Why did ‘selfish’ politicians kill off Civic Forum – William ‘Plum’ Smith asks

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On 15th December 1994, just weeks after the Loyalist Ceasefire as Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) Chairman I was part of a delegation of PUP representatives lead by David Ervine to climb those steps of Stormont for our first exploratory talks as a precursor to full negotiations.

Pictured during a meeting at Stormont Castle in Belfast yesterday morning are, from left to right: First Minister Peter Robinson; deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness; Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers; Tanaiste (irish Deputy Prime Minister) Eamon Gilmore and Minister of State for Northern Ireland Mike Penning.

 

On that particular occasion we presented a discussion paper to the British officials which included the following paragraphs:

“Working Class areas in Northern Ireland have suffered most from the collapse of Belfast’s economic base. The demise of linen/textiles and the contraction of shipbuilding and engineering have impacted on employment opportunities particularly in Protestant communities within one generation leading to severe community dislocation.

“Unemployment stands officially at over 30% in working class areas, rising to over 60% on large housing estates. This is compounded by a poorly qualified population – 85% of 16 years + have no formal education/training qualifications in the Greater Shankill and 70% leave school at 16 years old.”

When we entered fully-fledged negotiations even we realised then that in dealing with all aspects of the conflict there were issues that fell outside the strict definition of politics.

 

There was an acknowledgement within the talks that gave birth to the Confidence Building Committee to deal with issues such as parades, culture, emblems, victims, the past and confidence building measures within all communities. The Committee contained representatives from all parties including representatives who were not elected. The PUP representatives were the late Billy Mitchell and Eddie Kinner.

The Confidence Building Committee arrived at the conclusion that a Civic Forum would be set up that would contain appointed non-elected people from various walks of life who would not have the shackles of party politics or the mill stone of mandates round their necks.

  • Agriculture and fisheries (3)
  • Arts and sport (4)
  • Business (7)
  • Churches (5)
  • Community relations (2)
  • Culture (4)
  • Education (2)
  • Trade unionism (7)
  • Victims of terrorism (2)
  • Voluntary and community sectors (18)

The Civic Forum was appointed and set up and indeed sat in a number of sessions. The emotional and confidence building measures would be channeled into the forum thus freeing up the politicians to deal with running the country and making decisions on Health, Education, Employment and the many other strands of Government.

Of course the newly elected Stormont politicians were filled with kangaroo petrol in the first period with their stop, start, suspension up down up approach to governing the country.

The cease-fire politicians selfishly began to cherry pick the Agreement pressing ahead with those things they liked and abandoning those things to which they were opposed.

The cease-fire politicians opposed the Civic Forum standing on their hind legs demanding it to be abolished and asking who are these unelected people without a mandate telling us folks on the hill what to do?

In 2002 the Civic Forum was abolished thus trailing all those emotional and sensitive issues back onto the floor of Stormont.

The Belfast Agreement was wholesomely and craftily drafted to include all sections of the community elected and non-elected.

The cherry picking and abandoning of parts of the agreement has left it open to abuse.

I’m not saying that a Civic Forum is the answer but maybe an updated version could be the next step.


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About Author

William 'Plum' Smith is a former Red Hand Commando prisoner. He chaired the 1994 Loyalist ceasefire press conference and is currently writing a book on the life of Loyalists in prison .

6 Comments

  1. Not only was the Forum dissolved but those participating in it could see the civil servants meant to be facilitating it begin to control its agendas.

    Why have none of the so called investigative journalists not investigated this?

    Why have they not investigated the IMC’s removal of funding to the PUP thereby preventing development of working class unionists.

  2. Loyalism had a political team in the period 94-98 capable of thinking its way through the big issues and making the big decisions. It also held the hands of unionists as they entered the talks in 1997. Others within loyalism then pushed the self-destruct button – Adair, White and co. Loyalism misses the leadership of that 94-98 team, misses its ability to get business done, its ability to prioritise and negotiate. Many of the issues we hear about could have been dealt with long before now – should have been dealt with long before now and won ‘t be advanced in the current street play.

  3. The actions on our streets at the moment are a bi-product of the downfall of such a forum. These issues, which have been a long running problem continue fueling the fire of sectarianism in a generation who were born long after conflict had ended. In not dealing with the various bones of contention the political classes run the risk of fracturing Northern Ireland plc on the international stage from further investments and thus leading to another lost generation who did not learn from the sins of the past. These issues need to be managed tentatively on all sides to ensure our history is not repeated.

  4. Eddie Finnegan on

    William, the answer lies in the caption to the photo above – straight from the final sentence of ‘Animal Farm’ where pigs and men morph inextricably together: “The loyalist working creatures outside the window looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again, but already it was impossible to say which was Peter and which was Martin.” Orwellian or what?

  5. William,

    I was just reading over some of the excuses given by OFMDFM regarding the Civic
    Forum.

    As you know a review was carried out on the ‘effectiveness’
    and ‘appropriateness’ of the Forum and as a result of this review the
    First and deputy First Minister concluded that …there was no widespread
    desire for a return to a structure of the size and expense of the Civic Forum
    as it had previously operated. Accordingly, there have been no meetings of the
    Civic Forum during this Assembly mandate, which has also resulted in
    considerable savings to the public purse. …

    Considering the Forum was set up in October
    2000 and only ran until 2002 it hardly had a chance to develop and begin to
    show benefits so the brief of those carrying out the review, namely to ascertain
    its effectiveness was in my opinion designed to find excuses to get rid of it
    (abuse of power) surprise, surprise.

    Of course they would have us believe it was for
    the benefit of the people (saving us all some money) that they made the
    decision to do away with Forum and therefore the voice of the people and they
    wonder why there is a disconnect between the political elite and community.

    The First and deputy First Minster also stated
    that as a result of the economic downturn they had “brought together a group of
    stakeholders from across the community, we did that without those people
    getting or seeking any expenses, which indicates that people are willing to
    give their views without having elaborate and expensive structures”.

    Maybe if the Forum had of been up and running
    we would have been in a better position to deal with the issues we are now
    struggling with and we wouldn’t be facing a bill for 8-10 million, what was
    that the First and deputy First Minister said about savings to the public
    purse?

    All a bit rich when you think of the whole expenses scandal and how much expenses they claim for almost everything they do.

    I agree with you William that we desperately need an updated version of the Forum. It
    is time for civic society to be heard and to be able to directly influence and
    hold those in power accountable.

  6. There are enough people within the loyalist community who will stand on their own two feet ,with no political mandate, and challenge the fantasy politics entered into by sinn fein. Their view always has been “our way or no way” and unfortunately for the long suffering population of northern ireland the brits caved in ,time and time again simply to keep england bomb free. Those days are gone but the onslaught of the shinners continues apace to ensure any remaining glimpse of britishness shall be removed from this country.Lets give the shinners a border poll, but not before we find out from them how they would continue the governance of this part of the united kingdom if in fact the vast majority of the citizens vote to remain in the u.k. The shinners are renowned for having 20 year strategies for posting a letter !! Please open that letter and tell us all your social and economic policies to put your “utopian” Ireland back to work. Frankly, i think the duplicity of the shinners rationale is as bankrupt as the country they would have us wedded to.

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