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North-South integration in Ireland

A forum, once again

Hugh Frazer

In the Belfast agreement, under the provision for the North-South Ministerial Council, §19 says: "Consideration to be given to the establishment of an independent consultative forum appointed by two administrations, representative of civil society, comprising … other members with expertise in social, cultural, economic and ..."

There are three potential outcomes from this guarded proposal: first, something that is very exciting, dynamic and significant; second, something that is minimalist and bureaucratic; or, third and probably most likely, nothing at all.

It would be a mistake to focus on the structure of such a forum, and the minutiae of who would be represented there, before articulating a clear idea of why it would be of value and a clear vision of what it would do. Otherwise, there would not be a lot of point in having it and, anyway, the wrong structures might well emerge — the latter should flow from the functions of the enterprise.

There are six reasons why a forum would be valuable.

First, there is a need to broaden ownership of the ‘peace process’ and the Belfast agreement — especially to broaden ownership of north-south co-operation and reconciliation to the whole of society. Working these days in Dublin as I do, I support extending interest in co-operation to the whole of the island — not just Northern Ireland and the southern border counties. Within that, of course, one has to ensure priority for cross-border work and to provide in some cases a focal point for it.

Secondly, the process of co-operation itself needs to be enriched, because it is more than a narrow political deal or accommodation. A more inclusive and dynamic approach is required, aimed at building trust and understanding throughout the island. This is an organic process — growing and developing over time, rather than being delivered as a tidy, neat package.

A third reason for a forum is to increase participation of those groups on the island who have felt alienated from and excluded by, the political process. The arguments for the National Economic and Social Forum in the republic and the Civic Forum in the north can be extended to an all-island basis. A more participative democracy is essential in an era when democracy does not stop at the ballot box and is deemed far too important to be the preserve of politicians — though obviously they do have a critical role to play — or a few dominant social groups.

Fourthly, a forum could become an important way of recognising and accommodating diversity in all its forms on the island. An active and dynamic forum could be a symbol of that diversity and the possibility of its celebration.

Fifthly, it could bring greater expertise into the policy-making process, from all sectors, promoting more open dialogue on key issues that face the island as a whole. A forum could provide a vehicle for involving such expertise and engendering analysis of high quality, as Rory O’Donnell’s contribution suggests. Problems nowadays are so complex and interrelated, across the range of expertise and interests, that governments alone cannot solve them. This points to new models, involving partnership and participation, and a forum would again be a way of reflecting these changes in governance.

Finally, a forum would be an important way simply to give recognition to those who have been involved in co-operative activity. A lot of work has been done in recent years in this domain, yet it has not had great resonance in either part of the island and a dynamic forum could change that.

From this argument for a forum, seven potential roles for the body follow.

First would be to give policy support and advice through the North-South Ministerial Council, both in general and on specific sectoral issues, encompassing the economic, social and cultural dimensions. It could have a particularly useful role in commenting on proposed new north-south programmes and perhaps in monitoring their delivery.

Secondly, it could have a proactive, strategic role, working on long-term issues. It could propose to the NSMC new areas of co-operation as experience evolves, including perhaps the establishment of new implementation bodies. It could develop new thinking about opportunities for co-operation, complementing initiatives stemming from the NSMC.

Thirdly, it could assess proposed policies in both parts of the island, across the whole remit of government, to make sure none would hinder north-south co-operation. This proofing and challenging role could extend to adjudging whether proposed programmes in each jurisdiction could have an additional, north-south dimension.

Fourth is the promotion of lesson-learning. There are a lot of practical lessons to be learned from the north-south co-operation that has already happened. The difficulties created by ostensibly north-south programmes that are in fact exclusively cross-border is an example.

Fifthly, there is a role to play in enhancing public awareness of the potential and importance of north-south co-operation. The forum could have a very important role in that regard, building awareness and so support.

The sixth potential role is in facilitating a very wide spectrum of civil society to engage in dialogue. It could coordinate public consultation on issues related to north-south co-operation.

Finally, and very specifically, while the forum should be able to look at the whole gamut of economic, social and cultural life, wherever there is the potential for north-south co-operation, in the immediate future at least it should concentrate on particular issues. These could be:

  • economic and employment growth,
  • ways of promoting social inclusion, and
  • dealing with diversity and difference.

Among these suggested roles for the forum, deliberately absent are any legitimising role — via election of its membership — or any executive or administrative power. But it would therefore be important, given its advisory character, that the NSMC be required to respond to any recommendations the forum might make. This would include having to give reasons for the rejection of such recommendations, where that was the case. Thereby a dialogue would be developed.

The Belfast agreement says very explicitly that the forum would be appointed by the two administrations, that it would be representative of civil society, and that it would involve the social partners and others with expertise in economic, cultural and social issues. The detail of how it would be formed is, however, less clear. This leaves a key role for civil society, to consider and to propose how it might be done.

There are probably two main options. One would be to draw the member ship from the Civic Forum in Northern Ireland and the NESF in the republic. Alternatively, and preferably, one could create a totally new organisation focusing on north-south initiatives — this would bring in a wider range of people.

It should be quite large, because it should be as inclusive as possible. To some extent, its size should not be determined at the outset: there should be opportunities for it to expand and adjust over time, as it grows and changes.

One approach, rather than having just one formal forum, would be to have a number of standing committees on key issues, coming together periodically in plenary format. That way one could secure broad involvement but also sustain focused work. This would also favour building from the bottom up, rather than a rigid, top-down approach.

As to who should be involved, there is the obvious range of social partners and others but it is particularly important that those who have been excluded from the normal processes of democracy should be included. There needs to be a significant involvement of organisations with a record and expertise in north-south co-operation. Membership should be built around interests in society — interests that are not often directly involved in representative democracy — rather than geographical distribution. And there should as far as possible be a balance in terms of gender, age, region, minority interests and participation by the excluded.

Should the body consist of ministerial appointees or should it be selected by nomination? Organisations and areas of interest should nominate representatives, because that establishes accountability and feedback and involves a greater range of people.

As to procedures, it would be important to establish a set of principles — principles of inclusiveness and participation, of partnership and co-operation. A problem-solving approach should be adopted and the forum should be accessible and flexible. Its staff should not simply be drawn from the civil service, whatever its merits, so that broader expertise and more flexible work methods could be incorporated.

To enhance public awareness, there should be a communications strategy for any such forum: it should have a high public profile on north-south initiatives. And it should have a rotating venue so as to be visible all over the island — to bring home the point that north-south co-operation is something that needs to happen throughout Ireland.

In conclusion, the case for a north-south forum is that it would be complementary to, not competitive with, representative political structures. It would be dynamic and flexible, with the potential to grow. But a vision is crucial — far more important at this stage than details of structures — and civil society can take a lead in providing it.

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