Just a few days before the event, an email was sent to people across the voluntary, community and business sectors, inviting all to the launch of the Civil Society Network.
Held in the ballroom at the Europa Hotel, ten individuals spoke briefly, for about three minutes each, on why they felt the need for such coalescence, “to advocate, support and challenge on behalf of civil society, during this time of political uncertainty and beyond”.
The motto was, “Encapsulating the thoughts of many for the good of all”.
The overarching aim was described as “harnessing the willingness, hope and desire of many to work in unity, to support the peace and political process in Northern Ireland”.
Liam Maskey began, by describing this initiative as a coming together of those who genuinely want to make a positive contribution. He also said how there are so many examples of people working together, but that politicians have not heard about what is going on.
“We want to help [the politicians]. In partnership, let’s go together and make this worthwhile,” Mr Maskey proposed.
“Yes, we want to work with the political parties,” Mr Maskey made clear.
In this regard, he reported that they have consulted with the five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, and that all responded positively to this initiative.
“This is not the end, but a start,” Mr Maskey explained, with political parties likely to come back with a list of issues that this network could consider engaging with.
The next speaker, Reverend Lesley Carroll, continued on this sentiment, by describing the initiative as “an opportunity for a shared vision to have flesh put on its bones and for civic society to take some responsibility for how this society functions”.
Among those she called to mind:
- the communities of people who have done their best to transform, but who still cannot shake off the old ways of doing things
- the politicians [with] their human hearts clashing with their political heads
- the victims and survivors who have been waiting and waiting and waiting…
- the wider society … putting to the back of their minds all thought of what still needs to be done for people to make peace with each other
For her, this network is about opening the space in which others can do hard things for the good of everyone, but especially for those who are most broken in this society.
“Here we are today, starting to do something about it. In the present context, that will require an almost God-like effort. And so, today, we say, we will make an almost God-like effort,” Rev. Carroll finished.
David Gavaghan (CBI) described the purpose of the Civil Society Network as creating a coherent vision to be delivered by a cohesive group.
He then defined what a coherent vision could look like: a better future for our children. Where the least able have a decent life. And where young people want to stay in Northern Ireland, with well paying jobs.
Peter McBride (Make it Work) said that our society is disillusioned with our politicians, who operate in a divisive and adversarial way.
Though in this room, he observed, there is all form of opinion yet all are respected and able to work together for a common goal.
Mr McBride proposed that the way people best deal with the past is to have a bright vision of the future.
“How do we together create such a vision for Northern Ireland?” he asked.
Conor Houston (Young Influencers) began his speech with an excerpt from the recently departed Brian Friel and his play, “Philadelphia Here I Come”:
“I’ve stuck around this hole far too long. I’m telling you, it’s a bloody quagmire, a backwater, a dead-end! … And even though I’ll be on that plane tomorrow morning I’ll have doubts; maybe I should have stuck it out.”
Mr Houston told his story of hope, after returning from England at the age of 13: “I’ve been lucky to watch my home, the place I love, grow.”
He told the audience to stop pretending that everything would be perfect if weren’t for the politicians:
“In fact, I have to confess something. I have many friends who are politicians in all our political parties. Not only that, I like them. I respect them. I don’t always agree with them, but I admire them for dedicating themselves to public service and for trying to pursue change.
“I see today not as a chance for ‘us’ to blame ‘them’. In fact, I see today as the end of that narrative. We need to find new ways to work side-by-side, to find a new relationship. A voice that says to our politicians, ‘How can we help?’ A constructive voice that provides solutions to our politicians and perseveres with them to ensure delivery,” Mr Connor proposed.
He concluded by relating the birth of his nephew Ollie to the spirit of this endeavour:
“Ollie is alive thanks to the expertise, professional excellence, technology and teamwork of the brilliant medical staff who treated him. They displayed the compassion, world class service, energy and power of collaboration. They embody what we can achieve when we work together.
“Today is about Ollie.”
Jackie Pollock apologised for Peter Bunting, who was in Brussels at an Irish Congress of Trade Unions meeting, getting a motion unanimously passed on this very subject.
He described how trade union movements see the benefits of the political institutions in Northern Ireland, as well as the negative impacts that would happen if direct rule administration was reintroduced.
Mr Pollock pledged the ICTU’s support for this initiative, to see devolved administration ‘up and running’:
“The Northern Ireland Assembly is our assembly,” Mr Pollock finished.
On behalf of Seamus McAleavey (NICVA), Jenna Maghie explained that her organisation’s support was based on having political representatives responsible to the local electorate and accessible to civil society:
“Devolution for devolution’s sake is not helpful. There needs to be unity in the Executive; it cannot continue to exist as twelve separate silos loosely held together.”
She cited a NICVA membership survey conducted last year, in which 96% of respondents said that the Northern Ireland Executive should continue to make tough decisions, together, and that it should work under the principle of collective responsibility.
Ms Maghie warned of the dangers of a return to direct rule:
“Direct rule … [would create] a local political vacuum [and] a whole different set of problems for Northern Ireland and us in civil society, and crucially the people we work with.”
Father Gary Donegan described the gritty reality of Ardoyne (“don’t say ‘the Ardoyne’!”), where he works in Belfast, and how we need our political institutions to be relevant to our society.
“The time has come to lead,” Fr Donegan argued.
His fear is that we will run out of luck:
“Those of us who live at the edge know that it will never return to what happened before the Good Friday Agreement, but there are enough people lurking in the shadows to cause mayhem in our society.”
Patricia Lewsley spoke of the important voice of women, including the role they have in holding families together.
She wants women to be a crucial part of the roadmap on the way forward, especially in regards to developing interventions in order to prevent crises.
Ms Lewsley expressed a frustration with the lack of decisions by the Northern Ireland Executive:
“At least we could live with decisions made.”
The final speaker was Jim Roddy, who asked the audience what are we doing about complaints against politicians.
He made the case to get behind the politicians, and for the network to give reviews and opinions.
Yet, he added, “We have to believe that we’re working on something deliverable. There has to be the will. And we need positive behaviour.”
So as was declared at the start of the event, this launch of the Civil Society Network is just the beginning.
What makes it distinctive from other initiatives is it’s unambiguous acknowledgement of the power and role of elected representatives.
Indeed, more than an acknowledgement, there is a clarion call to work with politicians.
This morning there was broad representation across civil society — community organisations, faith groups, youth, business, trade unions, women — with unity of purpose.
Maintaining this cohesion will be a task in itself.
As will challenges from a cynical population and media.
But as Mr Houston suggested, this is a great opportunity for applying what we already do well — this is a great place with great people — just working for our future in better ways.
With enthusiasm and hope.