Unlocking the Political Deadlock
The panel at the Unlocking the Political Deadlock event in November 2015.

Unlocking the Political Deadlock

02 November 2015

The Trust's Robbie Best went along to hear what the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell and a panel of political commentators had to say about how to fix the problematic political system in Northern Ireland...

With Stormont experiencing its customary crisis and the Marriage Equality Bill falling victim to political machinations, it felt like a good time to hear from one of the major parties and how they feel they can be more innovative, inclusive and collaborative.

The event with the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell was well attended at Belfast’s Lyric theatre with the café-bar area playing host to the occasion, rather than one of the studio spaces – which is what I had expected.

Titled ‘Who Can Unlock the Political Deadlock’, it was a panel discussion with local political commentators and community figures such as Slugger O’Toole’s David McCann, Professor Deirdre Heenan of Ulster University, Brendan Mulgrew of MW Advocate and the GAA Ulster Council’s Ryan Feeney.

At an event whose very purpose was to think about innovative, collaborative, new ways of approaching politics and the current political deadlock, it was slightly disconcerting to see a lack of gender balance, there was nobody from a Minority Ethnic background, and, essentially, it felt like the same people we’ve been hearing from for a while.

As well as this, on the day LGBT Rights were front and centre on the political agenda, it was disappointing not to see anyone representing that community on the panel.

Where was the representation from the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) Sector? Do we have a strong enough voice in this party political world? Would we be too afraid to show up? Worried about upsetting one of the other parties?

Despite all this, I was excited to hear from everyone involved. The setting and genuine desire on the part of Alasdair McDonnell to engage, and at least attempt to shake things up, was encouraging.

There were some questions ‘pre-seen’ by the panel (of which I asked one) which made me worry about the potential for an actual lively debate but there was space for non-prepared questions towards the end of the event. 

Mr McDonnell believes there is a real need to connect the political institutions with civil society – which he described as Unions, Business, Religious Bodies, and Agriculture…. Pretty much everyone other than the NI VCSE.

Is this an oversight on his part? Or something else?

I’d argue it is our sector’s fault that we don’t roll of the tongue, are the first thing to come to mind when people mention ‘civil society’. Through innovation, collaboration and engagement we can get there but it won’t happen overnight.

Brendan Mulgrew discussed optimism, the politics of hope and the fact the highlights – Peter Robinson praising the GAA and Martin McGuiness shaking hands with the Queen – are always lost in the white noise of perpetual elections and party politics.

Ryan Feeney spoke about the potential of Northern Ireland and its people, and the international good will towards Northern Ireland. However, lamented the fact that many people his age are emigrating to find a better, more fulfilling life because the current model of government won’t allow for vision, leadership, hope and delivery.

Professor Heenan asked about where the leadership was in Northern Ireland.

Where is leadership around issues like the European Union and the cuts to Higher Education?

She noted Northern Ireland is the only country in Western Europe to cut money to skills development and the lamented the associated ‘brain drain’.

Is the VCSE Sector leading on this? Are we having a voice in these areas?

Slugger O’Toole’s David McCann talked about how since the Good Friday Agreement voter turn-out has been in steady decline.

Again, is the sector helping to get these figures up? Are we helping people engage in democracy in more ways than at the ballot box?

This event touched on a wide range of issues important to the Trust.

Collaboration, innovation, and civic engagement were all on the agenda it made me think we are on the right track and have some important messages for the political class, we just need to have the courage to get in the room.

A key thing for the VCSE Sector to note is that every time these issues and themes were brought up, it was the public and private sectors who were being heralded. 

Why isn't the VCSE in the mix? What can we do to get there?

On a sad day for democracy at Stormont, this small town-style meeting at least showed us a glimpse of what engagement and grown-up debate can offer.

The question for the sector is – why weren’t we setting the agenda? Why weren’t we even in the room?

You follow Robbie on Twitter at @Robbie_BCT

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