How to strengthen democracy in Northern Ireland through people power

23 Jun 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 23 Jun 2017

There is wisdom in a crowd. Picture credit: Timon Studler, Unsplash
There is wisdom in a crowd. Picture credit: Timon Studler, Unsplash

The current political impasse at both Stormont and Westminster raises important issues for the Voluntary and Community Sector, not least whether the Civic Forum should be restored. Nick Garbutt explores the issues. 

I was recently commissioned by the Building Change Trust to examine ways in which democracy could be revived in Northern Ireland.

Restoring confidence in our institutions goes far beyond resolution of the current impasse and the restoration of the Executive and Assembly.  However, the paralysis of government in Northern Ireland and the confusing, often surreal debate about who won the Westminster Election and what mandate that gives in terms of Brexit do illustrate the scale of the problem.

On the one hand the failure of local politicians to devise a budget and form a government has had severe unintended consequences on policy development, implementation of urgently required reform and provoked a funding crisis.

On the other discerning “the will of the people” after the General Election is proving beyond even the most prescient political scientists.

Change is required in order to restore trust and confidence in the political process and indeed in government itself. This requires involving ordinary citizens much more closely in decision-making, bringing, if you like government to the people.

Our current consociational power sharing system is probably the only one that could work for Northern Ireland at this point in our history. In theory, when it is up and running, it provides at least a measure of stability. The downside, of course is threefold. Parties gain their support from their position on the constitutional issue rather than on devolved policy matters. Many of the more difficult challenges are left unsolved as a result of the mutual vetoes that are in place. Furthermore as is the case with all coalitions policy tends to emerge from negotiations held in private rather than open debate involving citizens.

The architects of the Good Friday Agreement were well aware of this, and of the role played by civic society in supporting conflict resolution. That is why they built the Civic Forum into the settlement. It operated between 2000 and 2002. It has now been replaced by a panel of six members. The composition was announced last Autumn shortly before the government collapsed.

Many argue that this is what is required to make government work better by providing a means whereby representatives from the third sector, industry, trades unions and the like can input their insights into the public policy debate.

Few would dispute the potential benefits of this. Experts are important and there are not enough of them about.

However it is not a democratic solution. To be blunt appointing people to a position of influence, however great and good they may be supplements a political elite with one comprised of lobbyists for their respective interests.

So when the institutions return, or even if we end up with a form of direct rule, yes, by all means bring back the forum, or get the panel up and running. But let’s do more as well.

And even before that we should be looking to our local authorities to provide the lead. They are still bedding down post restructure and are wanting to engage more effectively with the communities they serve. For inspiration they should look at what is already happening in Scotland. Here under the Community Empowerment Act councils have a legal obligation to engage with citizens on how they spend their money. This has led to the setting up of several Participatory Budget schemes. There are different variants, all sharing the same principle – that citizens themselves should decide how many is spent in their communities.

One simple example. The Leith district of Edinburgh has been running a participatory budgeting programme for the past seven years, called £eith Decides.

Last year it distributed just under £45,000 to community projects. Groups were invited to put forward submissions for support and then everyone in the area from the age of eight (sic) was invited to vote. Funds were distributed accordingly. Last year it was decided that the entire community budget would be allocated that way.

It is a very simple model and one which is gaining traction in Scotland - allowing citizens to decide on how some of their rates is spent strengthens communities, improves engagement between them and local government and brings elected representatives closer to their voters.

There is absolutely no reason why similar schemes cannot be introduced here. The expertise is close to hand and there is an opportunity for re-energised councils to transform their relationships with citizens. Local authorities are keen to throw off their fusty images, what better way could there be to do that?

There is also scope for reform on a Northern-Ireland wide scale, by using citizens to help resolve problems that politicians can’t currently resolve. One model would be a Citizen’s Assembly as adopted in the Republic. This involved the random selection of 100 voters from the electoral register who were brought together with a High Court judge as chair. They are presented with expert evidence and advocacy from opposing sides of an argument and then invited to deliberate on what should be done.

Their first project was examining abortion law and probing whether it should be reformed. Their findings were published in April. Politicians of all sides found it helpful to refer such an emotive and difficult issue to the Assembly.  It helps to validate any referendum that might follow on amending the Article Eight of the Irish Constitution without party political fall out.

Interestingly Professor John Garry of Queen’s University has carried out a deliberative exercise in Northern Ireland on a different emotive issue: the flying of flags from public buildings. This used a different methodology involving a much higher number of citizens (1,000). There are obvious advantages for politicians here to use the methodology to resolve such issues by devolving some of the responsibility directly to the people.  

So if and when Stormont returns and also if it doesn’t the time has come to revive our democracy – and that will come by bringing citizens close to decision-making. 

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