The Preamble of the Protocol rather poetically recognises that ‘the achievements, benefits and commitments of the peace process will remain of paramount importance to peace, stability and reconciliation’.

Such achievements – we know too well – are sealed not by legal terms alone but by social, economic and political conditions. Such conditions are made by, and reflected in, civic society.

One of the things about the Protocol that the UK Government and EU Commission do agree upon is that there needs to be a far better relationship between the institutions overseeing the Protocol those most directly affected it by it. The UK Command paper on the Protocol (July 2021) calls for ‘more robust arrangements to … provide a stronger role for those in Northern Ireland to whom they apply, including … wider Northern Ireland civic society’ (para.71). And Vice-President Maroš Šefcovic told the audience in his first public speech in the region that he was ‘here to listen carefully and engage with you’.

Civic engagement around an international agreement can serve separate but complementary purposes. It can be instrumental – to enable the most effective and sustainable implementation of an agreement. It might be functional – to monitor implementation, find ways forward and signal possible problems. Or it could be deliberative – to enhance the democratic quality and legitimacy of an agreement. Different mechanisms for civic engagement around the Protocol could meet all these purposes. Models for this are close to hand …at least on paper.

What’s missing in implementing the 1998 Agreement

The 1998 Agreement and its successors formalised the inclusion of civic society. The most obvious means was the Civic Forum – a ‘consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural issues’ which had an even shorter existence than the first Assembly. The Agreement also recommended ‘an independent consultative forum’ to support the work of Strand Two. This was never established – even though the Executive’s commitment to do so was repeated in the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement.

After seven years of power-sharing between two parties who appear to think that the stability of the peace process is in their gift, the Stormont House Agreement (2014) made an intrepid claim:

‘it is important that civic voices are heard and civic views are considered in relation to key social, cultural and economic issues’.

To that end, it modestly proposed a Compact Civic Advisory Panel. Most recently, New Decade, New Approach (2020) agreed that the said Compact Civic Advisory Panel would decide the ‘appropriate model’ for civic engagement on ‘1–2 issues per year’, including one Citizens’ Assembly per year. Nearly two years on, we are some way off such participative democracy – the new Compact Civic Advisory Panel itself is yet to be appointed.

With a few notable exceptions (such as the Engagement Forum for the Together: Building a United Community strategy on good relations), the NI Executive’s inability to fulfil repeated commitments on civic engagement is worse than negligent.

Precedents in other EU agreements

This local record looks even worse against the active inclusion of civic engagement in EU external relations. The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) is a good example. The UK and EU will each create a Domestic Advisory Group:

‘comprising a representation of independent civil society organisations including NGOs, business and employers’ organisations, as well as trade unions, active in economic, sustainable development, social, human rights, environmental and other matters.’ (Article 13 TCA)

On top of that, they are going to create a Civil Society Forum for the TCA containing ‘independent civil society organisations’ (Article 14).

Such arrangements aren’t just something for newly divorced parties. The Consultative Committee established for the European Economic Area (EEA) involves representatives from the ‘social partners’ of the states concerned and exists to ‘provide input on the economic and social aspects of the EEA’. The Association Agreements the EU has concluded with Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia include provision for a Civil Society Platform comprising representatives from the EU’s European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and civil society in the partner countries.

The EU-Turkey relationship includes a Civil Society Dialogue mechanism, and the EESC engages in the Western Balkans Civil Society Forum. Even further abroad, the EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement provides for a Civil Society Forum with input from Domestic Advisory Groups on the EU and Korean sides.

Anyone feeling a bit left out?

Next steps

Before any mechanisms for civic engagement are designed, the fundamentals should be agreed. A study of civil society meetings in EU Free Trade Agreements (Orbie et al, 2016) provides a starter for ten.

First, information: access to relevant knowledge and specialist expertise by all concerned. Second, dedicated remit, rules and resources (the latter being vital for NGOs and small business organisations). Third, transparent inclusivity – where civil society organisations are not directly participating, they need to be able to communicate their views to those who are. Fourth, good practice in meeting management, such as adequate notice of meetings, an agreed agenda, clear reporting procedures. Finally, accountability needs clear structures for input and feedback, so that people can see how their views were taken into account.

Such small steps for civic engagement can constitute a sizeable step towards securing the ‘achievements, benefits and commitments of the peace process’ – and not before time.