Belfast hosts a different peoples' vote

22 Mar 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 22 Mar 2019

A new democratic movement is gaining traction in Northern Ireland. From Rathlin Island to Newry and the Clogher Valley local people are deciding for themselves how money in their communities should be spent.

Participatory Budgeting (PB) is taking off and on Saturday March 30 there will be a unique opportunity for anyone to get involved – and even win money for a favourite project.

The time is right.  

This is a depressing period for democrats in Northern Ireland, the UK, and pretty much everywhere else.

Our institutions are faltering in the face of challenges they are unable to resolve. Stormont fell on January 9 2017. It has yet to return. Public services are in slow decay. There is no indication of dialogue between the two main parties to resolve the impasse. There is no appetite for Direct Rule.  We’re now ruled by unelected civil servants who are doing their best to run a zombie state.  Some look back at the period when we had a functioning government as halcyon days. The RHI Inquiry suggests otherwise.

Meanwhile the UK government has descended into chaos. The main parties are fracturing over Brexit. The executive and legislature are at odds. A beleaguered and exhausted Prime Minister is only in office because nobody else wants her job, yet. An opinion poll published this week showed that 90% of the public view her handling of Brexit as a “national humiliation”. She has been reduced to the dangerous and thoroughly irresponsible tactic of telling voters they should blame MPs for the mess we are now in. MPs are furious. Yet they have not voted down the government because to do so would be to cause a General Election and that would be putting their seats, and salaries at risk.

Consensus about that most fundamental democratic principle, the will of the people has broken down – and there appears little appetite to compromise. The UK is now deeply divided.

The toxicity at Westminster has spilled out across the country. There is anger. Political disaffection is widespread. Hanging over all of this mess is the dark spectre of the populist right.

It would be incorrect to say that the crisis is unprecedented. The UK has not always been stable. But you have to go back a long, long time to dredge up anything quite as bad as this.

There has got to be a better way. Somehow we have to re-connect people to public institutions and to politicians, to engage more people in their communities and to re-build confidence in democracy from the ground up.

That is precisely what PB is designed to do.

The movement started in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 as a means of developing democratic engagement after 20 years of military dictatorship and to counter cronyism in local government.  It is based on the principle that local people should decide how money invested in their communities should be spent.

Today more than 1,500 cities across the world have adopted the model. The Scottish government has embedded PB in its Community Empowerment Act.

In Northern Ireland the movement is being driven by the Participatory Budgeting Works Project which is co-ordinated by Community Places and funded by the Building Change Trust.

It has been running a series of workshops across Northern Ireland to explain how to run PB projects and momentum is gathering.

Rathlin islanders were amongst the first to take up PB. Last year the island ran the “Grugach’s Gold” project whereby residents were invited to pitch their ideas for funding local projects. Nine submissions were received and all islanders were invited to the pitch, with four receiving funding. The money came from surpluses from the Manor House hotel and restaurant which is a social enterprise.

Another exciting initiative was from Newry and Mourne District Council. It invited young people to pitch for £500 funding pots to benefit young people in their areas. Around 5,000 young people voted.

On Saturday March 30 the Imagine Festival will showcase how this form of democracy works in practice.  Imagine democracy – you decide! will be held at the Crescent Arts Centre from 2pm to 5pm.  

Individuals and groups are being invited to submit ideas for actions they would like to take to support and enhance local democracy in Northern Ireland. Awards of up to £500 will be available. Everyone submitting an idea will then have an opportunity to share their proposal with the audience at this event. The audience will then decide who gets the awards by voting for their favourites.

Entry is open to all and ideas can be submitted here The rules are simple. All submissions need to be fair, lawful, feasible and non-party political. If your idea passes that test  then you will be invited to make a three minute pitch at  the event. Entries must be submitted by Wednesday 27th March.

A multiple voting system will be in place which means that pitchers are very welcome to bring along friends and supporters who are all welcome to vote for their own scheme, but they will have to vote for others as well. Applicants must be over 16, but anyone over the age of 10 will be welcome to attend and to vote.

In June a follow-up event will be held so successful pitchers can report back on how their money was spent and what was achieved as a result.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.