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The Civic Forum - a consultation document from New Agenda

A discussion, derived from a civil society network, of the role of the Civic Forum (August 1998)

with the assistance of

Confederation of British Industry
Irish Congress of Trades Unions
NICVA (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action)
Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association
Federation of Small Businesses
Ulster Farmers’ Union



new agenda is a network of organisations and individuals drawn from ‘civil society’: business; trades unions; churches; universities and colleges; voluntary organisations and community groups.

new agenda was formed in 1997 to enable wider society to engage constructively in the political process to help bring about a mutually acceptable accommodation.

participation in the new agenda network is open to any group or individual who shares the common goal of lasting peace and reconciliation - no longer prisoners of the past, but architects of the future.


new agenda
53 University Street
Tel. 01232 232525
Fax. 01232 233334


The Civic Forum, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement (1), is currently the subject of much discussion. This document is an attempt to clarify some of the issues and to include a wide cross section of society in the process of shaping the Forum. Ultimately it is for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to agree what sectors of society will be involved; to provide administrative support; and to establish guidelines for the selection of representatives. It is intended that the results of this consultation exercise will be used to inform a proposal to be put to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister by the New Agenda network in September 1998.

This consultative document has been drawn up by New Agenda with the assistance of:

Confederation of British Industry
Irish Congress of Trades Unions
NICVA (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action)
Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers’ Association
Federation of Small Businesses
Ulster Farmers’ Union.

These organisations are also in consultation with their own memberships.

Comments are invited on any part of the text but responses to the questions in bold italics are particularly requested. Please address your responses to:

Civic Forum Consultation
New Agenda
5 University Street
Belfast BT7 1FY
Attn: John Woods

Responses should be made by Monday 31 August 1998.


1 Introduction

The inclusion in the Good Friday Agreement of a commitment to establish a Civic Forum represents an innovative and exciting element in the future governance of Northern Ireland. While the Assembly faces the challenges of the new political dispensation, the Civic Forum can make a vital contribution in bringing the resources and goodwill of civil society to bear in support of the Assembly’s work.

The traditional concept of government, in which administrations do things to economies and people, is being replaced by the concept of governance which depends on utilising the knowledge and skills present in society through a wide range of partnerships and networks.

The Civic Forum has the potential to nurture the effective governance of Northern Ireland through marrying the skills and knowledge of the sectors it represents with those of elected representatives, the public administration and wider society.

This is no simple task and will depend for its success on a clear commitment to collaborative working within the Forum, reaching conclusions based on consensus and making every effort to resolve disputes. It will rely on Forum members acting as servants of wider society rather than guardians of sectional interests. It will need to be taken seriously by the Assembly and its Executive rather than being perceived as a mere producer of paper which can be easily ignored. It must draw on the special expertise available through civil society and it must avoid becoming a self-perpetuating elite. Rather the Civic Forum must become widely owned by the society which it serves.


2 Role of the Forum

2.1. The Agreement states that the Civic Forum ‘will act as a consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural issues.’ This is a very broad remit but for the work of the Forum to be of real value and practical use, it will need a philosophical basis to enable it to focus its energies. This should be based on the particular potential strengths of the Forum.

2.2. An obvious strength of the Forum, given the nature of the sectors nominated in the agreement, is its potential to help develop economic and social policies. Issues such as unemployment, sustainable development and crime, for example, cut across the traditional departmental boundaries of Government. The Civic Forum is not constrained to think along departmental lines and would be well equipped to work on these so-called ‘wicked’(2) problems. Such an approach would complement the more departmentally focused work of the Assembly committees while avoiding unnecessary duplication

2.3. A primary consideration must be that we live in a divided society. The Civic Forum, as an unelected body, can assist the Assembly in overcoming division by, for example, working on a particularly divisive issue, achieving consensus within the Forum and making recommendations to the Assembly. There is a range of issues which elected representatives are often, understandably, reluctant to tackle due to the probability of having to pay a heavy electoral price. And yet good government requires the taking of unpopular decisions. The Civic Forum, being unelected, can help to render some decisions by politicians more acceptable by being the first to grasp some of the more difficult nettles.

2.4. Innovation is a critical factor in the development of competitive and sustainable regional economies and is itself reliant on a host of relationships and partnerships which cross all the elements of civil and political society. Politics in the modern era operates in a constantly changing environment which requires a constant process of renewal in the way policy challenges are faced. It would seem that the Civic Forum would have a particular strength in identifying and nurturing such innovation and to fulfil this role could use the ability to act on its own initiative to good effect.

2.5. The Forum must be clear where it sits in relation to the Assembly and its Executive. The Forum is not a second chamber and yet it can be much more than a body which merely reacts to Assembly initiatives. It can be a body which exists to complement the work of elected representatives; to reinforce the democratic legitimacy of the Assembly; and to bring other experience and expertise to bear in tackling the many and complex social and economic challenges which face all modern governments.

2.6. Being drawn from the different sectors which make up civil society, the Forum has the capacity to develop a pro-active relationship with that society. This can be done in terms of information, education, consultation and participation (see 8 below).


3 Remit

As evidenced by experience elsewhere, successful European regions are characterised by a shared culture of commitment which embraces the different elements of political and civil society.

3.1 The Civic Forum, therefore, will seek to complement the work of the Assembly. It will:

  • assist the Assembly and its Executive in their ‘endeavour to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements’(3);
  • be formally consulted on the programme for government, related public spending priorities and legislative proposals;
  • initiate work on strategic economic, social and cultural concerns, and respond to requests from the Assembly to address specific issues;
  • maintain and develop a close working relationship with wider civil society.

3.2 The successful operation of this remit will require a close working relationship with the Assembly and the Executive. Consultation should be carried out at an early stage and before proposals become faits accomplis. By the same token the Forum should respond with alacrity and effectively to requests from the Assembly. The Forum should receive formal responses from ministers to its recommendations including reasons for rejecting any aspects of an opinion which are not accepted.


4 Composition

4.1. The agreement states that the Civic Forum ‘will comprise representatives of the business, trade union and voluntary sectors, and such other sectors as agreed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.’ Clearly the intention is that the Forum should be non party political.

4.2. The question arises, however, as to what other sectors may be included. Clearly there must be a balance between adding to the list and producing one which attempts to achieve the impossible task of directly reflecting the complex web of organisations and relationships which constitute civil society. Related to this is the question of how the interests of those people traditionally excluded from decision making processes can be represented in the Civic Forum.

4.3. The naming of a large number of interests, however, may tend to emphasise the role of members of the Forum in directly representing specific interests which could, in turn, militate against the aim of working in a collaborative way on the basis of consensus. The aim should be cross-sectoral unity rather than inter-sectoral rivalry. It should also be to serve society as a whole. The number of sectors represented in the Forum in addition to the three named in the agreement should be kept to a minimum.

4.4. The interests of those traditionally excluded from decision making, should be safeguarded in three ways. First, an appropriate balance of gender, religion, age profile, ethnicity, geographical spread and socio-economic background in the membership of the Forum must be achieved (see 6 below). Secondly, the voluntary sector recognises its responsibility to represent the interests of the socially excluded and the trades union movement recognises its role in ensuring that the interests of the unemployed are represented. Thirdly, the Forum must ensure that it constructs a close working relationship with wider society (see 8 below).

4.5. Two sectors, rural and religious interests, not named in the agreement require specific comment. Sometimes seen as one of the ‘social partners’ in the European context, the farmers’ case for inclusion merits consideration. It may be acceptable to the main farming organisations to be represented through the business sector while other rural interests could be reflected through the voluntary sector. A requirement for geographical balance in the membership of the Forum could also ensure that rural interests are adequately addressed (see 6 below).

4.6. Given the position of the churches in our society there is a strong argument for the inclusion of ‘faith communities’ in the Forum. Genuine difficulties arise, however, in the fact that, unlike the sectors named in the Agreement, the churches do not see themselves as representative of or accountable to particular social groups. Direct representation is therefore likely to be impracticable. As a corollary to this, the Forum should pay special attention to consulting closely with the churches and other faiths on issues of mutual concern.

4.7. The Forum will find only a proportion of the expertise and views relevant to particular areas of work within its own membership. Therefore the flexibility to include others as appropriate will be crucial. This can be achieved by co-option onto Forum committees or working groups. Such co-options should include skilled individuals and representatives of appropriate interest groups.


5. Size

5.1. The Forum could be relatively large (100+), indeed this would be necessary if the kind of exhaustive representation of civil society referred to at 4.2 is to be achieved. It seems inappropriate, however, that the Forum should compete in size with the democratically legitimated Assembly. Such a size would also be unwieldy, would make it difficult to work in a collaborative and consensual way and may run the risk of an insider/outsider divide with the insiders de facto being the only significant members.

5.2. A Forum of around 50 strong, drawing membership from a limited number of sectors, is likely to be the optimum size - small enough to meet effectively in plenary and large enough to be able to form sub-committees or working groups.


6. Selection

6.1. It is important that the method of selection is consistent with the ethos and role of the Forum. To this end, rather than members directly representing their sectors, they should be drawn from them but should be free to operate as individuals chosen for their broader qualities and capacities to articulate the ‘interests of the greater good’. This is particularly important if the composition of the Forum is drawn from a limited number of sectors to ensure it remains capable of serving the interests of the whole of society.

6.2. Selection must ensure the highest possible quality of member is recruited to the Forum. The Forum should seek to field the ‘first division’ in representation from civil society who are able to bring real energy and ability to the task in hand.

6.3. It is also vital that the selection procedure should be as open and transparent as possible.

6.4. Three scenarios - selection, election or appointment - suggest themselves.

6.4.1 Each sector could nominate its own representatives based on merit using common guidelines to achieve a balance of religious belief, gender (at least 40% of either gender), age, socio-economic background and geographical spread from across NI. These individuals (rather more than there are places available in the Forum) would then be interviewed by a selection body whose job it would be to select the full membership of the Forum on the basis of merit while achieving an overall balance within the Forum of religious belief, gender, age, socio-economic background and a geographical spread from across NI. While it is unlikely that any of the three sectors nominated in the agreement will have difficulty in putting forward names, the question arises as to what the makeup of the over-arching selection body would be. One possibility would be a panel made up of two representatives of each sector nominated in the agreement.

6.4.2. Election via electoral colleges or panels has the potential to maximise the representative nature of the Forum. A range of eligible bodies (drawn from the agreed sectors) could be encouraged to apply for, and be held on a register whose function would be to elect a certain number of representatives to the Forum. There would be one college for each of a number of categories, eg education; industry and commerce; youth affairs etc.

The clear advantage of this system is its representative nature. And yet such an emphasis on this aspect of the Forum could easily be perceived as a threat to the Assembly which itself derives its legitimacy from the fact that it is elected. Three further disadvantages suggest themselves. First it seems unwieldy and it could prove difficult to establish exactly what bodies would be eligible for inclusion on the register. Secondly, elections could easily take on a party political flavour if candidates choose to campaign in that way. Thirdly, balance, diversity and quality could easily be sacrificed as the electoral procedure is inherently incapable of delivering these.

6.4.3. The third alternative is that Government could undertake the selection process following normal procedures for appointment to public bodies. An open recruitment process followed by interview and selection on merit would be the key elements. The problem here lies in the fact that even if very best practice in public appointment is followed it would be difficult for the Forum to avoid the charge of being no more than a giant quango, selection having been made by government and not by ‘civil society’ itself.

6.5. In determining the term of office a balance must be struck between ensuring fresh injections of talent and maintaining continuity. One way of addressing this would be for the term of office to mirror that of the Assembly while allowing no more than one third of the membership to continue for a second term. Alternatively one quarter of the membership could be rotated every year. The terms of office of the Chair and Vice-Chairs would be treated differently (see 7.1. below).

What method of selection/election/appointment should be employed?

What term of office should Forum members serve for and in what way should membership be rotated?


7. Leadership and Administration

7.1. The role of chair will be a critical one, particularly with regard to the relationship between the Forum and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. A troika(4) of an outgoing chair, current chair, and future chair, rotating between the sectors, say every two years, should be responsible for day-to-day management and resolving difficult disputes. The position of chair should be a full-time one while that of the vice-chairs is likely to require a commitment of at least two days a week. The task here is to balance the workload of these positions with the availability of suitable candidates.

7.1.1. There are three main options for the selection of the chair and vice-chairs. They could be elected by the Forum as a whole; nominated by each sector; or could simply apply for the job.

7.2. It is unlikely that the Forum would want to meet in plenary session more than once a month or fewer than four times a year. Sub-committees or working groups would clearly have to meet much more frequently if the Forum is to make a serious contribution. Forum members, however, are likely to have considerable responsibilities elsewhere and a balance needs to be found which would allow as a wide a range of people as possible to participate. It is unlikely, therefore, that a commitment of more than one day a week could be required. At the same time, much less than that would restrict the amount of work tackled by the Forum and would suggest that members did not see their Forum responsibilities as being near the top of their working priorities.

7.3. To facilitate participation a daily allowance, compensation for loss of earnings or compensation to employers should be made available as appropriate. Crèche facilities and disabled access should also be available.

7.4. The Forum could easily be a ‘talking shop’ if not properly backed up by a secretariat feeding in draft papers and working up debates. The members of the secretariat, moreover, would need to be sensitive to the specific nature of the task, as well as capable policy thinkers, and able to relate well to the rest of the system, notably the assembly and executive committee.

7.5. The secretariat should be a mixed group of knowledgeable civil servants, individuals with experience in one or other sector and others who are simply ‘policy innovators’; the chemistry between them could itself assist in generating dynamism. This requires substantial resources, but the contribution the Forum can make to creative policy thinking will be well worth it. Including administration staff, a secretariat of up to 10 would be entailed and should be employed by the Forum. This should all be sanctioned by the assembly, having been determined between the, initially ‘shadow’, troika and the first and deputy first minister.

7.6. Factors affecting the location of the Forum and its secretariat include accessibility to members; accessibility to the public; and proximity to the Assembly. The Interpoint building in Belfast would increase public access but at the expense of relations with the Assembly which would be facilitated by a location on the Stormont Estate. Given that public access can be achieved in a range of imaginative ways (see 8 below), on balance it would be better for the Forum to be located close to the Assembly, wherever it may decide to settle.

What is the optimum workload of the chair and vice-chairs and how long should their terms of office be?

Where should the Forum be located?


8. Relating to wider society

8.1. While the Civic Forum can enjoy no direct connection with wider society via the electoral process, it can and must maintain an open and accessible connection with that society. This does not mean that it must find ways of acting as a loud hailer for the vox populi - the Forum must rather act as a deliberative body if it is to contribute constructively to the political process - but it must be firmly rooted in the civil society it is designed to serve.

8.2. Existing relationships between members and their sectors can provide some of the necessary connection but the Forum as a whole and through its committees should seek a close relationship with wider society. This can be achieved in a number of ways.

8.2.1. A clear communications, public relations and media strategy should be pursued in order to keep the public informed of the work of the Forum and to provide information on how to influence its work.

8.2.2. Public hearings and publicly accessible meetings of the Forum and its committees and working groups could be held in different parts of Northern Ireland.

8.2.3. "Citizens’ Juries" could be convened to deliberate on particular issues.

8.2.4. Use of the internet could provide a route for participation by a range of organisations and individuals, especially if the Assembly were to develop the use of electronic democracy in its own work.

8.2.5. A deliberate policy, adequately resourced, of developing innovative participative ways of working should be implemented.

What other means of relating to wider society could be employed?


9. Other relationships


9.1. The Agreement provides for consideration to be given to establishing a consultative forum, ‘representative of civil society’(5) on a North-South basis. It is important that this forum is built into the same overall framework as the Civic Forum, rather than just an add-on extra. Proper structural links should be built with the Civic Forum and with the North-South Council. The Civic Forum should actively develop this proposal by working with the social partners in the Republic.

9.2. Although the Agreement is silent on a civil society dimension to the proposals for the British-Irish Council, it would seem in keeping with the spirit of the Agreement that the Civic Forum should develop relationships with equivalent bodies which fall within the British-Irish dimension.


5 August 1998


End Notes

1 Section 34 under Strand One of The Agreement states: "A consultative Civic Forum will be established. It will comprise representatives of the business, trade union and voluntary sectors, and such other sectors as agreed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. It will act as a consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural issues. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister will by agreement provide administrative support for the Civic Forum and establish guidelines for the selection of representatives to the Civic Forum."

2 The term 'wicked' was first used by J Stewart and M Clarke of the University of Birmingham in a paper entitled 'Handling the wicked issues - a challenge for government' to describe the complex policy challenges which cut across departmental boundaries.

3 Section 5 of Declaration of Support, page 1, The Agreement.

4 The idea of a 'troika' is derived from the European Union practice of rotating the Presidency whereby the current Presidency is assisted by the previous and helps the incoming to prepare for office.

5 Section 19 under Strand 2 of The Agreement states: "Consideration to be given to the establishment of an independent consultative forum appointed by the two Administrations, representative of civil society, comprising the social partners and other members with expertise in social, cultural, economic and other issues."


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