Good Friday Agreement: Civic Forum ‘didn’t have a snowball’s chance’

Victims' campaigner Alan McBride. File photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

Victims' campaigner Alan McBride. File photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

“I don’t know if we really achieved anything to be honest.”

Victims’ campaigner Alan McBride has mixed memories of the Civic Forum - an institution set up as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Mr McBride was part of the 60-member forum which was established in October 2000, several years after the agreement.

The forum, which included representatives from 10 different fields, including business, agriculture, trade unions, the community sector and the main churches, aimed to feed into government policy.

But the body, which only had a dozen plenary meetings, had no powers and was mothballed after the devolved institutions collapsed in 2002.

Mr McBride, who was on the forum as a representative of victims and survivors, said the body had ultimately been a failure.

“I can remember the anti-poverty subgroup ironically met in the Europa (hotel in Belfast)," he said.

He added: “I’m an activist so I’m always motivated by doing rather than talking. It just felt like a talking shop.

“I think it could have done a hell of a lot more if we’d had a better vision.

"And for me that vision would have been getting it out into the community… We should have taken soundings of what was important to ordinary people.”

Mr McBride was involved in a project on lifelong learning “which I thought was a reasonably good piece of work”.

But he said the body had no teeth.

“I would have loved to have been part of a body which held politicians to account. But we never had that power,” he said.

Community worker Roisin McGlone, then chief executive of Interaction Belfast, said she “actually has quite fond memories of it because I had great belief in what it could be”.

As one of two members from the community relations sector, she recalled spending huge amounts of time in forum sub-committees and reading documents.

“I was out on the ground too. I was maybe going to the forum during the day and standing on the Springfield Road (interface in Belfast) at night,” she said.

She said although there was “goodwill” towards the forum it was severely hampered by having no clear terms of reference, which had a knock-on effect on its work.

“We didn’t have any good wins in the two years,” she said.

Community worker Roisin McGlone. Photo courtesy of Roisin McGlone

Community worker Roisin McGlone. Photo courtesy of Roisin McGlone

Ms McGlone said many forum members, who were experts in their fields, had more experience of dealing with government than newly-elected assembly members.

“I think the politicians were ambivalent and then there was a bit of fear…they were trying to find their feet,” she said.

“Many of them had been elected for the first time and they were sorting out their own battles.”

Community sector member James Orr, now director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, said the forum initially felt significant.

“I remember Seamus Mallon, deputy first minister at the time, giving an inaugural talk at the Waterfront Hall,” he said.

“Basically he said we need the Civic Forum to be snapping at the heels of government, and that was quite validating that it wasn't just another committee."

Mr Orr said he recalled many meetings and informal discussions.

“We did quite a lot of engagement with people. We ran public events and listened quite a bit,” he said.

“We commissioned some consultancy and research in the areas we were interested in. It was a fairly busy time and I have some fond memories of it.

“Then other memories were that quite a lot of people within the Civic Forum itself were locked into their northern mindsets and that was probably the most disappointing thing - the same old stories and sectarian divisions seemed to be there with some of the people.”

Ms McGlone said forum members tended to stick within their own sectors because “that’s what they were used to”.

“If you were from the business sector you wouldn’t have advocated on behalf of the women’s sector or the community sector,” she said.

She added: "It was like a big experiment in partnership and we didn’t have a lot of partnerships at the time.”

The failure of the forum

The forum was mothballed after just two years following the collapse of the Executive.

Ms McGlone said the body was ultimately seen as unimportant in the face of ongoing violence and huge political instability at the time.

“In 1996 to 1998 we had Drumcree (parading dispute),” she said.

“Then we had the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Then we had the prisoner releases, then we had the Parades Commission being set up. Then there was decommissioning, policing reform.

"We were just shoved into the middle of that maelstrom… and became inconsequential.”

She added: “Look at the mess we’re in now. We’re still getting used to democracy, never mind having a mechanism whereby that democracy might come under scrutiny.”

James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland

James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland

Mr Orr said the forum suffered from a “lack of support” from civil servants.

“I think a lot of the criticism was because a lot of the people in power didn’t want it to succeed,” he said.

"I don't think it was fairly treated."

Professor Peter Shirlow, director at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies, said the priority at the time was “keeping the assembly running.”

“It (the forum) never had a snowball’s chance - loyalist feuding, ongoing republican violence, the collapse of the assembly,” he said.

Civic Advisory Panel

More than a decade after the Civic Forum was mothballed, the 2014 Stormont House Agreement included a commitment to consider civic voices “in relation to key social, cultural and economic issues”.

A six-member Civic Advisory Panel was set up by the Executive in December 2016, shortly before the devolved institutions collapsed over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.

The panel was due to examine the programme for government and make proposals.

However, it only met four times.

The 2020 New Decade New Approach agreement, which saw the restoration of the institutions, included a commitment to re-establish the panel.

However, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office (EO) said that although preliminary work was carried out “the Covid-19 pandemic unavoidably affected this due to its impact on resource priorities and on the ability of a panel to function effectively in the light of the constraints placed on direct civic engagement”.

Northern Ireland has had no devolved government for more than a year after the DUP left the power-sharing Executive over the Northern Ireland Protocol - a post-Brexit trade mechanism.

The EO spokeswoman added: “The issue of civic engagement will be a matter for discussion with ministers following the return of the Executive.”

Bertie Ahern, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Senator George Mitchell at Good Friday Agreement commemorations at Queen's University Belfast earlier this month. File photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

Bertie Ahern, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Senator George Mitchell at Good Friday Agreement commemorations at Queen's University Belfast earlier this month. File photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

The case for a new forum

Since the forum was mothballed more than 20 years ago, citizens’ bodies have gained greater weight.

Citizens’ assemblies in the Republic have made recommendations to government on key issues including the repeal of the abortion ban, gender equality and tackling climate change.

Prof Shirlow said the Civic Forum was a “big opportunity missed”.

A recent survey commissioned by the Institute showed that around three-quarters of people believe that a Citizens’ Assembly should be set up to give people a say on how the assembly and Executive could be reformed.

“There’s that frustration that politics is just identity-based and goes round and round in circles rather than get to grips with the issues,” he said.

Prof Shirlow said a civic body would be well placed to tackle contentious issues, including flags and emblems.

“If you look at flags there’s probably been about 10 or 11 reports,” he said.

“Nothing’s changed. There’s been some improvement but nothing’s changed because they make recommendations and nothing happens, so therefore nothing will happen until you put a civic assembly on a statutory footing.”

He said a civic body which was representative of a changing Northern Ireland could better reflect the public’s views.

“Northern Ireland has become a more diverse place," he said.

"Survey after survey has shown that all communities support marriage equality.

“Unionists are actually more supportive of pro-choice (in the abortion debate) than nationalists. So you’ve got those realities in society… which are not reflected in the assembly.”

Ms McGlone said she felt there “would be more scope for a civic forum now”.

“I think the politicians would abhor it. I think they would run a mile from it because they haven’t done a good job,” she said.

“But if it could be sold to them on the basis that this was a consultative forum where people with expertise could get together and look at issues, it could take away from them a lot of the burden of consultation.”

Prof Shirlow said large civic debates in countries including Iceland and Singapore “worked really well and gave people a sense of civic involvement”.

“But I don’t think the two main parties would be up for it,” he said.

“I assume our two main parties aren’t really keen on introspection and questioning and policies and ideas that mightn’t fit their way of dealing or their control over communities.”

Political impasse

For Mr McBride the failure of the forum is tied into continuing political instability in the north.

The Good Friday Agreement was signed five years after his wife Sharon was killed in the 1993 IRA Shankill bombing.

“In those early days after the Good Friday Agreement I can remember the euphoria… of thinking that this conflict which is never going to end is finally going to end,” he said.

“25 years on we’re sitting with no government, things haven’t really moved on, there’s not much movement on integrated housing.”

He said he felt “a wee bit disillusioned now and maybe the forum is part of that disillusionment”.

“I’ve always tried to do my best and tried to be a modern voice,” he said.

“I’ve made friends from people of all walks of life, including ex-IRA. I think I’ve taken risks.

"I just don’t see the risk-taking coming the other way from politicians and from people who are actually in power and who can actually do something about it.”

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