Citizens can create a coherent demand for political reform

- This article first appeared in the Irish Times on Monday, 29 December 2014 under the headline “Now is the time to join the People’s Conversation

In the 2011 general election all parties promised that politics had to change. Recognising, implicitly or explicitly, that our systems of governance had played a part in bringing about the economic crisis, most parties proposed major programmes of political reform. For example, every major party’s manifesto included proposals for greater involvement of citizens in decision-making.

The Constitutional Convention has been a very successful initiative in this respect, and the Government can point to other achievements such as a greater role for Oireachtas committees and an extension of the powers of the Ombudsman. Public participation networks hold out some hope for meaningful citizen engagement at local level.

In order to maintain the momentum for reform up to the next election and beyond we need to first ask ourselves what type of society we hope a reformed politics will be better able to shape.

Despite our aspirations to create an Ireland that is fair and just, a number of issues remain stubbornly characteristic of our society: high levels of income inequality; persistent material disadvantage, with more than one in seven Irish residents considered at risk of poverty; extremely low levels of representation of women in politics; decreasing voter turnout; failure to meet international norms for environmental protection.

These issues might not appear directly related to political reform but in its absence there is a sense that we are becoming locked into a system that endlessly repeats the same outcomes.

To have any hope of challenging these features of our system we require a fundamental examination of our social contract and our model of citizenship. We need to have a conversation that links our social challenges with our understanding of the interrelated rights and responsibilities of citizens, community and the State.

Despite the apparently unreconstructed nature of Irish public life in 2014, there are reasons to think that the timing is right for such a conversation. Our exit from the economic crisis of the past six years presents a forking path: do we return to business as usual or do we seek to learn from the mistakes?

President Michael D Higgins has called for a national discourse on how to live together ethically, and this invitation is being taken up in civil society.

Finally, we are not much more than a year away from the next general election, the broader political agenda for which is still unformed.

There is now a national opportunity to engage in an exploration of our model of citizenship and how this relates to what vision and values get reflected in our politics. The People’s Conversation, an initiative of The Wheel in partnership with other civil society organisations, provides a means for citizens to engage in this work.

A range of organisations, clubs, companies and neighbourhoods are pulling together diverse groups of people to hold a series of public and private conversations over the coming year.

A number of groups convened by civil society partners are already meeting, and the first public conversation was held in Dublin on October 11th. The invitation to engage in the conversation is extended to everyone with an interest in Ireland’s future.

We expect these conversations will identify common themes of concern but also generate new and positive ideas which can form the basis of a new vision for citizenship for today’s Ireland.

This vision will be published during 2015 as a major contribution to public discourse in the run-up to the 1916 centenary and the next general election.

If we can create a citizen-led and coherent demand for a new and better way of doing things, we may find that as citizens we are more powerful than we realise.

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