Making a good society

Making a good society

agendaNi looks at some of the ingredients of ‘good living’, as recommended by the Carnegie Trust inquiry into civil society’s future in the UK and Ireland.

Civil society has several meanings. It is people coming together voluntarily for the benefit of themselves and others, in one definition, while another describes it as the society we want to live in. A further view sees it as the places where people and organisations develop common interests and try to reconcile their differences peacefully.

The future of society as a whole is, of course, well contested but the inquiry found broad support for a “change of direction” from across the political spectrum.

This would involve moving away from the current excessive consumerism and waste, which puts a high value on money, to a more caring and compassionate society. Many things, it noted, have no price but can also be valued.

Power was too centralised and tied up in the traditional representative democracy, whereas it should be distributed with

many more voices heard. Topically for Northern Ireland, this vision also wants integration and mutual solidarity to replace segmentation and division in people’s relationships with others.

Ironically, that division has also created an opportunity for Northern Ireland’s charities, churches and community groups.

With formal politics in stalemate, civil society played a larger role in economic development and providing public services than it did elsewhere.

Social partners such as the CBI, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, NICVA and Ulster Farmers’ Union played an important role and are now forming new relationships with the devolved administration.

The report’s recommendations are grouped under four themes.

A civil economy

In the immediate aftermath of crisis, there is a consensus that something must change in the way the economy is run. The commission wants to see the financial system reshaped around better values e.g. responsibility, good governance, human well-being and environmental sustainability. In short, a more ‘civil’ economy is needed.

Civil society has been involved in the economy since the 19th century e.g. through trade unions and social enterprises. However, its role has been squeezed by the welfare state and the market, taking on social security and financial services respectively.

Three recommendations are outlined.

Financial institutions must, firstly, become more transparent and accountable. They should be required to report on their social and environmental impacts and their lending portfolios.

A more clearly tiered system also has its merits with different regulations for local, national and global finance. Restructuring the system is made easier by the large public holdings in banks after the bail-outs. Financial products, the report says, should meet social needs e.g. livelihood insurance to cover changes in personal income. When banks and other institutions invest, they could put 2.5 per cent of funds into social enterprises to support that sector.

Thirdly, the commission wants to see civil society growing in power and influence. This, crucially, involves improving people’s financial literacy. A ‘comprehensibility threshold’ is proposed so no product remains on the market if more than half its customers cannot understand it. It also wants to see millions of ordinary investors lobbying institutions so their money is used ethically.

Climate change

Campaigns to combat climate change have a high profile and the problems are now well-known. While the Copenhagen summit was a missed opportunity, campaigning should continue and positive alternatives also need to be put forward.

The preferred low carbon economy would have local roots with areas developing their own food supply, transport services and energy sources. Civil society groups with sufficient assets can invest in projects designed to bring this about.

Non-violent direct action can hold businesses to account for their environmental performance. Genuinely global alliances and also citizen conventions, to bring the main actors in society together to assess progress, are also suggested.

Media values

The media has lost sight of its importance to democracy and social change, the inquiry reports. A decline in the traditional media has been partly balanced by the rise of the internet but more of the news is now ‘churnalism’ i.e. recycled stories. Originality is declining. Freedom, pluralism and integrity are identified as three important values for the media. All parts of civil society should be free to shape the media’s content and the media, in turn, should not be controlled by a “small number of powerful interests”. Integrity is taken to mean truthfulness and accuracy.

Local and community news media should grow, it recommends, with the “free, open and democratic” nature of the internet protected from commercialism. The BBC is praised for its “public nature, quality and critical freedom” and should be promoted, given the decline of journalistic standards elsewhere. New funding models could include tax concessions, industry levies or civil society groups directing proportions of their advertising spend into news content.


The history of British and Irish democracy shows that power had to be “prised” from those in authority by campaigners for change, according to the report. This is certainly true in grassroots campaigns for Scottish or Welsh devolution, but less so in Northern Ireland where devolution was negotiated between the governments and political parties.

A long decline in turnout and public confidence led up to the “jolt” of the 2009 expenses scandal. The commission believes that the “slow birth of a participating representative democracy” is taking place, where civil society has a greater role in organising deliberation, argument and decision-making. Practical examples include public petitions to legislatures and, in England, citizen juries.

Healthy democracy means freedom to criticise and dissent but some observers think that anti-terrorism laws are limiting civil liberties. The report calls for “very local democracy” e.g. the right to set up neighbourhood councils, allowing petitioners to take part in parliamentary debates (despite being unelected) and reviewing anti-terror laws.

Northern Ireland’s Opsahl Commission, a 1992 independent commission into the way forward for the peace process, is highlighted as it helped to develop a “public sphere”. It was led by Norwegian human rights lawyer Torkel Opsahl and demonstrated, at that point, that people from all sides wanted peace. This encouraged politicians to bring about what their voters desired.

The conclusion takes a local turn by highlighting Ballynafeigh, in south Belfast, as “proof of the difference that civil society can make even in difficult environments”. There is a strong sense of community and its different social and religious groups mix well. Quoting Winston Churchill from the 1930s crisis, the inquiry surmises that “the maps are out of date and the compass is broken”. It clearly hopes its work will help to improve society as an uncertain future unfolds.

A call for dissent

“Growing a participative and deliberative democracy is critical” for Northern Ireland, says NICVA Chief Executive Seamus McAleavey who sat on the commission in a personal capacity. “To get the best solutions to difficult issues we need people to push their heads above the parapet with their ideas. The ideas then generate further debate and refinement. Let’s seek to open up discussion as a matter of course not close it down prematurely with stock answers.”

One of the more alarming findings was the marginalisation of dissent in the Republic. As so many voluntary organisations relied on public funding, they were reluctant to criticise the Irish Government. McAleavey saw something similar over justice devolution as many organisations “self-censored themselves” because the debate was divided on unionist-nationalist party political lines.

“When people keep their heads down we lose good ideas,” he continues. “There are many people and organisations in Northern Ireland that decline to comment on important issues in case they are misinterpreted as being politically partisan.”

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