Is democracy working for Northern Ireland? Not really ....

23 Mar 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 23 Mar 2017

The deliberative democracy model

The publication of a ground-breaking report into the state of democracy in Northern Ireland this week could not have been better timed. 

When the Assembly collapsed in January this was the fifth time it had been suspended since 1999. Many observers believe that the chances of the formation of a new Executive are low and a new Election, perhaps followed by Direct Rule is inevitable.

There is therefore serious concern about the workings of democracy in Northern Ireland and the Beyond Voting report by Drs Robin Wilson and Paul Nolan is an invaluable contribution to the debate.

The report is the first attempt to assess how well Northern Ireland performs as a democracy using a model of deliberative democracy developed by the think tank Involve.

Scope has written about the model before and it is explained here

The definition given by Nolan and Wilson is: “Deliberative democracy differs from traditional models of democracy in that it foregrounds discussion between citizens and their representatives at all levels, seeking better outcomes through mutual exchange, rather than mere aggregation of voter preferences and negotiation between interest groups.”

That sounds dry, but the concept is exciting in that what is really being looked at is the extent to which all of us are engaged in decision-making in order to measure how well democracy works. And some of the findings are sobering. As is one of the conclusions: “Political exchanges, while substituting for violence in large measure, have thus not moved on from the predictable, sectarian conflicts of the past and a more publicly satisfying deliberative discourse has on the whole yet to be achieved.”

The research was commissioned by the Building Change Trust which wants to promote meaningful participation and influence by citizens and communities in the decisions that affect their lives.

The model used identifies seven components to a democratic system.

Firstly how the public space operates. Here there is some good news. The report points out that there has been much less trouble on the streets in recent years. Interestingly the Parades Commission reports that in 2016 there were 2,424 parades which it calls ‘Protestant/unionist/loyalist’ and 176 ‘Catholic/nationalist/republican’ but 1,962 parades which were neither orange nor green.

However it expresses concern that the two main parties prioritise “communalist ideas of culture” above funding arts, citing significant funding cuts.  It is heartened by the number of charities here, often seen as an indicator of a healthy public space, but at the same time cites recent research which questions the degree of the Third Sector’s independence from government.

The Press and Media are important but with print circulations in decline there has been a shift in the importance of both broadcast media and social media. The authors state: “An experienced journalist complained of how TV generally tended to stereotype working-class communities and marginalise women’s voices; while social media, which are capable of creating new forms of social solidarity, can also play host to toxic enclaves.”

The next area for study was the “Empowered Space”, meaning the Assembly and government where decisions are actually taken.  A survey published by the Electoral Reform Society in February 2017 is cited. It showed that only 4 per cent of Catholics gave a unionist a first preference vote, while only 2 per cent of Protestants picked a nationalist, firm evidence of how deeply sectarian voting patterns are entrenched.

The report also expresses concern about the use of the Petition of Concern, used 115 times between 2011 and 2016 block legislation in the Assembly, most frequently by the DUP.

The report analyses how the views in the public space are transmitted to decision-makers.

It will be interesting to see if the authors get asked to talk about this on the Nolan Show given what they write about it in the report: “What had begun as no more than a populist, shock-jock phone-in show has become an important part of the political landscape, but one which reinforces a narrow set of political debates: flags and bonfires are often used as stand-by topics, and on both the BBC and the commercial channels local sectarianism is often indulged as a form of entertainment.”

There is also criticism for the abandonment of the Civic Forum, universities are called to account for failing to lead “intellectual debate” and, even more depressing, governmental consultations are characterised as tick box exercises. “One participant in our community arts discussion group told of a phone call from an official who asked her: “Those Chinese children: were they Protestant or Catholic?”

The report finds deficiencies in the extent to which government makes itself accountable. Delays in responding to Freedom of Information requests are cited, as is the committee on standards and privileges, which is made up entirely of MLAs, “marking their own homework”. Perhaps this might account for why politicians have such low trust ratings amongst the public in opinion polls.

In terms of our private spaces the report is positive about the fact that citizenship lessons are now part of the core curriculum in schools but points out that the Equality Commission has now become a bete noir for Evangelical Christians, as exemplified by the Asher’s “gay cake” saga.

Decisiveness is the extent to which our democracy can really make a difference to peoples’ lives. The report questions the extent to which this is possible in Northern Ireland given that potential fiscal levers are not used by local politicians: the regional rate has not increased since 2007 and water charges which would generate revenue for the Executive have not been introduced.  There is specific criticism for both Sinn Fein and the DUP: the report states that although the overall perception is that politicians have not delivered for the general public they are both insulated from that by their internal cultures.  “The DUP from its outset operated on the principle of there being a great leader, and the party faithful saw themselves unabashedly as followers rather than members. The internal culture of SF, meanwhile, has grown slowly out of the IRA command structure. Downward communication is thus in each case relatively untroubled by discord or noises off.”

Finally the report cites the under-representation of women in the Assembly and quotes from an OECD review of governance in Northern Ireland which states: “Solidarity among members of the Executive is evidently weak, which undermines the principle of the collective responsibility in decision-making and the concomitant role the civil service, notably in its senior ranks, ought to play in supporting it.”

We are fast running out of time to rebuild our political structures. Perhaps a new, more inclusive system is too much to ask for in the short term. Also there is a real danger in pointing out the shortcomings, the failings and imperfections that we forget to acknowledge how far we have travelled, from conflict, to relative peace. Perhaps we want too much too soon, and also perhaps it is easier to blame the system than it is to take responsibility for changing it. 

The authors quite rightly aknowledge that significan progress has been made, out of conflict to where we are now. And although their analysis is confined to Northern Ireland disillusionment around politics, government and the way that democracy functions is widespread and growing. Liberal democracy is in crisis everywhere. Applying the principles of deliberative democracy may well be the means to turn this around. The alternative by which populist politicians declare they can enact the "will of the people" looks like a recipe for conflict, especially in our context, and absolutely not a route to a healthier, more settled society. 


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