Sir, – Emma DeSouza has called for a national dialogue before a border poll on unity (“National dialogue needed for any chance of unity”, Opinion & Analysis, February 1st).
I suggest an alternative: two parallel civic dialogues in the Republic and the North to discuss the big political, economic, cultural and environmental issues facing the island. That is the only way a significant number of unionists will be persuaded to participate.
There is a successful model to follow. In 1992-1993 a group of civil society activists in the North organised the Opsahl Commission, a “citizens’ inquiry” into ways forward for Northern Ireland, which was named after the eminent Norwegian human rights lawyer, Torkel Opsahl, who chaired it. This gathered 554 written submissions, representing the work of around 3,000 people, and held 19 public hearings all over the North. Its report, A Citizens’ Inquiry, was a best-seller and was recognised as one of the early seeds which led to the Northern peace process and the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
The advantage of having such an initiative run by a civil society group, with no involvement from governments or political parties (although senior representatives of all the Northern parties except the DUP made submissions to the commission), was that it was seen as both completely independent and even-handed. If civil society groups north and south cannot rise to this new challenge, I suggest it might be taken on by universities in the two jurisdictions.
I believe there are charitable foundations and philanthropists in Ireland, Britain and the US who would be happy to fund such an exercise, as they did with the Opsahl Commission. – Yours, etc,