A Civic Forum? That’s your best idea?

BBC Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics this week saw a frequent viewpoint being put over that those who cannot get a clear mandate from the electorate have only a limited right to a voice. However in Northern Ireland more than anywhere, perhaps, that apparently obvious truth is in fact highly questionable – the system has been designed to favour certain parties over others (not least through “designation”), and of course people elected and favoured by the current system are hardly going to be the first in line to reform it.

It is for this reason, alongside the straightforward point that it is part of the 1998 Agreement, that I support the re-establishment of the Civic Forum. It can do no harm, after all – and who knows, it may come up with something genuinely innovative.

However, it is truly astonishing that, after 15 years of decline against Sinn Fein, the SDLP’s only new idea is restoration of a taxpayer-funded talking shop. The notion that failure to convene the Civic Forum has even the slightest impact on the public’s growing lack of interest in politics and democracy is ludicrous – in fact, that lack of interest is only encouraged by politicians talking such nonsense.

The SDLP is far from unique in being totally out of touch, but the story of its conference a week ago is telling. Having spent almost the entire time venting anger at the DUP/Sinn Fein-led Executive (no problem there!), it failed comprehensively to come up with anything at all to counter it. There were no alternative policies, there was no alternative narrative. Amid an economic crisis, widespread health reforms, gridlock in education and so on, the best the SDLP could come up with was restoration of a mega-quango. As part of a long package of alternative measures, it would make sense – but as the only contribution to the debate, it is just ridiculous. And they wonder why the voters are getting even more cynical?!

All this achieves is an impression among the electorate that, for all its foibles, the DUP-Sinn Fein-led Executive is in fact the best they are going to get; after all, those opposed to it cannot come up with a coherent alternative programme. The electoral outcome yet again will be that DUP and Sinn Fein (and actually also, for other reasons, Alliance) voters will be motivated to come out to the polls, while UUP and SDLP sympathisers will have been given no good reason for doing so.

For all the talk of a mood for change, the electoral trends are all pointing the same way – precisely because, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the UUP and SDLP cannot offer anything different in a system which, after all, they themselves created…

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