YMIP Report Launch and Graduation

Yesterday, November 20th, participants from Youth Media and the Irish Presidency got together to finish out the project and see the report launched. Three YMIP-ers spoke at the event. Below is the speech I gave regarding young people and the need to invest more in them when they clearly have so much to give.

The full report will doubtless be available from European Movement Ireland. Major thanks also go to John Buckley at SpunOut.ie.


“Near the end of the street where I grew up in Cork, there is a pedestrian footbridge. The footbridge and the street it leads onto are poorly lit and poorly maintained. It features too much graffiti and illegal waste- and it plays host to gangs of teenagers and gangs of adults drinking. My mother has always favoured avoiding the bridge. It’s the sort of place that lends itself easily to accidents and easier still to menace. I have always known that.

A few weeks ago, I went back to Cork for a weekend to vote and to visit. I had an argument with myself over whether to take the short trip across the bridge to go home, or to take the long way around. It was past 10pm, I was carrying two bags, my phone was dead and I was tired. The shortcut won, and I walked onto the bridge.

What happened next will stay with me for the rest of my life; I will never, ever forget it.

It was pitch dark and he didn’t see me, but I saw him. He walked toward me, stopped and turned. I saw him pull himself up onto the railings of the bridge and I think my heart stopped. Realisation dawned pretty fast. He took a big breath and leaned forward.

I have no idea what I roared at him, but he wasn’t expecting me and I interrupted him. He reached out and grabbed the suspension wire, which was the only thing that stopped his fall onto a busy, national primary road, fifty feet below.

He was sixteen, drunk and miles from home, attempting to take his own life not two minutes from the house where I grew up.

After I got him down, once he finished crying and stopped shaking, when we were finished talking and when I knew he was going right to the front door of his mother’s house with a friend, I went home and found a charger and rang the local Garda station, which is a two minute walk, at most, from that bridge.

The Garda in the public office told me that it was really ‘a Monday morning type of issue’ because the pubs and clubs were about to start major business hours. He said I had already dealt with it, so there was no point in him taking it further. He told me to write a letter about it on Monday.

Suicide just isn’t a Monday morning issue. I wrote the letter on Monday morning- but I also wrote a piece for TheJournal and for the Evening Echo in Cork. Days later, I got a call from the Superintendent who wanted me to come in and talk to him.

When I went in, he said he felt I was unfair in my article. Last year, I might have apologised and agreed with him- but the six months of YMIP taught me to ask questions and I learned not to stop just because someone disagreed with me. Having someone disagree with you doesn’t make you wrong.

Almost 500 people died by suicide in 2010, most were young males and Cork is a county with a high rate. We have too many stories about young men taking their own lives without adding another to it. It is so easy to presume that this boy would have stopped at the last second, that he wouldn’t have jumped- but it is that exact presumption that costs us more lives each year.

Suicide doesn’t wait for convenient times or convenient people. It is not a Monday morning issue; it’s a now issue.

The Superintendent and I agreed to disagree, but he must have heard me because last week, I got a call from another Garda station in Cork. They talked to the boy I met on the bridge. He’s gay, bullied, depressed and an alcoholic. His father died last year and he just can’t cope. I want him to see the good parts of life. I want him to know that there’ll always be someone fighting in his corner. Young people shouldn’t be dealt hands like that, but they are.

YMIP gave 25 young people a chance to grab the bull by the horns and be in charge.  Members of this group still use the Facebook group we set up as a support back at the start of this project. It’s a small thing, but it counts. That boy didn’t have anything to reach out for; he didn’t have this chance.

YMIP was a fantastic exception to an otherwise seemingly unbreakable rule. It was created by an organisation that elected to invest in young people when so few others do.

I think we owe that boy a minute of thought. Nobody was fighting in his corner when I met him but without YMIP, I don’t think I’d have written what I did or stuck to my guns on it afterwards.

I wanted to say this because I realise that YMIP was fighting in our corner and we were lucky. I wanted to acknowledge that, and to say thanks.”

Institutionalising Love, Not Hatred

On Monday June 17th, in conjunction with the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, BeLonGTo Youth Services hosted a Youth and Social Inclusion Conference at Croke Park.  The event came in the wake of findings published by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), which surveyed 93,000 LGBT people from across the European Union between April and July 2012.

The FRA report found that 47% of respondents had been discriminated against or harassed in the previous 12 months, and that 91% of respondents had heard or seen negative conduct against a schoolmate who was seen to be LGBT while they were in school.  Two thirds of respondents, more than half from in every member state, reported that they avoided holding hands with a same-sex partner in public for fear of being assaulted.

The Croke Park Conference was supported by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, with Minister Frances Fitzgerald speaking at the beginning of the day.  The Minister was “glad that social inclusion has been identified as a core part of the trio of Presidencies of the Council of the EU” and established her belief that as far as LGBT involvement goes, Ireland has “an unfinished democracy”.

Dr Geoffrey Shannon, Special Rapporteur for Child Protection, spoke during the keynote panel and pointed out the stark truth that homophobic and transphobic bullying must be considered “a profound child protection issue”.  Phil Prendergast MEP, reflecting on the historic setting for the conference, spoke about the LGBT community and sport, describing a “glass ceiling of homophobia” that exists right across Ireland, on every playing field.

The next Presidency of the Council of the European Union will be held by Lithuania, a state that came under heavy fire throughout the conference.  Lithuania has the highest level of youth suicide in the EU and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) reports that 88% of teachers in Lithuania agree that ‘family’ is based solely on marriage between a man and a woman.

The international perspective of the conference was possibly the key to its success, with panels that provided different insights from around the EU as well as the United States, Turkey and Ireland.  Each panellist brought a different perspective, whether legal, youth work, transgender, activist or human rights, which provided a dearth of understanding to those attending.

The panels were backed up by a workshop section in the early afternoon, and the Conference closed with collaboration on the forthcoming Dublin Statement on LGBT Youth and Social Inclusion.  It is hoped that this statement once released will be recognised as a sustainable but pivotal legacy of the Irish Presidency in 2013.

Sharpening a Blunt Instrument: Future Defence Policy of the European Union

A Defence Seminar was held in Dublin Castle on May 17th, 2013, the second to be organised as part of Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The seminar allowed EU Member States the opportunity to consider defence collaboration, capability and adequacy in the midst of the current economic crisis. Member States also decided the agenda for the dedicated European Council discussion on security and defence at the December 2013 summit.

Discussions at the seminar centred on the administrative aspect of defence policy in the EU.

The Lisbon Treaty allows for a common Union defence to be initiated with the unanimous support of the EU member states. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy has stated that defence is not the daily business of European leaders, but that they do care about security and soldiers, jobs and budgets. Indeed, during this seminar, it became clear that the European Union is concerned for the background of defence, but not necessarily the actual combat nature of defence as the average EU citizen might see it.

In 2011, departing United States Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, criticised European defence policy, condemning defence cuts and stating that the US was tired of engaging in combat missions for those who refused to share the risks and costs.

European defence has undergone significant cuts in recent years, and while the debate about a common European Union army rages on, the seminar highlighted the fact that although the Union is entirely unprepared for the reality of a defence issue, the economic situation does not allow for the creation of a common force. Defence is being cut, not propped up.

Rini Goos, the Deputy Chief Executive of the European Defence Agency, spoke about the need for transparency and a collaborative approach to defence planning. Amidst multiple funding cuts, collaboration and cooperation between member states may be both the best and the only way to fulfil the capacity gaps highlighted by Secretary Gates two years ago.

Much conversation revolved around the requirement that defence technology be upgraded to the cutting edge, turning technological research into tangible innovation. One core idea emerging from this debate was the need to develop cooperative efforts between civilian and military units, and further to open the defence market to small and medium enterprises.

Overall, the seminar highlighted the need for efficiency, with debates focussing on the need to increase capacity and innovation, while including civilian enterprises in the industrial market, keeping businesses afloat, generating needed revenue and research, and tackling the core, and extremely significant, problems with the defence capacity of the European Union.

The seminar brought to the fore many ideas for sustainability, innovation and development, and recognised the effect of widespread budget cuts on both the current and future structure of defence for an entire continent. Currently, states decide defence policy and cooperation is far from perfect. Drops in funding in most EU states facing at least some austerity in the face of a global recession has led to an increasing need to make sure that defence capability is delivered- and that redundancies are addressed.

Far from specific but full of good ideas, the seminar provided a strong preliminary opportunity to understand the current state of defence policy- and to establish the ways to fix what is a damaged instrument.

Why can’t I be guaranteed that my clothes haven’t contributed to someone’s death?

Note: This article was originally published on TheJournal.ie

Standardised textile labelling is vital to keep vulnerable workers safe in developing countries like Bangladesh, writes Aisling Twomey.

THE RANA PLAZA factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed suddenly on 24 April, 2013. With estimates still rising, more than 700 are counted among the dead, more than 1000 among the injured. Others remain buried, missing beneath the rubble. The search has turned from hopeful to devastating; now, the searchers are seeking remains.

The Rana Plaza collapse is thought to be Bangladesh’s worst ever industrial accident, but it is by no means the first. In November 2012, Dhaka suffered a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory, in which 117 died. It was the deadliest fire in the nation’s history. The Tazreen Fashion factory, part of the Tuba group, produced clothing for Walmart and the United States Marine Corps, among others.

At the Rana Plaza, clothes were manufactured for Primark, Monsoon, Bonmarché, Matalan and at one point, the Benetton Group. On 23 April, inspectors discovered cracks in the building and requested its closure. According to the New York Times, the shops and the lower floor bank closed but the garment workers returned to work the following day.

The Ethical Trading Initiative

Monsoon, a founding member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, is recognised as a leader in the ETI’s assessment criteria. The ETI’s slogan is “respect for workers worldwide.” Yet the factory workers reported that they were forced back to work on threat of wage withholding. Calling Monsoon an ethical trading leader clearly presents a misconception; the average garment worker in Bangladesh earns $37 a month, 60 per cent of the estimated cost of living in the local slums.

$37 is roughly equivalent to €29 – an easy amount spent in Penneys of a Saturday afternoon. Fashion is so cheap, until you realise that the cost in reality is sky high and rising every day, whether we see it or not.

Merriam Webster defines a sweatshop as “a shop or factory in which employees work for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions.” Rana Plaza fulfilled both, and nobody seems to have cared. The workers weren’t unionised, and their workplace fell from under them like a house of cards.

Why has Ireland not raised the issue?

You’d have thought that, at some point in the run of Ireland’s tenure holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, a topic like this would come up for discussion. But it hasn’t, because combating sweatshops has never been a priority for the EU. Not only does the European Union not ban trade with factories demonstrating unethical practices, the tagging procedures required for clothing under EU law fall short of what transparency should dictate is necessary.

EU Regulation 1007/2011 outlines the reason for legislation on textile labelling: “If the provisions of the Member States with regard to names, composition and labelling of textile products were to vary from one Member State to another, this would create hindrances to the proper functioning of the internal market.”

Therein lies the difficulty. The European Union functions around the single internal market and regulates only within that zone; how that internal market operates with those less fortunate in other states seems to be less of an issue. This is possibly proved by the fact that country of origin labelling, while a topic of discussion since 2005, has never been implemented at EU level.

Consumers simply don’t have enough information

A 2011 report highlights the few benefits of country of origin labelling, stating that consumers would have better information but little else, because the label would have no impact on health and safety of consumers. Further, it stated, implementing the labelling would potentially lead to increased costs. The European Union often lauds human rights and citizenship, but in this case neglects to deal with a significant problem in the emergence of a globalised world.

The average consumer simply doesn’t have enough information to hand to aid them in making a judgement call. A standardisation system is required to keep fashion trading and the people who make it safe. As a consumer, I know that I am implicated in a supply chain that reeks of badness, but I feel that there is functionally nothing I can do about it, because so many suppliers suffer these conditions for just about every major high street chain.

An Abercrombie hoodie I own bears the tag “Fabricado Nas Flipinas.” The conditions faced by Abercrombie and Fitch factory workers in The Philippines earned A&F a name on the 2010 International Labor Rights Forum ‘Sweatshop Hall of Fame.’ Brands such as Sloggi, Triumph, Spalding, Hollister, Ralph Lauren, Urban Outfitters, IKEA, Mothercare, Converse, Marks and Spencer – every one of them have been caught red handed; baby clothes and homewares are as implicated as fashion retail.

Until we stand up and take action, nothing will be done to stop sweatshops. When we wear clothes that say “Made in Bangladesh”, that doesn’t tell us whether conditions there are fair or equitable. And in my heart I suspect that they obviously were not.

Country of origin labels should be mandatory

In the end-credits of many blockbuster movies, a line proclaims that no animals were hurt in the making of the film. If we can assure that oversight for animals, why can’t my jumper guarantee on a tag that it was made in a safe and fair working environment. Why can’t I be guaranteed that my clothes haven’t contributed to someone’s death?

The dream would be a legal system of tagging. Each company should have to label clothing to state its country of origin. The factory name should be listed, and the EU should keep track of factories and how they operate. There are plenty of NGOs that already strive to do this work. When a company gets caught investing in sweatshops, a new tag should appear on their garments: Made in a Sweatshop. Punitive, deterrent measures are the only way to stop the festering carbuncle of sweatshop labour.

But – people will yell at me – it turns a profit. It keeps people working. Low paid labour is part of the developing world and that’s not necessarily a bad thing… But hang on; I don’t expect people to get Ireland’s minimum wage in the middle of Bangladesh. I understand basic economics. I want people to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. I want people to go to work and come home safely. I don’t want anyone buried under rubble for clothes I buy.

The chances are fair that you’re walking around wearing clothes that were made in Rana Plaza. And the person who made those clothes might well be dead because the floor collapsed from under her when she was trying to earn €29 a month.

It’s a House of Cards – but the floor isn’t going to fall from beneath you and I at all.

Aisling Twomey works in political communications and has a Masters in Criminal Justice from University College Cork. Her journalism work is available at aislingtwomey.me.

Treading Water: Comprehending the efforts to secure maritime policy for the European Union

Maritime policy is far removed from the lives of most EU citizens.  It is difficult to comprehend just how many policy decisions are required to regulate Europe’s oceans.

On April 8th and 9th, as part of Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, a Maritime Seminar took place in Dublin Castle to discuss the future of ocean security and surveillance.

Doused in jargon and policy-laden, the conference brought to light the vast amount of work needed to ensure the best regulation of the EU’s various seas.  We are all familiar with the Celtic Sea thanks to Ireland’s long coastline, but the Baltic Sea, North Sea, Mediterranean and Black Seas, as well as the Arctic Ocean and the Bay of Biscay all fall within the remit of EU maritime policies.  As do bodies of water in the middle of the Indian Ocean because of small European islands in the area.

It is currently estimated that over two thirds of EU borders are coastline; without a doubt, Europe is inextricably linked to the sea.

As if the geographic scope wasn’t enough, adding further confusion to the issue is the fact that the various bodies of water are used for different things, by different countries, at different times.  Maritime policy is not limited to fishing and conservation, but also deals with research, sustainable energy, shipping regulations, port business, and security.

The seminar in Dublin, entitled “Challenges and Opportunities in Maritime Security and Surveillance for Effective Governance and Innovation in the EU’s Maritime Domain”, focused on the need to regulate actions on the seas so as to ensure safety, without stifling innovation.

Irish Minister for Justice Alan Shatter TD stated that “We need to focus on how we can improve cooperation between all the various actors, whether that be naval forces, coastguards, customs, police or other Member State security actors engaged in delivering maritime security, safety and surveillance within the Union.”  Juggling the need for security with the livelihoods of millions of citizens dependent on the sea further complicated the discussions.

A topic of discussion throughout the seminar was the need for international cooperation.  It has been recognised that national naval forces can play a key role in preventing and responding to illicit activities on the high seas.

It was in this light that the European Maritime Surveillance (MARUSR) programme was discussed. MARSUR has been in development since 2006, and is intended to facilitate the sharing of data and information throughout Europe’s navies, integrating valuable data for the safety of the seventeen member states (plus Norway) currently involved.  MARSUR is intended to be fully operational by 2014, and was without doubt one of the high points of discussion for the uninitiated.

Mr Klaus Roesler, Director of Operations at Frontex, the EU border protection agency, outlined the core security challenges for EU seas, including the trafficking of drugs and people, illegal migration and organised crime.  Frontex itself has come under fire in recent years from Human Rights Watch for their alleged role in the mistreatment of immigrants in Greece, adding to the challenges of ensuring maritime security across the EU.[1]

 Minister Shatter noted the numerous threats on the high seas, such as piracy, terrorism, trafficking and uncontrolled migration, and reiterated the need for cooperation, which is without a doubt necessary for projects of this scope.

The seminar as a whole provided a significant insight into the depth of Europe’s oceans and the wide range of policies required to keep the water safe, and to keep Europeans safe when they take to it.

Redrawing the Margins

On April 2nd, famed political commentator and academic Noam Chomsky spoke to a crowd of over one thousand in UCD’s O’Reilly Hall. Organiser Conor Ryan felt there was a large significance to the event: “This may well be the last time Chomsky visits Ireland, marking it as one of the most engaging and I believe important talks if not of the last few years, then certainly of this year.” One of the most cited authors in the world, Chomsky didn’t disappoint. He posed the question “What is the world going to look like in 100 years?” and outlined his chilling belief that if historians still exist at that time, they will look back and see a society marching to its doom.

Chomsky’s trademark humour and wit filled the hall with electricity, but his points were profound and heartfelt. One person in attendance asked for ideas on how to fix things in order that we might avoid this impending doom. With a chuckle, Chomsky stated that having spoken to thousands of people in thousands of places, the difference between poor and privilege is easily recognisable to him. The privileged, he said, ask what can be done, while the poor outline what they are already doing.

The hall tittered with laughter, but the point resonated. For the man of privilege who asked that question, it must have been somewhat embarrassing to face the truth of what we had just heard. As the privileged few, we often take an interest in social justice, women’s rights and the welfare of the disadvantaged. The poor, the desperate, the disadvantaged – they valiantly strive to take care of themselves.

It has just emerged that the unemployment figure for those under 25 in Ireland now stands at 30.8%, an increase of 0.4% since January. 23.5% of young people across the 27 EU member states are out of work. In England, people are surviving on welfare payments of £53 a week, or £7.50 a day. The strain is showing now more than ever.

This week in the Sunday Times, A A Gill outlined the struggle of refugees from Syria, thousands destined for camps full of violence and oppression, running from a war they didn’t make and can’t avoid. 330,000 people claimed asylum in the European Union in 2012; just 458 of those came to Ireland, where they are currently a topic of conversation in newspapers nationwide. They are a topic of conversation, not because they have fled strife and abandoned everything they own, but because of the way we treat them when they get here; a scandal that goes unaddressed every time it is questioned.

Asylum seekers represent just about 0.1% of the population in Ireland. They come from many places with many stories and make a claim for protection, sanctuary, safety. We force them into the Direct Provision system, which costs the state €69 million a year. Asylum seekers are housed in almost forty centres nationwide, and given a paltry €19.10 per adult per week to survive on. The Irish state does not allow them to work; nor do we expedite their applications for protection. Most asylum seekers wait five years or more to hear a decision in their case.

It is extremely difficult to get work in Ireland. But these people should have the chance to find some, and the rest of us should wish them luck in their endeavours. The fact is that many of us leave Ireland to seek opportunity elsewhere; it’s not the same as asylum, but we expect respect and care in the states we journey to. Why are we so hypocritical that we cannot extend the once famed Irish hospitality to those who may need a great deal of help?

The Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union has given Ireland a core role in developing asylum policy across the EU in 2013. On March 27th, member states approved proposals for the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). They agreed that reception conditions for asylum seekers must be better and that unaccompanied minors must be provided for. The representatives also worked to recast EURODAC, a European database which allows law enforcement officers to access fingerprints of asylum seekers to prevent, detect or investigate crime.

EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström noted that CEAS has been her top priority, and that completing its adoption would be ‘historic’. She noted that such a system has been debated at European level since 1999. Despite words used in press releases about fairness, better quality and faster decisions, the reality is somewhat different.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter TD made a comment to the Irish Times last week regarding asylum seekers and the right to work. He said that to extend the right to work to asylum seekers would have a negative impact on asylum claims because they would rise so quickly, like they did in 1999. His point about economic migration may hold true for some applicants, but the Minister neglected to mention the upsurge in asylum applications internationally following the Kosovo War in 1999.

I needn’t remind the Minister that many Irish people have fled the state to find work elsewhere; in Ireland jobs are like gold dust – rare and coveted, almost mythical in nature. Asylum seekers aren’t mining for gold; they are mining for the chance to survive.

There is an attitude in Ireland that immigrants are scammers and fraudsters. We have plenty of our own scammers, but we give them bonuses and let them walk free. Noam Chomsky was right; the disadvantaged make their own efforts, while the rest of us stand by and ask poignant questions. No matter how good our intentions, it is abundantly clear that words alone mean nothing; we need to get up, redraw the margins and get to work.

Nothing About Them, Without Them

The seventh EU Youth Conference and Meeting of Directors General for Youth took place in Dublin from March 11th to March 13th.  Attended by delegates from the EU’s twenty-seven member states, as well as the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, TD, and European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism, Sport, Media and Youth, Andoulla Vassiliou, the event took place in the historic surroundings of Royal Hospital Kilmainham.

As Minister Fitzgerald noted, when the hospital was built, young people were “seen and not heard”, a concept thwarted by the spirit of the Youth Conference, which aims to engage youth opinion through structured dialogue, to develop policies and instill a real focus on the youth of Europe in all areas of policy.

At the opening of the event on March 11th, the National Association of Youth Drama acted out a theatrical presentation, highlighting core concerns for young people.  Tackling the subject of unemployment and the transition from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, they asked ‘What’s Next?’ for the 5.7 million unemployed young people in Europe at the moment.  Further, with their slogan ‘Label Jars, Not People’, they demanded that communities target issues surrounding inequality.

Minister Fitzgerald further outlined the need to protect young people across Europe facing severe challenges as a result of the global economic crisis.  She noted, somewhat sadly, the irony that the adaptability of Europe’s young people is widely recognised as necessary to stimulate a renewal both economically and socially.

Amy McArdle, Amy Robinson and Anthony Burrowes made presentations about the Young Voices initiative run by the National Youth Council of Ireland, which saw 239 young people attend consultation events in Dublin, Sligo and Cork, 73% of whom were under 18.

The consultations tackled issues such as what it means to young people to be included and what situations lead to them feeling excluded.  With the current rate of youth unemployment at 23.6% in Europe, financing, employment and the future emerged as evident concerns from the consultations.

In her speech, Commissioner Vassiliou asserted that youth unemployment is “our biggest challenge.” She stated that the Irish Presidency has placed the youth high on the agenda, and recognised the potential for youth workers, as socio-educational instructors, to harness young peoples’ skills.  By virtue of their proximity to young people, she felt that youth workers in particular can contribute to the success of the Youth Guarantee.

When the speeches ended, the young people assembled into workshop groups to continue the lengthy but disciplined and well-managed consultative process.  The hope must be that it will, in the future, contribute to the betterment not just of Europe, but of services, facilities and hopes for young people on an international level.

Having participated in the Young Voices consultation in Cork, I can attest to the effort and consideration put into the structured dialogue process here in Ireland and the results yielded in the space of a few hours – tangible results that can be used to further youth goals for the future.  It will be interesting to see what this, the seventh EU Youth Conference, will contribute to the EU in 2020.

You can now read and download the conclusions of the EU Youth Conference http://www.dcya.gov.ie/documents/publications/JointConclusions.pdf

Verbatim #4

Verbatim #4 covered the seventh European Union Youth Conference, hosted in Dublin between March 11th and 13th, 2013


#Verbatim is a soundbite-based project devised by two of our YMIP journalists, Marie Dromey and Aisling Twomey, which presents multiple viewpoints of events through memorable quotes, word for word.  In its fourth installment, #Verbatim reports from the EU Youth Conference, which was held in Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin, between Monday 11 March and Wednesday 13 March.

Do Citizens’ Dialogues Actually Work?

 On January 10th 2013, in the opening weeks of Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, a Citizens’ Dialogue was held in Dublin, inviting members of the public to question political figures about issues close to their hearts. Just a month later, on February 15th, a similar event was held in Cork with the same goal in mind.

The Citizens’ Dialogues are not a purely Irish phenomenon. The EU Citizens’ Agenda was published in 2012 and outlined the point of these Dialogues: they are part of a broad debate on the future of Europe. Open forums for 200-500 people, the Dialogues are intended to create a genuine EU public space for consultation with citizens. After two of these Dialogues in Ireland, we are now in a position to review the system with the goal of making it better.

The spirit and heart of the Dialogues is beyond reproach. I don’t doubt that they are a genuine attempt to make contact with European citizens, but I do think they can be improved in a number of ways to increase their efficiency and maximise their capacity to contribute to the Citizens’ Report, due to be prepared by the European Commission following the Year of Citizens.

To gauge the response to the Dialogues, I asked several people for their opinions on the idea of citizen contributions. Cork student Dean Duke said that he felt the Dialogues have the “capacity to stretch beyond a talking shop”, but added that “a Dialogue is only useful if it leads to actionable outcomes.”

Perhaps the best example of actionable outcomes comes from the United States town hall meetings. A useful tool of federal and local politics in the USA, town hall meetings are set up to enable citizens to meet their representatives and demand answers. They have proven to be highly efficient and seem to genuinely affect significant change. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has built his political reputation on them, and during his 100th town hall meeting, he hauled Congress over the coals to gain aid for those affected by Hurricane Sandy. It was delayed, but the aid did come through, and Governor Christie is tipped for the Presidential race in 2016.

Town hall meetings are informal affairs, gathering hundreds of people in local centres. Where more people show up than can be heard, they are split into smaller groups and questions are filtered through one spokesperson. It means that multiple questions can be quickly answered. The Citizens’ Dialogues in Ireland demonstrated a great spirit of involvement and engagement, but unfortunately lacked that efficiency. Perhaps a less formal atmosphere, with fewer speeches, would facilitate more answers? During the Cork Dialogue, by the time the speeches were complete, only thirty minutes remained for questions. This ran to forty minutes, during which time ten questions were answered. I would love if the capacity had been there to answer even a handful more.

The Dublin Dialogue was attended by 200 people, who filled in application forms and were selected to attend on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. The application forms were basic in nature, asking for names, addresses, occupations and organisations. In theory, it was a good way to make sure a broad range of people attended. But I contest that the Dialogues were intended to produce a public forum; this is an actual stated goal in the Citizens’ Agenda. Perhaps the goal should have been to engage with citizens who have no particular interest in the EU?

Attending that day were the Director of Amnesty International Ireland and the head of Social Justice Ireland; both of whom already get a lot of airtime in Ireland and are recognisable public figures. Both had questions answered on the day, but as a normal citizen, I would have liked to see questions from those who’ve never had a voice before. Whether through viral marketing or media saturation, my dream for the Dialogue was that every member of the public would hear of it and know of it. It would have been amazing to see average citizens wander in from the street to have their say.

Throughout both Dialogues, social media played a large role. Citizens actively engaged with the event-specific hashtags and the Dublin Dialogue trended on Twitter throughout the afternoon. This in itself was wonderful – but the Dialogues have the capacity to build on it for the future, as do all politicians. In 2011, Barack Obama answered questions from the public in a virtual town hall meeting. The hashtag was #askObama, and the President received over 60,000 tweets in just a few hours. It may be a new form of democracy in action; but it is democratic and the Dialogues across Europe should invest in it.

When I spoke to Siobhán de Paor, who attended the Cork Dialogue, she said that she felt some of the answers given made her feel “fobbed off.” She felt that while the answers were honest and factual, they lacked the passion of the questions. If this is the case, representatives in Ireland must be more like Governor Christie and face questions head on.

As a final note, the Dialogue events felt special, with wide media coverage and central locations in City Halls. I would love these events to become so common that they lose their sheen and become, if anything, less special; I want people to be able to ask questions of their representatives in public forums as often as possible. The word ‘forum’ comes from the Roman Forum, which Michael Grant once called the most celebrated meeting place in all the world and throughout history. It was a place for public gatherings and involvement, the precursor to all modern civic engagement events. Citizens’ Dialogues have the capacity to bring great power to the public. With a little more work, we can get there.

Verbatim #3

#Verbatim is a soundbite-based project devised by two of our YMIP journalists, Marie Dromey and Aisling Twomey, which presents multiple viewpoints of events through memorable quotes, word for word.  In its third installment, #Verbatim exclusively reports tweets from the Cork Citizens’ Dialogue.

Verbatim #3, Tweet based quotes from #cdcork