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The Power of Participation

16 Feb 2023
by Suzie Cahn
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It is increasingly recognized that Civil society organizations play a vital role in empowering citizens to engage in their communities, advocate for their rights, and address social and environmental issues. A vast array of third sector organizations, large and small, provide a space for people to come together around an increasingly diverse range of issues. This creates opportunities to discuss and debate challenges and opportunities, and work towards collective solutions. Across the island of Ireland, the community and voluntary and social enterprise sector has been particularly successful in promoting citizen participation and building social capital. 

At the local level, organizations work to address issues that are often not being tackled by the government or other formal institutions. This has been particularly critical in Northern Ireland while the Assembly has not been sitting and was also acknowledged by the Taoiseach last year when speaking about the new Civic Forum in the south. He said, “The community and voluntary sector are at times the first voice to identify emerging challenges, speaking loudly for those who cannot, while at other times working silently, almost unseen.”  

The sector provides support, information, and services to those who need it most, especially marginalized communities such as women, minorities, migrants and other low-income groups. This includes training and support to participate in decision-making processes, such as community meetings and workshops. 

In a globalized world, it is increasingly necessary to work across national borders. With the growth of technology and communication, people are no longer limited by geographical borders. As many have become aware during the pandemic, the digital age has aided collaboration between organizations. It has helped support an all-island approach in Ireland, where people from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland work together to address common problems and promote their rights and interests. At the same time, the issue of digital inclusion has been championed by the sector to ensure such opportunities are for everyone.  

The significant experience of the sector in providing spaces for citizens to come together, share their experiences and perspectives, and work towards common goals means that it can contribute to influencing and monitoring the implementation of policies and advocating for reform. Governments have increasingly recognized the crucial role that civil society organizations play in empowering citizens and addressing social and environmental issues.  

The Civic Forum seeks to involve civil society organizations in the Republic of Ireland to play a crucial role in promoting participation and holding the government and other institutions accountable. This is a direct result of their experience in providing spaces for people to voice their concerns and participate in decision-making processes. There are other kinds of forums at a local, regional or government level that can also bring together experts, policymakers and citizens to exchange ideas and opinions, working together to find solutions to common problems. 

The Irish government has taken positive steps, such as the publication of principles of engagement with the sector.  Minister O’Brien said about the Civic Forum last November that “I am always quick to point to the value and contribution of the sector, but it is essential to have processes such as this to ensure we are working with the sector, hearing the feedback, looking at what is and isn’t working and making sure we continue moving together in the right direction.” 

Learning from others as to how to build inclusive and resilient societies is critical. The creation of funds such as the new Civil Society Fund to support C&V sector organizations to come together across jurisdictions on the island of Ireland provides an opportunity to connect and empower the sector further.  

In this time, of what some are calling ‘poly-crisis,’ of both social and environmental issues, the empowerment of civil society is critical to building platforms for citizens to come together, discuss and advocate for their rights and interests. Through civic forums and projects that promote citizen participation, the sector can build social capital, and hold governments and other institutions accountable. By working together across borders and jurisdictions, we can build a stronger, more connected sector across the island of Ireland. 

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