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It's all in the timing

Comment

Having secured the cash to underpin revitalisation, the ICE has gone back to members this week with another controversial proposition - merger with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

No, this is not a new idea and certainly we are by no means even close to a full vote on the issue. As French president Jacques Chirac will testify, it can be risky to ask people what they think too quickly - quite often you discover that not everyone agrees with your ideas.

Without doubt there are some pretty compelling arguments for bringing these two organisations back together again. As the document sent to members this week highlights, it presents the opportunity to 'adapt to the needs of members by embracing the increasingly integrated, interdisciplinary nature of modern engineering'.

They are similar in size, have similar activities, aspirations and goals for their members and serve increasingly overlapping professions. All professional members would surely benefit from the greater influence that increased size would bring.

In many ways, this is just the kind of thinking that first created the European Union. A single harmonised body to meet the bigger external threats more effectively must logically outweigh the desire to remain independent.

But as we saw in France last weekend, logic is only one factor in play. When it comes to collaborative working and mergers, the heart can often overrule the head when it comes to a vote.

In the case of France there seems to have been a very real fear that the new constitution amounted to a bigger personal sacrifice for the common good than it was prepared to make.

The Netherlands seems to be heading to the same conclusion.

Persuading the British to say yes in the face of these precedents would test all the Blair-Brown persuasion skills if the UK ever went to referendum.

The bold fact is that it is very tricky to get individuals to sign up to the common good. For all its foibles, the single European market is a good and positive thing for the UK, for all its members. The trouble is that without constant and effective management the focus can easily slip towards the negatives that exist at home. Right or wrong, Europe regularly takes the blame for domestic economic and social woe.

And there is of course nothing like a negative to bring out the voters.

As France's no vote highlights, securing mergers is tough, and maintaining them even harder.

So while it is really important the ICE engages in this kind of discussion - and without question there is much sense in the ICE and IMechE coming together - I fear for the bigger picture.

Last month's subs vote turned out 38%, double the usual number but still pretty low by voting standards, with just 20% of members eligible to vote backing the motion. Great George Street cannot underestimate how vital and timeconsuming it will be to ensure the forthcoming subscription rises deliver real ICE revitalisation for the 80% that didn't support the rise.

While merger with the IMechE is a forward-looking opportunity for all involved, it will, by ICE's own admission, be a 'complex process that brings challenges'.

It will be a process that inevitably saps energy and resources.

Regardless of the prize, we must surely ask whether this is really what civil engineering professionals need their institution to be doing right now?

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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