The People’s Conversation – Rethinking Citizenship for 2016

I have been working with The Wheel and the Carnegie UK Trust on a project about citizenship in Ireland, called The People’s Conversation. We recently launched the web site for the project and below is a guest blog I wrote for Carnegie, which sets out some of the background.

PrintWhy open up a conversation on citizenship in Ireland? What does the term even mean to Irish people today?

At the most basic level “citizenship” simply means membership of a society or adherence to a state. However the concept of citizenship also includes the complex of relationships, roles, rights and responsibilities between individual citizens, the State, communities and families. In Ireland, as elsewhere, these roles are evolving and the extent and nature of these rights and responsibilities can be poorly understood and indeed contested.

The Carnegie UK Trust, in its Enabling State project led by Carnegie Fellow Sir John Elvidge, has been mapping the evolving relationship between citizens and state in Ireland, the UK and beyond. The Wheel, a network of 1,000 non-profit organizations in the Republic of Ireland, co-hosted an Enabling State roundtable in Dublin in early 2013, at which a number of unresolved questions specific to Ireland’s concept of citizenship were drawn out.

There are questions over our shared understanding of the common good – do we treat the public realm as something to be exploited or do we truly feel ownership of it? In our democracy is it enough to cast a vote every so often or do we have the right and duty to participate directly on an ongoing basis in the decisions which affect us? While we have high levels of participation in community and voluntary activity, engagement in the democratic process is low and, despite welcome initiatives such as the recent Constitutional Convention, we could do more to support citizens to participate in decision-making.

The Wheel, in partnership with the Trust, is now seeking to address these questions through a project called The People’s Conversation – Rethinking Citizenship for 2016, building on our collaboration on the Enabling State in Ireland.

The timing is significant, not just because we’re approaching the centerpiece of the “Decade of Centenaries”, prompting reflection on the first hundred years of our state’s existence and the changes in our understanding of citizenship over that time. With the departure of the Troika we are emerging from a difficult period, one that has raised questions about the meaning of our sovereignty and our ability to look after each other fairly. The Irish public has demonstrated an appetite for reform of our democratic structures, but a clear way forward has not been mapped. There is a window of opportunity before the next general election, expected in 2016, to put these issues on the political agenda and set out a new vision for citizenship.

To shape this new vision we’re placing a bet on the power of conversation. Rather than starting a consultation, we want to engage people in a creative process, using conversation to bring to the surface ideas about how we can better understand and support citizenship in Ireland. Working with a number of partner organizations, we will get people talking in small, diverse groups. Each group will sustain a conversation over a number of months, asking each other to consider the forces shaping our future, what do citizens expect and what is expected of citizens. These groups will also be look at the emerging conclusions of the project, helping to shape the outcome.

We want everyone to have the opportunity to take part in the conversation, so we will encourage other organisations and members of the public to set up their own groups and submit the ideas and common themes that emerge. We sense there is an appetite amongst the public to talk about these issues, and the process of conversation can be empowering, inspiring people to action.

Creating a new vision demands an imaginative, creative process. But it also requires the means to turn that vision into reality. With the help of experts we will shape the content of the conversation into a document that not only describes a new vision for citizenship but also sets out a series of practical policy recommendations. Our task will then be to advocate for these recommendations to be adopted by the political system and policy makers.

We believe it is possible between now and 2016 to forge a new understanding of citizenship, not through contestation but through conversation. The People’s Conversation starts this month.

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