The Proposal Initiative: Discussion

Apologies have been received from Senator Annie Hoey, Mr. Colum Eastwood MP, and Senator Rónán Mullen. All Members of the Oireachtas should attend this meeting remotely from their offices within the Leinster House campus. Remote participation from outside is not possible. If there is unwanted feedback, we may ask members to ensure their microphones are muted until necessary.

I propose a ten-minute rotation for speakers, as we have at every meeting. I propose to take the following order: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, SDLP-Alliance, Independents and Aontú, including Senator Black, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and the Green Party. The time allocation includes questions and answers, if that is acceptable. Is that agreed? Agreed.

On behalf of the committee I welcome Mr. Neil McCann, Mr. Patrick Quinn and Ms Noeleen Diver to the committee. I must read the standard privilege notice to the witnesses. The evidence of witnesses physically present or who give evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected pursuant to both the Constitution and statute by absolute privilege. However, witnesses and participants who are to give evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. Witnesses are also asked to note that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they should respect directions given by the Chair and the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to that person's or entity's good name.

Mr. McCann has come form the same county as me. He was a representative of Louth County Council when I first met him and I am delighted he is here today and will be our first speaker.

Mr. Neil McCann

It is great to see Mr. Quinn and a number of other people I know. I thank the committee for the opportunity to present this effort on which we have worked over some months. It is offered on the basis of being of assistance to various pieces of work currently taking place in trying to organise our island and how we live together.

Given the disturbing events of recent weeks in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland, it is necessary to take some pause and reflect again on where we all are. Some consideration was given by us to assessing whether this low-key event in the public sphere is helpful at this moment. We consider it adds to the imminent relevance of the document we call the Proposal. We hope and consider that the conciliatory approach shows the relevance, which is even more acutely demonstrated by the continuing tensions in our beautiful island and, in particular, in its magnificent North. Throughout the course of this long journey to peace there have been many courageous initiatory events, not least the acceptance of the Good Friday Agreement itself. We suggest that Ireland North and South yearns to complete the steps to establish an enduring peace for generations to come.

I will quickly mention a story told about Mikhail Gorbachev, which some people may have heard before. At the end of the communist era in Czechoslovakia, when there were mass public demonstrations in public spaces, the then communist government sent to Moscow for help. Gorbachev arrived and as he was approaching the state buildings, he went to the crowd gathered there and simply told them that he was with them. That was effectively game over for the communists in the Czech Republic, or Czechoslovakia as it then was. Václav Havel was still in jail at that time. In telling that story, I am saying that events of this kind have been brought about in Ireland by many people who have brought us to a point where we have a degree of settlement and peace. What we yearn for now is for this process to be brought to a conclusion.

If I may speak very directly to members, person to person, our political culture does not readily embrace the word "love", yet that human, and at times superhuman, quality that is love is not only potent in itself but is also the antidote to fear and anger, and it is the pathway to wisdom. Its close ally and progeny, "forgiveness", is a challenge to anyone. Still, it has the active force to move an individual, a community and society. I include each of us personally in this. Forgiveness has the force to move us from hurt, grief and past injustices, not necessarily immediately but over time. Gandhi knew this. It was characterised in his language by the word "Satyagraha". He was the person who uniquely in our history has characterised the demonstration of love in the political and public sphere.

It is in that spirit that we have the humble pleasure of presenting our proposal. It is not the Gorbachev moment in all of this but it can lead to it or some event or series of events that can lead to a serious settlement of all our major differences on the island. The invitation we make in our proposal is to negotiate immediately with representatives of the unionist community and all those who call themselves Protestant, unionist and-or loyalist, PUL. This is our oar in the water of the ship of our collective destiny. Sometimes the practice of love is manifest in the form of delicate diplomacy. It is precisely this approach that we now advocate in this conversation and the actual text of the proposal, which I am assuming the committee members have read or will read in full. It is not unduly long but it is fairly concentrated and with sufficient detail to represent an entire proposal. I ask members to approach it with an open mind and a discerning heart.

The central recommendation of our proposal is the obvious one of inviting talks, as I have suggested, with members of all sectors of the unionist community, including those who are former members of paramilitary organisations and those still associated with such organisations or who have been in the past. It is for elected authorities in governance to do this or for emissaries to be sent on their behalf. Those of us in the voluntary sector, and there are many hundreds, if not thousands, of us, will assist wherever possible in fostering an atmosphere of reconciliation. The intervention of community workers and adults in Lanark Way on Wednesday night and Thursday night last week to persuade many of the younger rioters to desist and go home is one of the encouraging features of the past fortnight. I am told that adults formed a human chain on the Springfield Road which had practical effect and obvious potent symbolism. Still, we have no choice but to remain vigilant and encourage reconciliation, as I am sure members will all agree.

The conciliatory approach, while being the essence of our proposal, is not its inspiration, however. The inspiration is the realisation that the creation of an entirely new state is not only feasible but provides the best possible approach to the future of relations and administration on this beautiful, enchanting island where we are fortunate to reside and bide some or all of our short enough terms of years.

One version of this proposal for a new nation and a new state has, as the committee will know, been presented by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan lately. It is also the guardian and guarantor of the identity and the participation of those of the unionist tradition, which will be copper-fastened by the role of a new body with international input and guidance in which the particular position on heritage and identity and heritage of unionist folk, with their British identity, can be virulently represented and defended into the future. I have developed an increasing personal empathy for the unionist family's whole position, as I long for the coming together for everyone in and on our island, embracing the entire history and all versions of it, referencing all of our mythology and above all celebrating the possibilities of a shared future on a shared island, however we may be governed.

Our present situation seems well characterised by two brief commentaries on the current situation. The first from is from Mr. Mick Fealty, who many members will be familiar with from the Slugger O'Toole website. I have a quotation from him and from Professor Timothy Snyder of the department of history at Yale University. Mr. Fealty observes "Whether it’s unionism or nationalism doing it, disruption does not represent control any more than it represents a destiny." Quoting Professor Snyder he states:

the whole notion of disruption is adolescent. It assumes that after the teenagers make a mess the adults will come and clean it up. But there are no adults. We own this mess.

The second commentary I will refer to, again fairly quickly, is deeply poignant in the present atmosphere. It has personal resonance, as I had an internship with the Belfast Telegraph. It was the closest I ever got to being interned. I suppose it is all right to attract a bit of humour to the past though I know internment was not a funny thing in any sense. During my year of journalism training in 2012 I met the author of the piece I am referring to, Ms Gail Walker. She has since been editor of the paper for five years and is now editor at large. The following appeared in a strong opinion article in last Saturday's edition. In it, Ms Walker does not offer an exploration of a new nation or any other engagement with the South. There are no presumed outcomes and that is the risk we all take in setting out on a new road; there is give and receive, receive and give and all of us are changed, sometimes changed utterly. The challenge initially is to explore all the destinations, bearing in mind that Scotland’s position and the capacity of the UK to survive its departure is clearly under question as we await the census results - it has already been taken - and another imminent political poll from the Lucid poll agency which will be made available next Tuesday. I am very touched by what Ms Walker wrote when she stated:

Being a unionist isn't easy in a place where people are constantly being told it's a numbers game and the egg-timer of history is running out. When people think they're being defeated, they get scared, and they get angry. ...

People here are easily wound up. Sectarianism is rife. Bigotry surfaces quickly. Social media has brought us a whole new riot experience the first Twitter Translink Bus Burning with drone footage. ...

The past few days have reminded most people what really matters. They want peace and to get on with their lives. They want to live in a normal place where no one is above the law.

There is an opportunity right now for leadership to occur, from within the main unionist blocs. It remains to be seen if there is any individual with sufficient ambition or vision to say the few important sentences which would transform the unionist future.

It's about owning the future, not harking back to old grievances or using old methods to highlight them. ...

We have learned to hang together and not hang separately. Everybody here should be able to have a good standard of living. Most people would rather have this place work than not work.

It's time for unionism to start talking about that on every street corner. And that means in every part of west Belfast and all over the island and in London.

Members who wish to read the full article will find a link in my opening statement. Ms Walker does not offer an exploration of a new nation or any specific engagement with the South. If anything, she probably wants things to remain as they are constitutionally. However, the key, the moment of silence is that also implicit in what she says is that things cannot remain as they are constitutionally. That cannot be the future. There are no presumed outcomes. We can explore the destinations, all of them, evaluate them together and then perhaps negotiate.

There is no event in family, business, club or public structure situations in any aspect of life - national, international or local community - whether it is conducting a law case, as I have done for many years, where there is a situation of difference, let alone outside division, in which one would not want to go and talk to the other person or group, sound them out and arrange a mediator, intermediary or go-between. Please do not ask why we would do such a thing. I ask, from a heartfelt concern for all the people on this island, for their present and future, and mindful of the past, why would we not speak to each other, all of us, and soon? To quote my late father's well-used exhortation, "Get on with it".

I thank the committee for hearing this introductory statement. Mr. Quinn and Ms Diver have some words to contribute. I understand that is the normal procedure from what the committee has done previously.

I thank Mr. McCann. Does Ms Diver wish to address us now?

Ms Noeleen Diver

I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it.

Ms Diver is very welcome.

Ms Noeleen Diver

I will address the plank of the proposal regarding participative democracy at all levels. It has been said that the largest political party in Northern Ireland is the non-voter. There is a risk that the health and vitality of a democracy will decline as engagement declines. Nowadays, there appears to be little likelihood of a positive inertia, that we can sit still safely with the status quo. We will move in one direction or another, but we will move. We will live with each other; our society will evolve for better or worse, locally, nationally or globally. We are learning, however, that democracy is not just about elections and voting, it is about engagement and partnership - the dealing with. Covid-19 has displayed the need for community engagement in the most practical of ways and, better still, it has shown the appetite there is for this engagement and the creativity it has engendered. Apathy might be more of a myth than we expect.

Building engagement requires good infrastructure - trusting, respectful spaces for listening, learning and creative deliberation that in turn leads to concrete outcome. Openness to the unexpected in terms of the options for those outcomes and from where those ideas might come is all part of the journey. Most good things take time and patience. The need for concrete outcomes that people see are addressing their concerns and aspirations, indeed, which help them to articulate and work through what these core concerns and aspirations mean, is essential. We have tools to help with this. Indeed, we have used some to a greater or lesser extent. I will refer to just two.

Ireland is a leader in the use of citizens' assemblies. We see the benefit derived from these processes for what were highly sensitive, even intractable, issues. In Northern Ireland, in the community voluntary sector, we have one assembly on how to make social care for the elderly fit for purpose. The reports from this were very supportive of the process.

Participatory budgeting, PB, is another tool. This is not new to Ireland. South Dublin County Council is one of several councils that run PB processes, I believe to the value of €300,000. In Northern Ireland, PB is also gaining momentum, but it is at the grant-making end of the spectrum. We are endeavouring to move our processes towards the mainstreaming of PB, where the priorities of government programmes are shaped and voted upon by the citizens they impact.

We also have some structures that may evolve to support these activities. In the Republic, there are the public participation networks, PPNs, of local government, and in the North, for example, we have our community planning partnerships. I cannot speak to the PPNs but our community planning partnerships have quite some way to go to really engage citizens in a meaningful and decisive role. Perhaps the limited role of our local government in the North may also be an impairment to this. At the Executive and Assembly levels, there is a void at level of a civic forum.

All of this is an attempt to speak to a need for formal express channels for citizens to participate, where agency, and thus confidence, is built in ourselves and in each other, where what is sensitive and intricate may be discussed and deliberated upon respectfully and constructively. I think we actually have glimpsed some of this. This empowerment has been shown to support the understanding and trust between citizens and between citizens and their representatives. We had the 2008 crash and its outworkings. We now have Covid-19 and what may be the unforeseen consequences, and we have, of course, the challenges of climate breakdown. None of these have respected any borders. They have perhaps emphasised the need for our doing with each other in new and even surprising ways. If such doing with at all levels engenders engagement, creativity and partnership, we might even find the journey to be ultimately affirming the best in each of us.

I will end by quoting Inez McCormack:

To enable the powerless to be part of making change. That changes how they see themselves. And that changes everything.

Mr. Patrick Quinn

I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity to address them. I would like to focus on the cultural aspect of the proposal. One of the most vital areas where gaps can be bridged and broken paths mended is recognising and reflecting all cultural differences and allowing the arts to perform a strong healing role in this process.

Culture plays a significant role in the moulding of who we are as individuals and, to a large extent, our world and local view. Probably more urgent than ever before is John Hume's call for people to unite. The words "diversity and inclusion" are often explained by the same definition. Still, there are different steps to achieving a diverse and inclusive community. Cultural diversity refers to the make-up of people of varying ethnicities, religions and cultures. Cultural inclusivity, however, means to ensure people are seen, heard and valued, and this is what we need to do, with a good helping of respect.

One of the most fundamental tenets of inclusivity in the community should be genuine openness and equality. While there is a risk of minority groups being marginalised, it is through transparent communication that we can bridge these gaps. Respecting each other's cultural differences means being conscious of unique social behaviours and norms. It is about being aware of the important customs and beliefs of members of one's community who are of cultures different from one's own, and recognising that culture. It is more about ethnicity and understanding the rich histories that have defined the different ways of life for the people.

Art and the arts are a way to work this into the very fabric of what we are discussing. There is nothing new about this. It has been implemented across the island. However, it can be honed and expanded upon until it starts to make a difference to the collective, rather than just to isolated pockets. While cultural tolerance is the first step to inclusivity, having acceptance would be bringing things to a deeper level. Embracing different beliefs and customs may mean educating oneself on the cultural characteristics, history, values, systems and traditions of another ethnic or cultural group. This, done gently, can have an astounding result.

Art and culture can build community. Art has the beauty and the property of binding. Culture generates social capital and strengthens the character of communities. Art brings people together physically at galleries, museums and performance spaces, as well as culturally through its capacity to tell a community shared story, inspire reflection and, crucially, form connections that transcend differences. The communities in question require something to bring them together as one unified society. The arts have the ability to help people identify with one another and begin to understand our differences and accept them truly.

It is possible to introduce more art into these social environments, which could start to shift the feeling of separation into sentiments of acceptance. I think it can. Art can be beneficial in many different ways. A study done by neurologists in Germany proved that creating art can actually improve the functional connectivity inside the brain and increase psychological resilience. Both being involved in and observing the arts can create healthier and happier beings and this can be helpful for everyone involved as a happier person is more likely to be more friendly and inclusive. Most people have been personally moved by a piece of art, whether it was a song, a poem or a drawing. This is typically combined with a mental experience to which we feel deeply connected. This does not have to be experienced as a single or solitary event. Luckily, art is one of the few things that can be truly shared and valued as a group. This can be done with people from all walks of life coming together to create one amalgam of all their ideas, creativity and intuition.

To create a strong connection between humans, we have many different options. We can paint murals in towns, as has been done, or start music programmes, art projects and more. The more art a community has, the higher the cultural identity and diversity it will have. It can help to reduce crime rates and increase and build social networks. There are limitless benefits to the addition of the arts in any community.

Anyone can create art and no experience is necessary in order to participate. It is an outlet for anyone and everyone to participate, regardless of skill, technique or background. Everyone can take their turn in creating something. In an increasingly distant society with gaps that desperately need to be bridged, we need to value the activities that can truly bring us back together. If it is possible to unify a community with something as accessible as art, then it should be a priority to use that in any way we can. The longer it takes, the harder it will be to find common ground to reunite us. We must take advantage of the resources we have. The best way to start any of this would be with the children because if they get it right, the rest will naturally follow. I thank the committee.

I thank Mr. Quinn. My apologies for interrupting him. We will do the rotation as agreed. Fianna Fáil has the first ten-minute slot.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations, which were somewhat different to those the committee has received in recent months regarding North-South relations and difficulties within the Six Counties. Their approach is quite light and refreshing.

I am really interested in the witnesses' whole approach. I like it. With regard to the way we all need to start looking at the whole approach to Northern Ireland and its difficulties, if one thinks back to the Good Friday Agreement, there were many community and political leaders involved in the years leading up to the agreement. Some of those are no longer with us. I am sure many would think of David Ervine and many other community leaders who helped to bring about and establish the Good Friday Agreement. I was on a talk show recently and the presenter referenced the fact that we do not have such leaders at the moment. That poses a difficulty but, with regard to the work the witnesses have presented to us this morning, there is a lot more work they can do outside of the political sphere. Through engagement with communities, the approach they are taking will go a long way towards inspiring community and political leaders across Northern Ireland. I see them as a very important part of the work that must be done to get to the point that Mr. McCann talked about and to complete the steps to establish an enduring peace for generations to come.

The obvious stumbling block at the moment is Covid. We cannot establish talks so the quicker we get all of this out of the way, the better. It is a real stumbling block, particularly from the perspective of a representative at my level. I want to get in there and engage but I am not being invited to do so. That engagement is necessary if we are to move on. Even from the point of view of this committee, the unionist parties in Northern Ireland are not represented. That is basic work on which we need to get started. There are things like this that we need to do before we even get to the point of getting those elements of the Good Friday Agreement that have not yet been established up and running, such as the North-South institutions. At a minimum, we need that unionist engagement at our level to make sure we bring everybody with us.

There is nothing in the main elements of the presentation with which I disagree. I would love to work with Mr. McCann, Ms Diver and Mr. Quinn in the future. Their work will be a really important element as we move forward. Some things about which they talked are planned but we are precluded from doing much about them at the moment. I would welcome talks with unionist communities in Northern Ireland. There are several organisations across these islands, peace institutes. There is one in Glencree and there are some in Northern Ireland as well. They would love to do a lot more than they are doing but are also precluded from doing so.

I found some of the points Ms Diver made with regard to citizens' assemblies and building engagement very interesting. Building engagement requires good infrastructure. That is a smart and refreshing approach which will not be seen as political. Ms Diver's approach is really good and I would love to see her much more involved in presenting that approach to communities across Northern Ireland on whatever platform is available to her when Covid is out of the way. It is very important that she does so.

I believe I have covered the main parts. Mr. McCann mentioned and quoted Mick Fealty of the website sluggerotoole.com. He has good Donegal blood in him. He comes from the same parish as I do, or his mum did at least. Mr. McCann had several good quotes from him. My general response today is that I like the witnesses' approach and that I would like this committee to work with them much more in the future. I thank them for their presentation.

Like my colleague, Senator Blaney, I welcome the presentations by Mr. McCann, Ms Diver and Mr. Quinn. They presented very interesting thoughts and proposals. Does the witnesses' group have members from both communities? It is unfortunate that in the presentation Mr. McCann had to refer to the events of the last week. We all hoped that was something we had left behind and that kind of activity and disturbance in communities had been consigned to history. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Some very good articles have been written in the days since those disturbances, including by Deirdre Heenan and Joe Brolly. They gave comprehensive analysis of some of the underlying causes and factors contributing to the violence, be it educational underachievement, poverty, deprivation or lack of political representation. I am sure there is a mix of all those factors. I fully understand that the issue is more complex than listing off a few factors but those are the issues we want to address.

Members of the committee have visited Belfast, Derry and other parts of Northern Ireland and, as we have discussed in the committee previously, I always found those visits to be the most productive from the point of view of informing us and engaging with people. As a committee, we have to get back to meeting communities and their representatives and hearing their concerns at first hand. As Senator Blaney and Ms Diver said, it is important that there is a focus on community endeavour and getting the best out of communities.

Ms Diver mentioned local government. Unfortunately, local government has been destroyed in this State. In Northern Ireland, there was a major rationalisation some years ago which led to huge local government districts. My neighbouring council area is Fermanagh and Omagh District Council. We lost town councils here and we have reduced numbers on the more rural county councils. I think that was a big mistake. There is nothing to beat having good representation and strong local representatives representing their communities and being very tuned in to what is or is not happening in communities. From the point of view of having more public representatives alongside the public participation networks, PPNs, those non-elected groups will never substitute for elected personnel in delivering services and meeting the needs and concerns of local communities.

One point we might engage on further is strengthening local government. Where there are substantial numbers of elected members on local councils, minority groups have an opportunity to gain seats through the proportional representation system. It is important in that respect to have six-seat or seven-seat local district councils as it provides an opportunity to have people of different political groupings represented.

It is important we do not take the focus away from elected representatives in meeting the many challenges that face our island as we go forward. There can and must be such partnership but the focus must remain on elected representatives delivering on the mandate they have been given. The mandate of every politician on this island is to implement the Good Friday Agreement. That mandate was given to us through the referendum in May 1998. Unfortunately, the potential of the agreement and its workings are not being maximised. I suggest that we would not have had the recent violence and disturbances if we had maximised the potential of the Good Friday Agreement.

I welcome the witnesses' comments today. They are positive and concern what we can do to shape the shared island and, I hope, a united Ireland in future, which I aspire to. If one community makes progress in advocating for its aspirations, it should never be at the expense of the other community or mean that one community loses while the other gains. There is a lot of work to be done by voices such as those of the witnesses. I know from Mr. McCann's work and that of others in Belfast over the years that he reaches out to different communities, particularly to those that are less advantaged. It is very important in the current context that work is focused on those areas as well.

It is very nice to see the witnesses and I thank them for their presentation today. There is a growing desire to talk about constitutional change and to put it on the political agenda. Any constructive proposals should be encouraged and considered. I thank the witnesses for their work in this regard. We have had a tendency over the last number of years to not talk about constitutional change. I believe that we must facilitate being able to do that in a non-judgmental and respectful way.

The Proposal Initiative document states that: "It has sometimes been assumed that an entirely new state was either unworkable, undesirable or both." I am not sure that this is true. There should be a spectrum of proposals that can be considered. It is important that we allow that to happen and that we allow people to come forward with different ideas. From reading The Proposal Initiative website, and for the purposes of clarity, is it The Proposal Initiative's idea that it is not about the North joining the South, that it is very much about the creation of a new constitution and a new state? Are the witnesses talking about starting from a blank canvas? While I do not discount the witnesses' view on that, I have reservations because it is very hard for us to start from a blank canvas. We have seen over the past number of weeks a reminder of that.

The Proposal Initiative is one proposal but there are lots of different views. There are people who will feel very strongly that it is about the North joining the South and that we retain our symbols to represent that. We must acknowledge that people have different aspirations and that when we talk about the Good Friday Agreement, really our common purpose there was to reach peace. This proposal, however, is very different because we are dealing with lots of different aspirations.

There is not only the spectrum of proposals, which I hope will come forward for people to consider, but there is also the spectrum of engagement. Some people are already incredibly engaged in this. They have their manifestos ready and know what their version of the new Ireland looks like. Then there are others who are apathetic or who are afraid, and who do not want to engage at all. We must understand that people are coming from very different starting points on this. We too want to encourage an atmosphere of different ideas and proposals coming forward. This is why today's meeting is very positive. I am not sure that we are at the consensus stage. We are at the conversation stage. I am especially interested in what Ms Diver said about engagement and the different ways to do that.

Looking at the Good Friday Agreement, what would the witnesses focus on going forward? If the past few weeks have shown us anything it is that perhaps are we looking at another stage for the Good Friday Agreement where we recommit ourselves fiercely to the principles, the spirit and the structures of the Good Friday Agreement, while at the same time respecting that people have different legitimate aspirations.

I may disagree with one part of The Proposal Initiative document, and I ask for clarity on it. Interestingly, it uses the word "conciliatory" and not "reconciliation". That made me think a lot about reconciliation versus conciliation, because there is a question to be asked around whether it is reconciliation that we seek. Have we ever been reconciled?

The opening statement today states:

The conciliatory approach, while the essence of The Proposal, however, is not its inspiration. The Inspiration is the realisation that the creation of an entirely new state is not only feasible but provides the best possible approach to the future of relations and administration on this beautiful, enchanting island.

I would say that we cannot leapfrog conciliation or reconciliation. They must go hand in hand. By creating a new state, we will not get away from our past or present. That work has to be fundamental to everything else.

It was great to hear from Neil McCann. He probably does not remember it but we met in 1999 at a count centre in Dundalk when I was a young child. It was nice to hear him mention his late father, someone who did tremendous work for business in County Louth. I know we are approaching the ten-year anniversary of his death in the coming months. It is nice to meet Neil again all these years on.

I loved the document that Mr. McCann has outlined. He mentioned how aspirational it is and that it is something we should really be working towards. It is really interesting. I am interested in what would happen after we hopefully have a successful Border poll. Would we have some sort of joint jurisdiction for a number of years while we try to amalgamate a lot of the ideas in the Proposal Initiative or will be going for a totally new state from the beginning? It cannot be the case that Northern Ireland will be joining the South of Ireland - the Republic. This has to be a new state where everything is on the table for negotiation, debate and discussion. What is really good about the document Mr. McCann has outlined today is that it is clear on that point.

I would love to hear more about Mr. McCann's idea about how we would amalgamate our two civil services. It is not until I read it there that it hit me that we have two completely different forms of local government and local authorities on this island in terms of how they work. I would love to get a view about how we can amalgamate our two civil services at some point in the future.

Mr. Neil McCann

I thank Senator McGahon for his kind remarks. I have a vague memory of the Senator. I met his father on a number of occasions and I hope he is keeping well these days. Is the Senator's father Johnny McGahon?

Mr. Neil McCann

The joining of the civil services would not be a major problem but I will say a bit more about it in the context of how the new nation might be formed. This comes back to Senator Currie's question about an entirely new state. Senator Currie's observations open a dialogue because all of the detail of this is not worked out and even if it were worked out in a document, that might not all be followed up. We were seeking a balance between what points to an outcome and what is practical.

In terms of creating an entirely new state, we do not want a blank canvas and that is not going to happen. It is sort of absurd and, from a legal perspective, if an entirely new constitution was to be generated, then there is a whole body of law that is built on legal decision-making and interpretation. That work of defining rights was famously done by some judges in the 1960s in particular. Ireland has a well-established position on having defined personal rights. A great deal of the work on that was done by Mr. Justice Brian Walsh in the Supreme Court at that time. It originated out of concerns about the fluoridation of water, which still happens. In Belfast, I have the pleasure of drinking slightly more chlorinated water that has not been fluoridated.

Part of our proposal seems to be unique - I have not seen it anywhere but would be glad if someone has thought of it - in that one can create a new state and adopt whatever from the existing states in place. Northern Ireland does not have an integrated, functioning state apparatus because it is spread over two jurisdictions. It is whatever is vested in London, which, obviously, would not continue after coming together and the powers devolved to the Assembly, which have come and gone at different times. The staggered process of assembly cannot continue, regardless of the Constitution and bringing the two parts of Ireland together. It is stop-start governance and is desperately felt here, in the North.

It would presumably work out that the mainstay of the new state would be the apparatus of the existing Constitution of Ireland drawn into the new state but it would not be a case of the North simply joining the South.

As for aspects of the North that function quite well, the movements of participative democracy are quite strong in many respects in the North. The zero-waste movement which has defined waste policy effectively has a strong influence in the Derry area and the Derry City and Strabane District Council. Cross-border elements are already in place. I am running out of time and just need 20 seconds to finish that-----

I apologise for cutting in but we are over time on this one. As other parties want to get in, we can return to the other parts of Mr. McCann's answer when we return to Fine Gael time to keep everybody happy. We move into the Sinn Féin ten-minute slot now. It is question and answer within the ten minutes.

Mr. Paul Maskey

Go raibh maith agaibh for the meeting today and I thank Mr. McCann, Ms Diver and Mr. Quinn for their contributions today. My constituency has been mentioned a number of times today. Obviously, there is a great deal of interest in it and I appreciate that. My constituency is in west Belfast and, obviously, we were on the streets last week when some of the issues broke out on the interface. If we are honest with ourselves, violence took place at the interfaces last week, including in north Belfast, because protests took place at the interface, which was completely and utterly crazy.

A protest at an interface such as at Lanark Way will lead to a riot and mayhem and that is exactly what we saw last week. We must ensure we work closely together. I commend the community activists, the residents associations and youth workers who stood shoulder to shoulder with some of us last week to prevent some of the riots.

We removed some of the barricades from the Springfield Road and we stood in Lanark Way to stop people coming down to have a riot. Trouble still went on further up the Springfield Road but it was further away from the interface. It was great leadership from the local community groups, youth groups and the residents associations who all live around that area. They are fearful of what last week meant and what it means for the future, so they are working hard.

I have had a number of meetings with community representatives this week as well as last week. While there is significant interest in west Belfast and on a community basis, we must to do more. I refer to the people at this meeting and members of the Good Friday Agreement committee.

While there is great interest and mentions on a number of occasions, the only person living outside west Belfast to contact me last week, party colleagues aside, was the Rev. Karen Sutherman, who came and stood with us on the line to prevent people from rioting. That is proper leadership. However, as the MP for west Belfast, nobody apart from my party colleagues lifted the phone to ask if he or she could assist in any way. No one.

We must look at ourselves and ask ourselves if we can do more. The answer is every single one of us must do more and ensure we engage because I have seen better leadership coming from some of the sporting organisations. They have organised football matches between some of the soccer teams from the Falls Road and Village areas and they have reached out to people in the Shankill.

I was engaging with loyalism. I was engaging with unionism. I was engaging with many different aspects of life last week because what we witnessed on our streets was not good. I am very thankful that no one was seriously injured or killed because that could have been the consequence of what we saw on our streets last week. The point is we need to see implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in its entirety because, as was mentioned earlier, it makes our society a better place. We need to make sure we are engaging.

I have some questions for Mr. McCann, Mr. Quinn and Ms Diver. Any proposals that could assist have to be taken on board, looked at and carefully studied. What type of engagement took place with the communities when these proposals were being drawn up? Who were the witnesses talking to? Were they talking to local community groups, local residents associations and local political parties when these proposals were being drafted? It is very important to talk to communities and with communities, and it is more important to do those two things than to talk about communities. That is where we have to get to. If we can come together and engage, while making sure we are singing from the same hymn sheet in moving forward, we will move to a much better place in a much speedier fashion. That is where all of our focus needs to be. We need to engage.

In addition, and this could be part of the engagement, we also have to look at some of the work the PSNI was doing last week. I was critical. I was engaging and met with them on a number of occasions last week, and I spoke to them to probably 20 times a day and 20 times every night last week. Some of the local neighbourhood policing officers were off duty. We have to ask why they were not called back sooner. Some of the policing operations we saw on Wednesday and Thursday evening left a lot to be desired. I can only speak for west Belfast and there are other parts of the city. However, when local neighbourhood police officers came back, we saw police engaging with some of the young people who were involved in the trouble on the previous two nights. We saw the local neighbourhood police teams getting out of their jeeps and talking to young people for many hours. One officer told me that he spoke to them for four hours solid. There were no riots on Friday or Saturday evening. Why? It is because there was proper community policing. That did not happen on Wednesday and Thursday night, and even though we demanded that the PSNI come in to do that proper policing, they did not do it. There is a template already set out for policing in Belfast, the interface template, which involves moving resources into those areas at a very early stage to engage with local community groups, local youth groups and anybody they think may have the potential to cause trouble. That is exactly what they did on the Friday and Saturday night but failed to do on the Wednesday and Thursday. As I said, I am very thankful that no one was seriously hurt or injured.

We need to make sure we are doing more on reconciliation. We need to ensure we are supporting the youth workers who stood for hours on end, engaging with some young people in society. Yet, we see some from the loyalist side of the community putting posts up on social media, blaming some of the youth workers for engaging in riotous activity, when they were in fact doing the opposite. They were there to keep the peace and that is exactly what they did. There are many people doing a massive amount of good work and others who will sit back and maybe put posts up on social media, and that amounts to their lot in regard to trying to keep the peace in areas like west Belfast.

The point I want to make is that very few people, outside of my own party colleagues, contacted me to ask how they could assist. We need to look at all of that. It is not just about contacting me but about contacting some of the community groups with whom they have built up some sort of rapport over the years. However, they failed to do that last week. We need to ensure, as does this committee, that we look closely at areas like that, at how riots like that last week start and at how we can prevent them as well.

I thank Mr. Maskey. There are three minutes left in this slot so if any of Mr. Maskey's colleagues wish to make any comment or if Mr. McCann wishes to reply to any of those questions, they may do so.

One of the pertinent questions Mr. Maskey put was around the engagement with communities on the preparation of the proposal that is before us today, which would very useful for us to know about. I was not aware that the Reverend Karen Sutherman had engaged with Mr. Maskey on the ground and I commend her. To me, as someone coming from the community development background, those are the exact principles of community development. I see a whole industry being set up of-----

I am sorry but we cannot see Deputy Conway-Walsh. Her camera may not be working.

Can the Chairman hear me?

We can hear the Deputy but we would like to see her. I understand if one turns one's camera off and on it may work.

We had a similar issue at the committee yesterday. Is it working now?

We can see her now.

I will make a final point because I want Mr. McCann to have time to come back in answer to Mr. Maskey's question. There is a whole industry which has been manufactured of observers and spectators but I want to wholeheartedly commend the people on the ground who are trying to do their very best. They are the ones who never get the recognition in the media or in all of the forums. Many people are making money and are also making careers on the backs of those people who are really doing the hard work. I have witnessed for myself the brilliant and fantastic work the women from the Shankill Road, the Falls Road and from different parts of the North have done. That is the way forward for all of us. Perhaps I might ask Mr. McCann to deal with the question on community engagement. I may get a chance to come in later. I thank the Chairman.

We have a minute left in the Sinn Féin slot if Mr. McCann wishes to reply. We have another Sinn Féin slot in about ten minutes if he wants to wait until then.

Mr. Neil McCann

I will proceed now. There has been a year and a half of work called Dialogue Forum, of which I am chair. It is a cross-community, cross-party and slightly cross-Border series of monthly dialogue meetings. I am also part of community dialogue in the Duncairn community centre in north Belfast. I am a mediator there and I am part of a series of engagements that is being launched in the coming weeks which will run over the next 18 months. The funding only came in for that recently. I have been involved with Dylan Quinn in Conversations NI and with Keith McNair who is, in turn, involved with youth education groups and is now located in the Clinton Centre in Enniskillen.

That is the background material. This came into being reasonably quickly. An additional process of consultation is in progress and we have gained from that. David Holloway, who is the director of Community Dialogue, has been very valuable to the production of this, to give one example. I appreciate that that has to deepen.

When I came to live in Belfast for work and because I did not know my way around or know many people, I chose to live in a reasonably safe area, where I am right now. I will be located in east Belfast and I am engaged with some of the groups there already. This is a work in progress and is designed to be completely participative and open to all and to be fed into. It is designed in part to be simply a reflection so that people's own ideas can develop and it may in time disappear. Its work would be done then.

In our discussions in recent months, some of us felt that a paper of this kind would be extremely useful, if only as an addition to the dialogues that are taking place, which must become much more meaningful and straight-talking. I will be happy to engage further with Mr. Maskey and the Chairman and others in all this work.

I have been around west Belfast a fair bit. I got lost on Lanark Way about a year ago but found my way out. I must confess, I hailed a taxi and I know in Belfast one does not usually hail taxis; one telephones for them. I was following a satnav that was not giving me fair directions. It indicated I had approximately three miles to go to the Crumlin Road when it was only half a mile. This is a delightful city and part of the world. I have made it my home in recent years so that deepens. I thank the committee for the challenge in that because if this does not change us as we are going through it, it will not be worth it. It changes us; we are part of the change.

I must move on to the next slot but I hear what Mr. McCann is saying. The important constructive engagement with Mr. Maskey will obviously be very useful. I take up Mr. Maskey's offer. If I could have his telephone number, I would be happy to ring him. I do not have anybody's telephone number apart from those of my party colleagues at the moment. Perhaps if we exchange our telephone numbers, it would be helpful to all of us.

Mr. Neil McCann

The Chairman could start a WhatsApp group.

Yes, fine. That is no problem. Mr. McCann might get a good GPS on it if he is getting one. I call Ms Claire Hanna from the SDLP.

Ms Claire Hanna

I thank Mr. McCann for the presentation. Unfortunately, I have not had an opportunity to read it yet but I had a look at the website this morning. I appreciate the approach around understanding and empathy, which we could do with in spades in this debate and conversation but also generally in all our policy approaches. Anything modelled on Václav Havel's view of nation-building and engagement is a good thing as he is a good role model for all of us.

As others have noted, this initiative is, correctly, outside of the political sphere. That is right. In terms of this debate I believe in letting a thousand flowers bloom, essentially, because there are people who will be put off by perceived or real silos that they see in political conversations. Indeed, there are people who would not necessarily go to a public meeting or are not involved in a geographically-based or networked group. It is, therefore, good that these are proposals and ideas in which anybody can get involved.

I saw that Mr. McCann suggested potentially calling the new Ireland just that. I do not disagree with the concept. I agree that we are building a "New Ireland" but I am afraid that name is taken by an island in Papua New Guinea beside New Britain.

Mr. Neil McCann

New Ireland is not a country; it is a province.

Ms Claire Hanna

Yes, exactly.

Mr. Neil McCann

There will not be an issue with that.

Ms Claire Hanna

They have beaten us to the punch. As I said, it is appropriate that the initiative exists separately. Mr. McCann referred to a conversation around the need to evolve a new constitution and new sets of proposals and I agree that it is not a completely blank slate or tabula rasa. How does he see that conversation evolving? How far does he think it can go without formal interventions and forums such as citizens' assemblies being established on a formal footing?

Are there things that those of us who have our colours nailed to a mast in terms of being party political can do to assist with this approach? Are there other things we can do, for example, to promote, encourage and stimulate the work Mr. McCann is doing?

Mr. Neil McCann

While this work is not within the sphere of electoral politics at all, it is clearly within the sphere of constitutional politics and planning for the future of the island. In that sense, it certainly is in the public sphere and we very much welcome that. Part of the dialogue process that has given birth to our work involves people who are involved in electoral politics, including, for example, John Kyle.

In terms of how we see the conversation unfolding, we expect it will have a number of levels. Unionists, those who identify as PUL, or whatever people want to call themselves, have to be germane to that conversation. It must take place with them and, in time, it becomes a negotiation. That can be fostered at the community level but it is ultimately for the Government to make the proposal to members of the unionist community, including elected representatives in the Assembly and Executive and those who are not involved in electoral politics, and engage directly with them. As far as I know, there are ongoing discussions between representatives of the Department of Foreign Affairs and representatives of unionism, community groups, and former and existing paramilitaries on the unionist side. As far as I know, and this is not the place to explore it or ask any questions about it, that engagement has not arrived at the point of saying, "Let us see what business can be done between us all."

The document we call The Proposal has a lot of elements to it. If there is one particular thing for which we are asking in it, it is that somebody be sent to organise a process of engagement. It is possible to meet online or in somebody's garden and we need to just do it. We do not see any reason at all to defer an engagement that would lead in time to negotiations. Let us get on with it or we will still be talking about it in another five years.

I value greatly the Border poll provisions in the Belfast Agreement, which are largely a reproduction of the Sunningdale versions. The steps that were taken in the Anglo-Irish Agreement and then the Downing Street Declaration led to the recognition of Ireland's place in Northern Ireland's affairs, which has never been rolled back on from those times. The problem is that the provisions for the Border poll are insufficiently drafted and there is capacity for severe chaos in that regard. This is not to dismiss all that has been done, because I value it all, but I am very concerned that something may happen, or there will be a deliberate measure by the British Government, to trigger a Border poll. The legal provisions are imprecise and inadequate and the British Government, through the Secretary of State, is given power to decide the date, the electorate - he or she can decide it should include everyone aged 16 and upwards, for instance, or be limited to over-25s - and the questions to be asked. He or she can do so without consulting anybody; there is no reference to that at all. I am not the first person to raise this point. I know Colum Eastwood gave a very good account of it at the meeting the committee had with the academics from London and Trinity College.

There is a need to get discussions under way and we are advocating that for its own sake.

I do not think there is a sufficient protection of the wider Irish position within the border poll provisions. If it ends up in the courts, the committee knows about the McCourt case that gave definition to what the requirements of the Secretary of State are. That was not appealed at the Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland. It could have gone to the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court in London. There is no clarity about that.

Border poll positions aside, it is time that we got everybody together to see what can be done, at the very least. One would not go into a border poll without having done that. One would not go to buy a car without having engaged with it, watched it go and discussed it. This is the future of the nation and we are significant people in the world. This needs to be managed carefully. That is why I have no apology in invoking the word "love". The only other place I know of where that was used was in Indian politics in the 1940s. Its independence resulted in great tragedy, as we know, with the partition of India and Pakistan. We can draw on the experience of the past to make these negotiations special and durable, and to avoid situations like that and the scenario where a border poll is won by a very small majority and somebody is disgruntled afterwards. That is the simplicity of our proposal. We think it is entirely coherent and capable of being adopted for an effective form of government for Ireland for the rest of our generation and long past it.

Dr. Stephen Farry

I have some observations and I am happy for our witnesses to respond to them. As the Alliance Party, we are cross-community, so we are not coming to this issue with a preconceived outcome or lobbying in any particular direction, but we recognise there is a lack of debate under way and we are happy to take part and give our perspective on things. For me, the priority is less one of working out the detailed mechanics of how this would be done if a border poll were ever to be called. A fair degree of work has been done in that respect already, although formal decisions have not yet been taken by any of the responsible Government actors in that regard. Before we get to that type of issue needing to be developed further, the key issue will be developing the "what" and encouraging dialogue to occur. What I grasped from the thrust of the proposals is that they are very much in keeping with that. We are still in the foothills of these discussions. Before anything is brought together by Government actors in a formal proposal to be put on a ballot paper, a plurality of discussions need to happen among a range of civic and academic actors and others.

I observe about unionist engagement that one should not underestimate how difficult this will be. It is in everyone's interest in Northern Ireland to engage in discussions, even if one does not agree with the potential outcome. If there is a plausible chance of change occurring, one is far better off being inside the room having one's voice heard rather than coming to the conversation either very late in the day or after key decisions have been taken without one's participation. It is important to recognise that for unionism, especially at a political level, this conversation is seen as being an existential threat and it is difficult to cross that threshold and engage.

The more it can be established that discussions are being facilitated by independent or impartial facilitators, particularly in civic society and academia, the more chance there is in the short run to get civic unionist actors at least to engage. Once that is seen as a safe thing to do, it may well be found that political unionism begins to engage. The broad thrust and spirit of what is being said may well be correct and helpful in achieving that wider goal. The obstacles are considerable but it is probably the best and most effective way of trying to approach it.

Mr. Neil McCann

I thank Dr. Farry. I hear what he says and yet I am not quite at the point where I am capable of understanding the intensity of the resistance likely to be found. In our dialogue over the past year and a half there have been certain occasions when certain people have simply stated the status quo several times and then stayed quiet. The following month they may have stated exactly the same. There has been movement but it has not been dramatic. There have been no conversions on the road to Damascus or on the road to Bangor.

I will ask Ms Diver to say a little more about the process of engagement, the business of participatory democracy, which is growing, and the whole business of assemblies.

Ms Noeleen Diver

I thank everyone for all the contributions and support. On the understanding of civic engagement and the work we are trying to do at that level, I suppose we are drawing on the lessons of Brexit, the journey and process it has been and the varied understandings and expectations, most of which, of course, did not come to pass. Lifting that across to our situation, where we know the seriousness of such misunderstandings and cross-purposes, we are very exercised by the fact we need this conversation, as Mr. McCann keeps saying, sooner rather than later. This is why I referred to the fact that folk need help even to unpack the expectations and aspirations they hold. What in fact do they mean and what is at the core of them? We know there are different methods and tones for such facilitation and, within the community voluntary sector in Northern Ireland, there are a lot of conversations happening that perhaps go under the radar.

I am part of an organisation, Collaboration for Change, that is trying to excavate this kind of activism, in whatever faith, so that we can become visible to each other, learn from each other and then start to support each other. That experience might not be at the political level at all. It could be at the environmental, economic or social justice level, but the experience of that journey of exploration and listening, learning and developing action is utterly relevant, we believe, to the process we are addressing today.

I completely agree with the points that were made that there is a spectrum involved here. There are not any, dare I say, golden or silver bullets, or bullets of any sort. There is a spectrum of possibilities, and indeed why should we not cherry-pick and come up with different possibilities? The experience of that, and I go back to Inez McCormack, the experience of agency unlocks so many things and people start to solve their own local issues for themselves. I refer back to the descriptions made about west Belfast in the past couple of weeks but it is the encouragement of that, it is the facilitation of that and almost that we have the expectation of our citizenry to be able to do that and they are then facilitated to do that.

On the apathetic and the not engaged, that in a sense is not their fault. It is how are we communicating and engaging with them, understanding what is important to them, so we know we have opportunities. Another interesting one at the moment is community wealth building, which has quite taken off in parts of England and in, for example, North Ayrshire in Scotland. On something that is concrete and matters to people and impacts people, the agency is gained to move into these very sensitive and intricate spheres.

I agree it is intricate and incremental. There is a fear that people will run in different directions, but that is the patience, building and experience of it. If we are on a spectrum of options, if there is a possibility that, as with Brexit, we will be in or out, and if there are other possibilities, we might need a deliberative system and a voting system that accommodate that multiplicity. I refer the members to the modified Borda count by the de Borda Institute. Peter Emerson has done a lot of work on that approach. It allows the melding of possibilities to create the best that is possible. Again, it is reconciliation and conciliation. We talk about consensus, not consent, and what can I live with or what can I actually consent to.

I apologise; we must move on. I call Senator Black.

It it refreshing to hear Mr. McCann, Mr. Quinn and Ms Diver. I had some points I wanted to highlight. It is very important to engage with civil society. It would be a great idea for the witnesses to engage with an organisation called Ireland's Future which advocates for and promotes discussion which includes the viability of a new constitutional arrangement on the island. It is guided by the Good Friday Agreement.

The Good Friday Agreement is one of the most powerful agreements, bearing in mind the amount of work that went into it. It is essential we are guided by its values and the protection of human rights, equality, and fostering mutual respect between all views and traditions that share this island. I agree with Mr. McCann. I am concerned that at any point the British Government could call a border poll and absolute chaos would ensue. Planning and preparing is essential for a border poll in case it is called.

Returning to the Good Friday Agreement, I was concerned by something in Mr. McCann's briefing document:

The direction proposed here marks a big step forward from the 1998 Agreements. It is not the only route to a new nation ... [but] its early timing removes the undesirable scenario of negotiation under the shadow of a potentially divisive and possibly narrowly won unity referendum under the overly vague terms of the 1998 agreement.

What does Mr. McCann mean by that? How does he see a border poll being triggered? Is there any benefit to a citizens' assembly. What would that bring?

Mr. Neil McCann

The idea of having a citizens' assembly is included in the proposal, and specifically, to have it right away. It could be on an all-Island basis or at whatever level is considered workable. There could be a citizens' assembly that is based entirely in the South or in the North or they could be linked together. I would favour an all-Island citizens' assembly to address all issues in relation to this and to have an open agenda in respect of our constitutional future. I have attended a number of Ireland's Future events - maybe as many as seven. I know Professor Colin Harvey slightly, and several others who are connected with the group. I have also seen the Senator speak in Newry among other places. That contribution is certainly respected and I am happy to accompany it on those terms.

As to the question of how a Border poll may be triggered, some of the potential problems are very unlikely to emerge. However, if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland happened to be interviewed about something entirely different and was asked by a sharp interviewer whether he had formed any view on the likely success of a Border poll in Ireland - for example, if he was dealing with the topic of Brexit or something to do with Britain - he could be caught on the hop. The background to that might be that the LucidTalk poll next week is likely to show that there is an increase in the number in Northern Ireland who favour unity. If the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland were to be asked about that poll and replied that, indeed, it looked like there was an increase in those in favour of unity, a statement like that could be taken as the Secretary of State forming an opinion on which a Border poll must be held and over which somebody would go to court in Belfast and try to force the issue.

That is one scenario or that could happen, for example, in an unguarded social moment. I see no evidence at the moment that the British would dare try to call a Border poll voluntarily, on the basis that unionism, if one likes, would gain another seven years because it would be locked out for that period of time. I cannot see that, although the level of mistrust and deviancy in political contact in Britain is a bit staggering at times. All sides understand that quite clearly.

We have ten minutes left. We are into Sinn Féin time.

Mr. Neil McCann

All right. Did I answer Senator Black's question?

Yes. I thank Mr. McCann very much. I appreciate that.

We are back to Sinn Féin. We have ten minutes. That will bring us up to the very end.

Ms Michelle Gildernew

I will take the first chop at that. I think John Finucane MP and Deputy Conway-Walsh might want to come in as well. The three witnesses are very welcome. Ms Diver referred in her first contribution to the meeting about citizens' assemblies and how she felt they were very helpful and Mr. McCann reiterated that in his response to Senator Black's question. In 1998 I was involved, along with Mary Nelis, who was an MLA at the time, in discussing the potential of the civic forum in the North initially but with a view to it becoming an all-Ireland civic forum. We supported that level of engagement. We felt it should be a bottom-up approach. Mary used to say at every meeting that it was always the great and the good and she wanted to hear from real people. We want to engage with people who have something to say, who have relevance, but who might not necessarily have a voice. From that point of view, in my experience a citizens' assembly certainly ticks that box. My question was primarily about the civic forum. The witnesses might have covered that enough, but I am happy if they want to elaborate further. I will let John Finucane MP and Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh come in for the last few minutes.

Mr. Finucane should go ahead. We can see him but we cannot hear him.

Mr. John Finucane

I am sorry. I was not too sure whether Mr. McCann was going to respond to the question now. I will be very brief. Like everybody else, I thank the witnesses not just for the content of their presentation today but also for the tone and tenor of it. It is important that the debate is filled with that. I wish to touch on the point Mr. McCann made about the fact that only the British Government has the control and the ability to call a poll. That shows that there is a need for the Irish Government to plan and attached to that need is a sense of urgency. Could Mr. McCann expand a little bit more about the context of the fact that the Irish Government has no ability to call such a poll and that it will effectively be reacting to the British announcement? How does he see the Irish Government responding to that in advance and upping the preparations in advance of what people accept will be an inevitability in terms of the poll being held?

I wish to briefly expand on the proposition in the proposal about the citizens' assembly. That has been well discussed previously. The architecture already exists for a citizens' assembly. We have had very successful citizens' assemblies here. Is there any impediment that would stop the Government calling a citizens' assembly at any time? I think that is the way to have an inclusive discussion on many of the matters raised today and that have been raised in other meetings here.

Mr. Neil McCann

To respond to Deputy Conway-Walsh, I am not aware of any impediment to a citizens' assembly getting under way immediately. I would advocate that happening without delay.

There was a question directed towards Ms Diver but I will get back to Mr. Finucane first on the question of the Irish Government and its role in a Border poll. There is no law arising out of the Belfast Agreement. There are clauses in the agreement that refer to a role for both Governments but there is nothing in law that compels or enables the Irish Government to even be consulted or to allow the Executive or the Assembly in Northern Ireland to be consulted on a Border poll. It might be consulted. If the British are behaving with a degree of courtesy, it will be consulted.

I will be very direct. We are advocating in very clear terms that negotiations with the unionists be invited in advance of preparation for a Border poll and that things be put in that order. Mr. Finucane will probably disagree with my position on that, and fair enough. I respect that but our intervention here, so to speak, is to say that we should get discussions under way immediately. The very best outcome that we can recommend is that a border poll would be undertaken on foot of an agreement made among all the relevant parties. That is what we advocate. Reconciliation is a process that takes a long time. Reconciliation is ongoing. Conciliation is an approach that can take place immediately, and we are for that. Mr. Finucane and I may well differ on that but I hope that if we meet at some stage we will have a gentle pint and a bit of craic also. I respect there may be a difference of opinion on that but we are very clear that we want engagement on it now with everybody.

There was a question on an aspect of the work of the Civic Forum in 1998 that I think was directed towards Ms Diver. It was to elaborate on its effectiveness. I am sorry but I cannot remember if Ms Gildernew introduced that. I do not know if Ms Diver would like to comment on the matter.

We have to finish very shortly. We must vacate the room at 2.30 p.m. exactly so there are three minutes remaining. While Ms Diver is forming her final opinion, I take the opportunity to thank her, Mr. McCann and Mr. Quinn for attending and giving us an insight into their thinking and their proposals. I laud them on the work they are doing and will continue to do. There is a new connectivity now in terms of their group, Members of Parliament, particularly the representatives from the North, and ourselves. Hopefully, as the witnesses said, we can meet in the future. I invite Ms Diver to wrap up the discussion.

Ms Noeleen Diver

I will be very brief because Mr. McCann might want to say the last few words. I referred to the civic forum because I believed it was an attempt at the time to build in genuine civic engagement. The importance of that was seen. It had several problems associated with it, and maybe perceptions. For example, there were questions about whether it was a talking shop and whom it represented. Also questioned were the relationship between it and the elected representatives and its role. People asked what concrete possibilities could emerge from it. Several have referred to the positive experience that the Republic has had of a citizens' assembly so I think there are more possible ways of constructing what we were attempting to achieve under a civic forum. There are better possibilities.

I thank Ms Diver. We must adjourn now. I thank everybody for contributing.

Mr. Neil McCann

I thank everybody for their attention. We appreciated it very much. I look forward to further engagement.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.31 p.m. sine die.