Talking the talk and…

The death of  Lyra McKee brought unity of a sort among our political parties. A joint statement of condemnation was issued, and some commentators wondered why  it couldn’t be like this all of the time.

There is something to be said for political parties coming together to convey public anger over this killing, but it’s a limited something. Would you have been able to guess that the DUP would condemn this killing? Sinn Féin? The Alliance Party? The SDLP?  The truth is, the joint condemnation was totally predictable. If even one of the parties had advanced a suggestion as to how this kind of killing could never happen again, that would have been worth hearing. That’s what political parties are supposed to do: come up with policies and approaches that will advance the general welfare.

A similar protest has been happening all over England in recent days, though taking a totally different form. Thousands of protestors have blocked main arteries in London and elsewhere,  calling for governments and big companies to stop polluting the planet before it’s too late.  You have to admire the energy and commitment of such people, and their willingness to be arrested and sent to prison if necessary.  But again, specific steps – or even a single step – to address and start solving the environmental crisis are conspicuous by their absence.

The future of the planet is the biggest single issue facing us all in global terms. On a smaller yet still pretty big scale, Brexit and its consequences for Ireland easily qualify as the next biggest. 

Like global warming, Brexit is clearly a disaster on its way to us, but no one seems to have the solution to it. Well no. That’s a bit unfair. There have been lots of suggestions for how to deal with Brexit; the problem to date has been that no one approach has been found that can get majority consent, especially among politicians.  Everything from  “A second referendum” to “Just bloody leave!” has been put forward, but still the parties writhe and squirm and gallop in four different directions at once.

Here in our six sick counties,  two things have been emphasized by republicans and (more quietly) nationalists: a clear majority here voted to stay in the EU; and a border poll should occur. Despite the DUP’s insistence that withdrawal from Europe was  “a national decision”  and that a border poll would increase division, much of society in the north are looking for a way out of Brexit and a border poll seems to be one real possibility.  There’s almost equal unanimity that this border poll should learn from the mistakes made by the Brexiteers and make sure that the electorate make an informed choice. There’s a need for discussion, debate, clarity about what is being proposed in a new Ireland.

But debate and planning need a structure and form.

You can’t have national conversation except you’ve set up locations and structures where that conversation can be conducted. Fortunately, we have one recent example: a citizens’ assembly.

This was used to address the question of repealing the Eighth Amendment, and those discussing the issue arrived at an  80% level of agreement.

What form did the citizens’ assembly take? There was a chairperson appointed by the government,  33 representatives chosen by the political parties in proportion to their size, and –the boldest move –  66 people chosen at random from the population.

Would that be the best way to start planning for a new Ireland?  Well, it does have weaknesses. The chairperson in any group is inevitably the most influential person in the group – and in the case of the Eighth amendment that person was chosen by the government.  There’s also the danger that those appointed by political parties might well simply parrot the party’s official line and look for political advantage, rather than building on what others in the assembly say. And lastly, that  randomly-selected group: it is commendably democratic, but as we all know, there are some really dumb people  out there. There are also some really smart people, some reasonable individuals and some unreasonable individuals. That said, there appears to be wide agreement that the citizens’ assembly in the south worked very well.

A citizen’s assembly would at least be a start. As with everything, from journeys to writing a political column, if you never start you’ll never finish.

A citizens’ assembly is not perfect, and it shouldn’t be the sole forum for discussion and debate on this most awkward of topics, but it would be a beginning.

When should such a body be ready  to begin its work? I’d suggest November 1, 2019. And yes, Virginia – that is the day after the final Brexit deadline.

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