Ireland: the A, B, C and X of civil society activism

Open submission by Avila Kilmurray

Moral imagination, argued John Paul Lederach, is the ‘art and soul’ of peacebuilding. The same applies to reimagining democracy in a time when the nature and standards of governance are under severe stress. The ‘will of the people’, as filtered through the lens of fake news and shibboleths of fear, stands in opposition to the democratic ‘will’ reflected in the last two Irish referenda - those on Marriage Equality and women’s right to choose. In April 2018, a number of civil society activists, from across the island of Ireland, took time to reflect on the learning from a range of recent campaigns in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. This brief account of their insights suggests that inclusive democracy needs vision, analysis, strategies and tactics to turn hope into reality.

The gathering, held in Dublin, was supported by The Social Change Initiative (SCI) an international civil society organisation based in Belfast. SCI supports civil society activism and advocacy on issues of human rights, equality, peacebuilding and refugees’ and migrants’ rights. To this end, it organises reflective convenings and mentoring programmes, manages philanthropic funding and identifies practical lessons from civil society activism. The potpourri of activists present at this gathering brought expertise from work on civil liberties, human rights, the women’s movement, work on refugees’ and migrants’ rights and social/economic campaigns, which stretched the understanding of democratic participation and active citizenship across the island of Ireland. The learning underlined the importance of intersectionality - but in terms of alliance-building to deliver broad-based support rather than in narrow politically correct terms.

A – Alliances are essential for campaigning success

“You can campaign to feel good about yourself, or you can campaign to win,” explained a veteran of the Marriage Equality Referendum that delivered the right of marriage for members of the LGBTQ community. Forget the preciousness of narrow purism and build alliances to win. Breadth and diversity in alliances for change deliver campaigns that can work across the standard political spectrum, pooling limited human and financial resources, while opening space to attract ‘unusual allies’. Alliance-building needs time and attention to build trust, to recognise and navigate often brittle individual and organisational egos. It requires the subtlety to identify which stakeholders can play an ‘inside’ game (by liaising with decision-makers) and which are more effective as the irritant ‘outsiders’. The key is to weave a strategy where these two approaches are complementary and reinforcing within an overall agreed campaign goal.

Effective alliance-building allows for diversity of positioning and nuanced messaging. The Marriage Equality campaign drew on trade unionists, faith-based groups and grandmothers, together with LGBTQ advocates. Even where a campaign is of limited success, as in the case of the Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland (which was provided for under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998, but remains unimplemented due to political opposition), awareness-raising and debate proves to be an important aspect of alliance-building. Notwithstanding Unionist party political opposition, many working-class Loyalist communities acknowledged the importance of social and economic rights as an essential aspect of any future Bill. In any campaign, the courtship of ‘unusual allies’ requires that attention be payed to how the overall campaign issue is framed, who the campaign messengers are and, given different stakeholder interests, how difference can be managed without terminal fragmentation of either message or issue. As one experienced campaigner argues, “It is about both/and rather than either/or.”

B – Battles only take you so far

Individual battles are important in campaigning but can only take activism so far. What is really important is the overall objective. Reimagining democracy demands long-term commitment but also requires the celebration of short-term victories (or reflection on setbacks). The North Star of an aspirational end goal fuels optimism, as evidenced by campaigners for Marriage Equality and repeal of the constitutional ban on abortion in the Irish Republic. However, policy positions need the magic of moral imagination and a touch of the human story to generate empathy and understanding that can translate into popular support.

Given the long-term nature of many campaigns, it is useful to develop ‘campaign milestones’, to chart incremental steps towards success, or barriers. Running headlong from one battle to the next, without the necessary reflection, simply results in burn-out and a lack of awareness of the often-shifting landscape. Super-charged activism, minus analysis, can fail to see the opportunities that can emerge from crises. Certainly, individual battles are important - indeed, they can be the stuff of effective strategic litigation - but they need to contribute to an objective.

C – Content and Communications

Communication is an essential tactic in any effective campaign for progressive social change. This entails clarity about the political, social, economic and cultural context. It is also important to research and map positive, negative and undecided stakeholders. What are the carrots and sticks to influence what audiences? Where does opposition lie? What are the anxieties of ‘the undecided’ and how can these be addressed (through sympathetic intermediaries) rather than written off? Is the campaign message clear and does it speak to people’s hearts as well as to their heads? The recent successful Irish referendum on the divisive abortion issue resounded to messages of compassion, health and equality. The Marriage Equality campaign spoke about love. Change needs a human face in order to reach beyond stridency, the marginal or abstractions. It is about Seamus and Mary, Billy and Mohammed - and how they are one of us rather than ‘the other’. Activists spoke about how deplorable housing conditions in North Belfast mobilised people to campaign around housing issues from a starting point of taking action against the smell of blocked sewers and pigeon droppings in the play area. Keeping the message true to people’s experiences is important, rather than getting lost in abstract theories or patronising people with ‘capacity-building’ and ‘empowerment’. The heartfelt message of a young Irish Traveller child when asked how he would like to feel ‘included and respected’ is a case in point. He replied, “I would be able to go to chapel and talk to God and not have people looking at me in case I’m there to steal their money.”

Strategic communication is most effective when it takes account of the hopes, fears and anxieties of the people in the middle - those unconvinced about arguments either for or against the campaign objectives. Democracy is about people and choice. Support must be requested rather than demanded or assumed. The ‘undecided’ must be reassured through clarity about the implications of the campaign goals. The messenger is equally important: people listen to voices that they trust.

The X Factor – Where activism meets democracy

The X factor is politics plus. Effective civil society advocacy understands how campaigning interfaces with a broadening view of democracy in practice. The importance of being able to shift along the continuum between formal politics and civil society activism is essential for progressive change. Whether organising on housing, the environment, civil liberties or the myriad of other pressing concerns, social change is invariably politics with a small ‘p’ (participative democracy), which impinges on politics with a capital ‘P’ (representative democracy). The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, established by women’s movement activists, raised its issues of women’s representation by getting elected to the peace talks, making a contribution to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and then returning to civic activism after a decade in elected politics: an example of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’ depending on context and opportunity. Reimagining democracy requires a flexibility of strategy where the menu of tactics includes lobbying politicians, direct action, strategic litigation, grassroots mobilisation, digital campaigning, applying pressure through the use of international standards and organising electoral campaigns where necessary. Strategy and tactics must never become hidebound, particularly where once-emancipatory structures become co-opted by the opposition. Moral imagination needs to be underpinned by a fleetness of response that addresses the realities of structured power. Effective counter-strategies require an analysis of the contradictions of current power positions (and the increasing reactionary narrative) but can be usefully reinforced by an imaginative and inclusionary use of language, symbolism and deeply-held values.

The collective reflection on civil society activism in Ireland over recent years offers hope, but not complacency. Despite conflict transformation in Northern Ireland, the lack of a Bill of Rights highlights the danger of a hollowing out of progress if activist attention is distracted from the political implementation of change. Ensuring that progressive social change is sustainable remains a challenge. An essential aspect of any such sustainability is the creation of space for new forms of inclusive and imaginative activism. Democracy has long been about active citizenship. The value base of such activism has never been more important in the face of the regressive stereotyping and scapegoating of ‘the other’. Strategic reflection helps us to reimagine a democracy that is inclusive and rooted in acceptance of solidarity and social justice rather than fear of difference.