On the challenge of deliberative democracy…

When Hearts and Minds came to its last programme last year, Noel Thompson suggested that if there wasn’t an official opposition, then perhaps it would have to fall to the media to provide it. In fact the first full year of politics has been much more invigorating that perhaps many of us suspected with the closing of the troubles and peace process eras. Politicians in Stormont have had to get to grips with the politics of water charging, education, environment, and social spending. As a consequence, they are also having to find new ways to present themselves and think differently about how they are going to make their pitches for re-election. Competence will increasingly be the key for each politician and their political parties. In the last year we at Slugger have tried in our own way to throw light on the inner workings of the new Stormont institutions. In our policy panel discussions (scroll down), organised with the help of Stratagem, we put together a series of discussions designed to throw some of that light on the core tasks facing out politicians in turning Northern Ireland round from its war time footing, to a genuinely civilised and robust democratic space.

And there is more change on the way. Local government, which has barely existed in any form other than ad hoc local community representation, will change radically after 2011. New powers will be devolved and the eleven new councils will mean fewer councillors, and crucially much larger electoral areas over which they will compete.

Politicians will need to find new ways to communicate online, to get complex messages through not simply to the mass public audience, but to those journalists and other opinion formers who will play a crucial role in shaping how they and their parties are seen. That isn’t going to come overnight, and will take some investment now, to see some fruition later.

From Slugger’s point of view, over next year we hope to put together a series of programmes and events aimed at strengthening that nascent democracy.

Tomorrow, I’ll be giving a short presentation at the launch of the Northern Ireland Councillor.info project at Stormont. It’s fairly modest aim is to give Councillor’s a modest introduction to online communication. It’s primarily designed for them to demonstrate their work as a public representative, and to provide them with the means to build a strong connection with their local constituents online (more on that tomorrow).

We’ll continue to cover individual issues in depth, and at the same time expand the breadth of perspective within our blogging team. That will include areas of expertise, as much as from a party political point of view. We hope to add to recent additions such as Andy Pollack of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, and Brian Walker formerly BBC NI’s Chief Political Correspondent, as well as from our older (by which I mean tried and tested) blogging team.

Slugger was six at the beginning of this month. When it began we had an Executive, an Assembly, Committees, Cross Border Bodies and even a Civic Forum. Within months it all collapsed, leaving the people of Northern Ireland once again fearful and uncertain about their collective futures. Last May, the ship finally returned to port, with a shared understanding that reaching to the future should premised on hope and ambition that on base emotion of fear.

Some complain that we’ve not yet made much in the way of tangible progress. How much we do in future will ride on the calibre of our politicians, from the First Minister to the local councillor. That will require what that great Irish parliamentarian, Edmund Burke referred to as “a respectful frankness of communication” with their constituents. As Burke also noted in his speech to the electors of Bristol:

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect.

Clearly, in Northern Ireland, we are not speaking of one nation, but two. But slowly deliberation is taking the place of confrontation. I hope Slugger can continue to prove its worth now the peace come ‘dropping slow’.