Civil Society in Turbulent Times: Exploring Connections, Comparison and Capacity-Building in Ireland and Wales

Lead Research Organisation: Aberystwyth University
Department Name: Inst of Geography and Earth Sciences


This projects aims to strengthen networks, share perspectives and facilitate collaborative research between social scientists in Ireland and Wales working on the general area of civil society. In both territories, a renewed emphasis has been focused on civil society as a critical space in which citizen rights and responsibilities, collective action and relations between individuals and the state, are being re-shaped and re-articulated against a background of social, economic and political change. Several pressures are common to both Ireland and Wales, including globalization, the legacies of austerity politics, the rise of individualism and identity politics, technological innovations and their social and economic implications, and most recently, the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak. Other notable dynamics in civil society have developed within the distinctive polities of each nation, such as social liberalisation and experimentation with new mechanisms for citizen engagement in Ireland, and the ongoing evolution of civil society with respect to Wales as a devolved political entity. Civil society in both Ireland and Wales faces challenges from the UK's withdrawal from the European Union (Brexit), but from different perspectives. As such, civil society presents rich potential for collaborative research and knowledge exchange, examining parallels and differences, comparing experiences and outcomes, and synthesizing results to contribute both to critical conceptual development of social science research on civil society and to applied policy learning.

Ireland and Wales have a strong affinity as close geographical neighbours with broadly comparable populations, shared cultural roots and an history of intellectual exchange and policy transfer. There is a good record of research collaboration and dialogue between social scientists in Ireland and Wales, as well as civil society engagement, however in recent decades such activities have primarily been facilitated through EU programmes, including Horizon 2020 and INTERREG. Brexit will therefore require new avenues for collaboration and engagement to be developed. The project will help to build capacity for ongoing and renewed research partnership.

The project accordingly has four objectives:
1. To bring together social science researchers in Ireland and Wales working on selected aspects of civil society in order to build capacity and sustainable networks for future collaboration;
2. To compare and critique recent developments in civil society in Ireland and Wales, to develop understanding of shared and contextual factors and exchange conceptual and methodological perspectives;
3. To identify questions for further collaborative research, develop frameworks and build teams to take forward proposals for appropriate funding opportunities;
4. To draw lessons for policy from the comparative experiences of Ireland and Wales and facilitate the sharing of good practice between governance and civil society actors in both nations.

The work programme is structured around four themes that have been selected as notable areas of recent debate and activity in civil society in which there is excellent social science research expertise in both Ireland and Wales. These are renegotiating borders; rural citizenship; engaging young people; and inclusive and deliberative democracy. All four themes will follow a common format involving a physical workshop, virtual follow-up meetings, including one with policy and civil society stakeholders, leading to a range of outputs including summary papers, policy briefings, infographics, a video and articles in academic and non-academic publications, as well as proposals for further collaborative research. The Welsh side of the project is anchored in the ESRC WISERD/Civil Society Centre, which will support the longer-term sustainability of the networks.


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Description The virtual and in-person workshops held as part of this networking grant brought together researchers in Wales and in the Republic of Ireland to discuss similarities and differences in current issues facing civil society in the two territories, respective policy responses, and the focus and findings of academic research. Four key findings have emerged from these discussions, reflecting the four themes of the network:

1) Brexit has reshaped the nature of the sea border between Wales and the Republic of Ireland in ways that present several challenges for civil society. First, local civil society in port towns on both sides of the Irish Sea have been directly and indirectly impacted by local social and economic changes associated with reduced traffic and new border regimes, as well as prompted to explore and represent their histories of interconnection. Second, new border regimes have become the focus of monitoring, debate and campaigning by civil society groups concerned with migration, securitization, and community relations. Third, the extensive cross-border networks and exchanges that had been developed between civil society groups in Ireland and Wales, including in economic development, have been destabilised, notably by the end of access to EU funding schemes.

2) Rural civil society in both Ireland and Wales is adapting to an increasing heterogeneous rural society and diverse emerging rural voices. Rural identity formation in both nations continues to reflect traditional representations of rurality, which is reflected in established civil society organizations such as farming unions, but is shifting with the effects of globalization and austerity. Emerging issues such as climate change indicate a potential rural citizenship vacuum, with fragmented and competing discourses and strategies. To respond, notions of active rural citizenship must be understood in terms of citizens' contemporary relations with the state and sense of individual and collective civic responsibility.

3) Both Wales and the Republic of Ireland face challenges of engaging young people in politics and civil society, and both countries have put in place various strategies to foster greater levels of engagement. However, these strategies reflect very different political and cultural legacies, all of which have a bearing on civic engagement and political participation. Links between schools and civil society, for instance, differ due to contrasting histories of state formation and influences of the church. In both nations, young people's identities, civic outlooks and activism are increasingly informed by global citizenship and by questions of intergenerational justice that require further research. Parallel but different initiatives for engaging young people in political participation have been developed in both countries, with variable success for formal mechanisms that needs further exploration.

4) The Republic of Ireland and Wales have both experimented with forms of inclusive and deliberative democracy, including citizens assemblies and juries in Ireland around key societal issues such as voting systems, abortion and marriage equality, and more recent initiatives in Wales. There is significant scope for learning between the two jurisdictions on how to facilitate public deliberation in major policy debates. Opportunities for further comparative research focus on the intersections of deliberative initiatives with the political system - exploring both empirical and normative dimensions - and on forms of communication with the public and the challenge of addressing sustained dissensus.
Exploitation Route 1) The potential areas for collaborative and comparative research, and the connections between participants formed through the workshop meetings, provide a foundation for further research involving network participants (who extend beyond the named investigators), other researchers, and wider stakeholders. Opportunities for advancing further research to date have been constrained by funding opportunities, including uncertainties around support for Ireland-Wales cooperation to replace previous EU schemes. An Horizon Europe call was investigated as an option but not taken forward as an insufficient fit to identified interests.
2) Opportunities for knowledge transfer and policy learning between the Republic of Ireland and Wales identified in the theme workshops have potential for wider adoption and impact through engagement with civil society and government. Funding has been awarded from the ESRC WISERD Civil Society Research Centre to develop these activities as an international network, including potential events co-sponsored with Irish Consulate in Wales. An application for similar funding for civil society engagement to the Irish Research Council New Foundations programme was not successful.
3) The dialogues initiated in the network have potential for further expansion to include a wider range of researchers and stakeholders. To this end, a session is planned for the Congress of the International Geographical Union in Dublin in August 2024.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The most direct impact from the network has been on discussions on Wales's constitutional future, from the Inclusive and Deliberative Democracy theme. Learnings through discussion in the network workshop about deliberative initiatives in the Republic of Ireland on issues including voting systems, marriage equality and abortion, have been incorporated into background documents for the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales by network participant and Commission member Dr Anwen Elias.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Ireland-Wales Network Plenary Panel at WISERD Away Days 2022 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Panel of participants in the Ireland-UK network reflecting on key lessons and potential for further research collaboration and for knowledge- and policy-transfer between the Republic of Ireland and Wales. Including discussion with audience on opportunities for further engagement. This session replaced the proposed plenary panel at the WISERD Annual Conference due to the rescheduling of the grant.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022