Wednesday,19 June, 2013.
Last night forty people gathered at the Pillo Hotel in Galway for the public launch of PeopleTalk. We began with inputs from the three PeopleTalk patrons - Daithí Ó Ceallaigh, Mícheal ÓMuircheartaigh and Anne Doyle. Daithí introduced and chaired the meeting and presided over an interesting and lively questions and answer session. Mícheál talked about sport...
and, as he talked, a picture emerged of the ancient Tailteann games where people gathered to celebrate skill and vigour, but also to talk about issues, which they were unable to resolve in their local communities, and to reach agreement on what to do about them. PeopleTalk is a response to a need, which is the same now as it was three thousand years ago - to connect with others and to solve our problems together.
Anne told a story closer to our time - of her grandfather who was widowed with six children in his early 40s. He managed to rear his family, but he would never have been able to cope without the practical support family and neighbours – the kind of support, which is much harder to provide today. Local communities and public services need to find a way of interacting, which brings out the best in both. PeopleTalk is a way of doing this.
Then the Director of PeopleTalk, Edmond Grace SJ, gave an outline of its origins and how it will be organised. (The text of this talk is available; click on attached email button indicate that you request one.) One of points which he made was that many people had put a great deal of effort into previous exercises which sought to ‘empower’ citizens, but which effectively went nowhere and left them disillusioned and frustrated. He suggested that those present might went to deal with this issue and their resulting misgivings about PeopleTalk at the question and answer session.
Both Edmond and John Cullen, PeopleTalk Chairman, responded to the questions which followed. Concern was expressed about how long it would take for the Jury to come up with a result; public services can be slow and people need to see a ‘quick win.’ John and Edmond responded that there was a possibility that some issue might crystalise very early in the process, but this could not be relied upon. This kind of project will take time; everyone in the County will have to have a chance to be heard. Making progress on the issues which are likely to be raised by PeopleTalk will require a ‘hard slog.’ There are plenty of people around who know this all too well from their own experience but who remain willing and determined
Questions were raised about the composition of the Jury. One person argued that there should be places reserved for the elderly and also for young people, in addition to the gender equality structure already in place. Another argued that there should be no quotas of any kind, that the lottery of members should be completely random. Mícheál made the point that the jury was open to anyone who wanted to volunteer and that anyone would be free to attend the listening session. John and Edmond made that point that, apart from the clearly definable issue of male and female, any attempt to fix quotas would depend on someone’s personal judgement and, therefore, open to accusations of bias. A lottery means that there can be no 'fixing' of membership. It also means that those selected will know that they are there, not because of any personal talent or superiority, but simply because they have been asked to serve.
John and Edmond made it clear, in response to a question, that PeopleTalk was not confined to dealing with the County Council but, while working at the Council's invitation, it would address all the workings of government and state as they affected residents of Galway County. The concern was then expressed that the endorsement of national politicians and the County Council was all very well, but that, when the Jury came up with its findings, it would be ignored? John and Edmond pointed out that there could be no guarantee of success and that this exercise was experimental – i.e. it would, hopefully, succeed but it might fail. One speaker, a senior official with the County Council, spoke of how she had been working with John and Edmond for a number of years on this project. She said that, while there could be no guarantee of any outcome, but that the County Council had endorsed PeopleTalk and it had not done so lightly. This was an experiment well worth trying.
John and Edmond pointed out that the current Constitutional Convention was a sign that elected politicians accepted that was a need to give a voice to citizens outside the electoral process in their deliberations. The National Panel at a recent meeting had spoken of a need to ensure ‘all due public respect’ for the findings of a PeopleTalk Jury. The word ‘respect’ was taken up by a number of speakers as playing a crucial part in the challenge facing PeopleTalk. A senior elected member of the County Council, who was present, made the point that there was nothing for elected representatives like himself to fear from this project. The immediate concerns of constituents, to which elected representatives had to pay attention, meant that there is a need for another forum to take a more long term approach. PeopleTalk would fill this need.
As the meeting came to a conclusion one person asked if it would be possible to require that any proposal from the Jury receive a public answer from those to whom they are addressed. A strong consensus rapidly emerged among those present that the test of respect on the part of public agencies for the Jury would be whether or not a public response was forthcoming for its findings . At this the meeting concluded.