A civic conversation on the subject of ‘leadership we need in Northern Ireland’.

Democracy: “The Miracle Is: The More We Share, The More We Have.” Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015)

Last June, a dozen or so people gathered at lunchtime in a room in Belfast to engage in a civic conversation on the subject of ‘leadership we need in Northern Ireland’. In the course of the conversation, one of those present urged that we stop talking about a ‘shared future’ and start talking about a ‘shared now’. This suggestion prompts me to have two sets of thoughts.

First, future sharing is not what we need to hope for. We already share this place and this society, in the here and now. And we share in the wider world that we inhabit along with many and diverse fellow humans, and with myriads of other creatures living on planet earth. It’s the how of our sharing that is in question. And so, for example, we could ask ourselves about the extent to which the manner of our sharing now exhibits friendliness, fidelity and fairness? Is the future we’re looking for a ‘well-shared future’?

Second, there are thoughts about what sort of world, present and future, we wish to inhabit and share. Nowadays, in this northern Irish place, the language of ‘shared-ness’ drips off political tongues with apparent ease. Shared history, shared society, shared education and, in the term coined years ago by one of the five NI Executive parties, ‘shared future’. The emphasis is on the sharing, and there seems to be little thought given to the qualities of the ‘shared future’ to which we should aspire.

So, what are the qualities that a better, well-shared future should have? I want to suggest five key features of such a future:

Compassion – Our society should be one where people behave with kindness, where generosity, altruism and empathetic awareness of others are pervasive, and where our caring encompasses the planet and all that ‘dwell upon it’.

Commonality – There needs to be commitment in our society to the common good – the ‘common weal’ as some would say it – rooted in our common humanity and the natural and cultural commons in which we share.

Creativity – Our society should value and cultivate the creativity that is innate in everyone, enabling its members to be caringly ‘creative citizens’ in whatever aspect of their lives, directing their creative efforts towards the common good.

Coherence – Our society needs to be characterized by solidarity, its citizens bound together by a sense of common purpose, at ease with diversity and difference, and sticking together in mutually supportive ways.

Conversation – As well as enjoying great craic, people living in this place need to be engaging, in diverse ways and contexts, in courteous, creative and challenging ‘civic conversation’.

These five features of a desirable sort of future – and the sort of present we need to be shaping day by day – are offered as a provocation, not a prescription. Others make take issue with these suggestions, or may have additional or alternative proposals. In any case, surely there is a civic conversation to be had!

And what is the relevance of the five suggested features of a well-shared future to our politics and the concerns of the Imagine! Festival? The Festival is a fresh way of engaging citizens with politics, encouraging us to have and share ideas about how the politics of this place can be better.

As one of those citizens in this northern Irish place, it seems to me that we need a politics of creativity, of compassion, and of ‘commonweal’, a politics that fosters coherence and is deeply conversational in nature. And so, I propose that qualities such as these be used as criteria by which to judge the worth of political policies and prescriptions in the party manifestos that appear as each election looms. And the five features could be used to appraise the performance of those who are elected to govern and to shape our shared present.

Denis Stewart

We’ll be in touch.