Civic leaders could offer an ‘alternative’ NI voice at Brexit talks

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Civic leaders could provide an alternative Northern Ireland voice at Brexit negotiations, MPs will be told later this month.

A litany of failed initiatives have attempted to broaden the political debate outside traditional politics.

The Armagh-based Centre for Cross-Border Studies will give evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and has argued the problem facing civic dialogue is a central one.

It said: “This long list of failed or inadequate proposals and arrangements for the inclusion of civic voices in the political process both reveals a core problem with politics (rather than with political institutions) and suggests a possible alternative for a Northern Ireland voice in UK – EU negotiations.”

The 1998 Belfast Agreement provided for a Civic Forum comprising 60 representatives from the business, trade union and voluntary sectors and was to act as a consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural issues.

It was suspended with the collapse of devolution in 2002.

The Stormont House Agreement of 2014 and the Fresh Start accord of 2015 envisaged the creation of a six-member civic advisory panel to the Executive.

Its submission added: “Northern Ireland political arrangements include a long list of failed attempts to establish a meaningful forum for the inclusion of civic voices from outside the toxic bi-polar model of political relationships.

“Despite the fact that consecutive political agreements have provided for such fora (where civic views could be considered in relation to key social, cultural and economic issues), problems have been encountered with each of those.”

The report said the 1998 Agreement and the St Andrews deal before Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were appointed to lead the Executive each provided for a North/South Consultative Forum that was never put in place.

It said the work of the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit initiated by the Irish Government has been a unique opportunity for dialogue between business and civic society from both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland and the Irish Government.

“In the absence of alternative structures as a means by which issues, including but going beyond Brexit, can be addressed, the work of such an initiative must be supported.

“Whatever the alternative, we also strongly suggest that tampering with the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in order to achieve a solution which is ultimately political, should be avoided at all costs.”

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