Democracy and NI: the state we live in

22 Mar 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 23 Mar 2016

A graphical representation of the deliberative system
A graphical representation of the deliberative system

What is the state of democracy in Northern Ireland? Many would give a one-word answer. But to improve the world around us we need engagement, and to embrace of nuance, complexity and the views of others. No-one said it was easy.

Democracy exists in Northern Ireland. Whether it’s any good or not is another matter.

Concerns about public apathy are nothing new: in 2013, 30% of potential voters were not even registered; in last year’s General Election a Did Not Vote Party would have won 17 of our 18 constituencies; ahead of the same election only 42% of those aged 25-44 said they intended to vote.

Little effort is required to dig out more, similar statistics, all damning about the public’s direct involvement with the democratic process.

But that is only one issue amongst several. A vibrant democracy is not about the number of people putting pencil to ballot paper every few years; it is governance that effectively represents the well-informed opinions of the public in general.

Last week Scope went along to What is the State of Democracy in NI? another event as part of the Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics – a discussion looking at NI but also democracy in general.

It was organised by the Building Change Trust (BCT) and Involve, a think tank and charity specialising in public participation.

Local concerns

Paul Braithwaite, from the BCT, opened the event with some observations: recent survey results finding that only 11% of local people are satisfied with their MLAs, 17% think the Northern Ireland Assembly has “improved local voices”, while 40% feel the Assembly has "achieved absolutely nothing at all".

“Every party sees every issue as a political opportunity. There is this obsession with electoral politics alone. Electoral democracy has actually become anti-democracy. Electoral politics has become obscene.”

That quotation was cited by Mr Braithwaite – it also features on an article he wrote outlining the same issues – and suuggested it would ring familiar with many in Northern Ireland. It is actually from political psychologist Ashis Nandy, and relates to the public lynching of a man in India.

This article outlines the issues around that incident: social divisions along religious lines; politicians who care only about winning elections; equivocation about sectarian murder; dysfunctional democracy. Comparisons with Northern Ireland are uncomfortably clear.

Where we have arrived in Northern Ireland is a place where agreements such as Fresh Start are patched together in secrecy by our 11%-satisfaction politicians and then decreed to the public. The 40% of people who say Stormont has achieved nothing at all might be wrong but this figure expresses a deeply-rooted disdain.

Mr Braithwaite said: “To summarise, I think we desperately need a more deliberative model of democracy. The perpetual cycle of crises legitimised by electoral success cannot go on.”

That teed up Simon Burall, Director of Involve, who spoke about his paper Room for a View, which outlines a new method of analysing our politics.

“If the health of UK democracy is to be improved, we need to move away from thinking about the representation of individual voters to thinking about the representation of views, perspectives and narratives.”

The Deliberative System

From Room for a View – and with a view to the diagram at the top of this article:

Most democratic reformers, whether within government, civil society and academia, focus on electoral democracy. However, elections rarely reveal what voters think clearly enough for elected representatives to act on. Does a vote for a party mean support for its policy on health, the environment or defence? Or merely a preference for the party’s leader? Or something else entirely? As a result changing the electoral system, or increasing the number of elected posts will not, alone, significantly increase democratic control by citizens.

A healthy democracy is one where there is a high level of representation and exchange of views within and between different parts of the system, for example, between citizens with different opinions and experiences, and between these citizens and elected representatives. Decisions should be informed and influenced by a wide range of perspectives.

Mr Burall said there are seven components to the UK political system, as per the deliberative system, before outlining them and what it means for each to be "healthy".

1. The public space includes the media, civil society and citizens. Its health is related to the range of views and narratives visible and impacting on each other.

2. The empowered space is where legitimate collective decisions are taken, for example Parliament. Its health also depends on the range of views interacting.

3. The transmission of views and narratives between the public space and empowered space is important for ensuring that the latter responds to citizens. It is working well when the full range of views are transmitted and impact on decisions being taken.

4. The health of the fourth component, the accountability of the empowered space to the public space, is determined by the extent to which those with power are answerable for the decisions they take.

5. The private space is made up of political conversations at home and in communal spaces such as the work place or places of worship. Its health depends on the extent to which they inform, and are informed by, the public and empowered spaces.

6. The public examination of the qualities of the system itself requires the system to have mechanisms to evaluate the health of the components of the system. The longer term health of the system depends on this because every political system experiences a fall in deliberative capacity over time as a result of societal changes, interest groups taking over particular institutions and so on.

7. Stepping back even further, no deliberative system is totally independent; most are embedded within larger systems. A system’s health therefore also depends on its decisiveness; can it make the decisions that affect people’s lives, or are they in reality being imposed from the outside, for example.

Expanding the model

Actually this system can be used to measure the health of any political system (against democratic values) – perhaps even any mass forum of decision-making debate. Feudal monarchies, fundamentalist dictatorships and occupied states would just be very unhealthy. But how does it apply to NI and, where failures are occurring, what do we do about it?

Rather than simply go through each of the seven aspects of the system in turn (though readers may find it informative) this will instead touch on some of the observations raised at last week's discussion. Many were about the health of democracy around the world - but which can be seen through a local prism.

Northern Ireland is often discussed as a place apart, a curio of specific factors that make it without comparison. This is not quite correct. While the nuts and bolts might be slightly different in size and shape they are put together using the same or similar patterns as every other democracy, certainly in the west. Everywhere has problems. Democracy exists on a scale of quality. What needs to happen is not solutions – a pipe dream, like eradicating all crime – but improvements.

During the debate, one major area of concern was the matter of truth and fact. The public no longer seems to trust what it reads and this leaves us all on shaky footing. Proper opinions should be based on solid information but, if that information is constantly in question, what happens to people’s views?

Overwhelming world

The internet is a hothouse of assertions and it is also our chief source of anything and everything. If everyone is told everything all of the time reality becomes bewildering and unintelligible and, unfortunately, relative.

If someone is left unable to rationalise using solid bricks of (actual and correct) truth then their worldview will instead be shaped more and more by their emotions, or prejudices, which themselves may or may not correspond with objective reality. The public space then becomes furious and dysfunctional; transmission of views between the public and empowered space fails in part due to this dysfunction.

Political commentator Alex Kane spoke at the event, saying: “The most powerful forum for debate in the world is social media, but it’s not a pleasant place – it’s horrible.

“We have become far more cynical and disengaged, and got to a very cynical stage about 'Who provided what information? Who paid Google to put that there?' We take nothing on trust. How can you run a country when everything you say and do is open to ridicule?”

He said further that NI is obsessed with “fixed points of discussion” such as the union, or the past, and these are all blockages progress – adding that Northern Ireland needs to break out of these loops of discourse, or learn to better examine its own nature, as in point 6 above.

Politics is left full of people whose chief aim is to get elected rather than heighten the knowledge of the electorate, in order that we make better decisions collectively. Whether the system shapes the men and women or, instead, pragmatic ruthlessness gives such people an electoral advantage is a discussion for another time (the answer is probably both).

Regardless, representatives try to win arguments rather than fundamentally improve debate. Scope has written previously on such problems occurring locally, where politicians show themselves as prepared to take us to ruin rather than lose votes. The empowered space becomes self-serving.

Not solutions, but improvements

The above is all true. Ginormous issues beyond full comprehension shape society, questions beget questions, it can all seem too much. But this is nothing to be scared about. We do not need to plummet unstoppably to some Ballardian future nightmare.

The world is ginormous and is beyond the complete understanding of any one individual – but that does not mean we each cannot develop an understanding, a good one, better than what we have now, and a better method of discussion with which to address the issues of the day.

Those of us in Northern Ireland are already lucky enough to live in some sort of liberal democracy. And it can be improved.

Sophie Long, PhD student at QUB with a specialism in Loyalism and a PUP candidate, talked about the benefits of creating proactive public fora, where underrepresented groups are deliberately overrepresented and given a chance to air their views freely and with confidence.

These groups exist elsewhere around the world, have been successful, and clearly have the potential to improve democracy.

She said: “If you participate in the discussion that precedes a decision you see a lot more legitimacy in the outcome. Decisions coming from the Hill don’t represent us [meaning the general public, not loyalists, but this could equally apply to both] and we want something different.”

Debate in Northern Ireland often boils down to politicians shouting insults at each other on TV or the radio.

This both disengages the public from politics and issues of policy and lowers the quality of the discourse itself.

Last week’s event – like this article – probably raises more questions than answers. But that is no bad thing. The world is complicated. If simple solutions could fix all our problems they would have done so by now.

If there are any conclusions at all, they are that:

  • engagement with the democratic process is not merely a desirable bolt on for a functioning democracy, it is actually a fundamental measurement of its quality.
  • rather than having so-called experts give us their opinions on matters like health, the economy, and so on, those with real knowledge or insight should be providing the tools for the public to better understand the matters that affect all our lives, and therefore communicate their own views more clearly to those in power.

We can do better than the carousel of rhetoric that too frequently passes for debate and democracy in Northern Ireland – with its 11% rate of public satisfaction in our representatives. We can and we should.

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