Randomocracy in Northern Ireland

There are three crucial ingredients for a high quality democracy: a very large hat, a pen and lots of small bits of paper. Write the name of each citizen in the land on a bit of paper, put all the bits of paper in the hat, close your eyes and pluck out 500 names from the hat. Write to each of the 500 saying:

“Congratulations, you have been picked as one of the 500 people who will run the country for the next five years. Please come along to our Random Parliament and start making decisions about things like welfare reform, flag display and corporation tax rates (maybe). We’ll put you up in a swanky hotel, pay you loads of expenses and square it with your boss. Look forward to seeing you…”

In this world, democracy could be renamed Randomocracy: rule by the randomly selected. There would be no elections, no political parties and no leaders’ debates. Parliament would look strangely like society as a whole – an even balance of men and women and people from all income groups and educational levels. The random parliament would look very different from contemporary parliaments: full of badly dressed, middle aged, overweight, highly educated, overly talkative men.

So, it would be much more ‘representative’ in the sense of being a mirror image of society as a whole.

The idea of being ruled by ordinary citizens fills many people with dread. Surely such people would do mad things, make crazy decisions, or not turn up? The very thought makes many people cling even more tightly to the notion that democracy is about elections and political parties. This conflation of an idea (democracy as the will of the people) with one particular way of putting the idea into effect (voting) is so deeply embedded that many commentators ridicule the idea that democracy can be put into effect in a different way – such as random selection rather than election. To the ancient Greeks elections were the opposite of democracy and they randomly selected core components of their system. In medieval city states such as Venice and Florence random selection played a crucial role also.

The link in today’s world to ancient Greece is the random selection of members of legal juries, a practice than many citizens would hold dear. While the implementation of the law by randomers is seen as normal and reasonable (few people argue that jury members should be elected…) the generation of law by randomers is typically viewed as bizarre.

While randomocracy is not a panacea for any of today’s democratic imperfections, there is a strong case for a component of our political system being based on randomly selected citizens making binding political decisions. Perhaps we could delegate to random citizens those particular decisions that our elected politicians find hard to resolve: welfare reform, flag flying and whatever crops up next year as an issue that gridlocks the system.

There is an argument in favour of setting up in Northern Ireland  a randomly selected decision making body. I will flesh out the argument  at the conference in Dublin on the 27th March which focuses on the subject of Citizens and Constitutions.

Anyone can come along, you don’t have to be randomly selected.

John Garry is senior lecturer in comparative political science in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast. He is the Principal Investigator of the “Randomly selected politicians: transforming democracy in the post-conflict setting” project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

On Friday 27 March the Institute for British Irish Studies (IBIS) at University College Dublin will host a conference on ‘Citizens and Constitutions: Engaging Citizens in Debates over Constitutional Reform on these Islands.’ The conference takes place in Dublin city centre at the Royal Irish Academy from 9.30 am to 3.00 pm.

The IBIS website describes the conference this way:

Debates over constitutional and institutional reform are much in the news in both parts of the island of Ireland and right across the UK.  The reports of the Irish Convention on the Constitution are working their way through to the Oireachtas and already two referendums are promised this May. The Stormont House Agreement has proposed new procedures to address controversies over flags and parades as efforts to progress the Good Friday Agreement continue. The outcome of last November’s Scottish independence referendum has resulted in intense debates in the UK over future constitutional arrangements.  The purpose of this event is to bring together leading researchers and practitioners in this area to review these debates and their likely outcomes with particular reference to the efforts (if any) to engage ordinary citizens as part of the process.

The conference features leading experts on constitutional reform from all parts of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Today on Slugger, Dr John Garry from Queen’s University Belfast, who will be speaking on ‘A Citizen’s Assembly for Northern Ireland,’ writes on ‘Radomocracy in Northern Ireland.’ Dr Garry’s session at the conference will be chaired by none other than Slugger’s Mick Fealty.

The conference is free to attend, but you must register at: [email protected]

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