion End September 1995
2. Reconstituting Politics November 1995
3. Creating Positive Cultures January 1996
4. Women in Public Life March 1996
5. Youth and Education May 1996

Updates on these reports, and associated opportunities for participation, will be available in the DD newsletter. Subscription details, including for the reports themselves, are included in the enclosed form.

Early forthcoming events include a seminar in September to discuss the draft elements of the social exclusion report, and a public event in Derry on the 'reconstituting politics' theme.

Anyone who would like to take part in any of these events, or who would like more information, or who has further comment on DD's plans, should contact Kate Fearon or myself at the DD office (details on inside front cover).

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