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In Pursuit of Civic Participation: The Early Experiences of the Northern Ireland Civic Forum, 2000–2002

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Northern Ireland's Civic Forum is a key civic participation mechanism agreed as part of the Belfast Agreement and established under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It brings together representatives from various sectors to act as a ‘consultative forum’ on ‘social, economic, and cultural issues’. This article argues that ‘civic society’ has to be understood as a ‘transactional reality’ in the Foucauldian sense, such that the task of the Civic Forum – to allow the participation of ‘civic society’– entails the continual construction of its own boundaries and remit. These are contested, not only outside the forum where political considerations have made it somewhat controversial, but also within. It is argued here that this is necessarily so, given the need for the forum to carve out a position between its constitutive outsides. Of particular concern has been the meaning of ‘consultative’, as competing understandings of this key term position the forum differently with respect both to the legislative Northern Ireland Assembly and to Northern Irish society as a whole. Additionally, the ethical imperative to give voice to wider society is examined, as it influences the way members of the forum articulate their role. Finally, I discuss the forum's sense of its unique identity – as given by its opportunity to enact an inclusive and diverse political space. The argument draws throughout on a qualitative sociological study that employed observation of the forum's plenary sessions over an eighteen-month period (2000–2002) and semi-structured interviews with selected members.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Goldsmiths College, University of London

Publication date: 2004-10-01

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