We need a national conversation

A deep and wide process of engagement with citizens to co-create a future vision for N(n)orthern Ireland could help jolt our peace process and our politicians out of the stalemate we find ourselves in.


I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in a few far-flung places, including Pakistan, DRC and Rwanda – each of which have longstanding conflicts, many strongly driven by an inability to peacefully resolve issues over tribal, ethnic or religious identity.

One thing that’s undeniably similar about all these conflicts is that they’re inter-generational and cyclical.

Violence comes and violence goes depending on the specific circumstances of the times, but unless the underlying division and root causes get addressed, the fuel always remains to feed the fire.

Closer to home it feels like our peace process is underachieving: there has been very little forward motion in the past few years.

Perhaps it has simply completed the task it was designed to do (i.e. stop most of the violence and get devolved institutions up and running) and we should stop expecting it to take things further.

Whatever the truth our politicians and institutions seem unable or unwilling to take on the deeper transformation needed to make peace permanent.

That requires finding new ways to tackle a multitude of critical issues we face as a society – segregation, the crisis in public finances, chronic poverty and inequality, a health service unable to meet increasing demand, to name a few.

In January I visited the Basque Country (or the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain if you prefer) to learn about that region’s impressive socio-economic and political transformation over the past twenty years.

We met a whole range of stakeholders, including the world’s largest cooperative, the Mondragon Corporation, and former Basque President Juan José Ibarretxe.

His term in office coincided with the transformation of the Basque Country from high unemployment and economic stagnation into a socially-conscious industrial powerhouse with higher per capita income and lower inequality than any other region of Spain, (as well as most of the EU).

Ibarretxe cites the region’s successful efforts in building social cohesion and developing a sense of shared identity as the single most important factor in the socio-economic transformation. Their mantra “all together or not at all”, something we would do well to adopt in Northern Ireland.

Our peace process has created a historic window of opportunity to forge a new sense of shared identity and purpose, but that window won’t stay open forever.

Perhaps it’s time to give citizens a chance to create a better vision for the future.

With a sufficient critical mass, politicians would find it very hard not to listen and change tack. They might even welcome the permission it would give them to step back from a dangerous game of brinkmanship.

Whatever their constitutional endgame, they must know it will be a disaster for all of us if it doesn’t build in a recognition that the most important relationships are the ones between people who live in this un-nameable place.

If we can’t create some kind of shared vision about what we want to be good at collectively – what we want to be known for – we’re in big trouble.

So what would a national conversation look like and what could it achieve?

The process would need to be co-designed and driven by those with a passion for and an expertise in civic engagement – community and voluntary groups, independent funders, academia and activists.

The media would need to be a key partner. And yes politicians should be involved too, but without being in the driving seat for once.

Of course change of the order seen in the Basque Country doesn’t come about overnight. Nor does it come about solely on the back of any single initiative, however ambitious.

But sustained efforts to change the culture of engagement over a number of years can, as the Basque example demonstrates, build a ‘social contract’ between the governing and the governed with positive consequences for society and the economy as a whole.

With that disclaimer in mind here’s a couple of models of national conversation initiatives from not too far away:

  1. The Belgian G1000 – this crowdfunded process took place during Belgium’s recent political crisis in 2011 where the country went without a government for 589 days. The process was based on the premise that if the politicians can’t find a solution, citizens should have a go themselves at articulating a future vision for the country. It began by crowdsourcing broad themes online, then a citizen summit was organized with 1000 randomly selected citizens and finally a representative 32 member citizens panel to consider the key issues identified in greater depth and compile a series of recommendations.
  1. The Irish Constitutional Convention – set up in 2012 to consider what changes were needed to the Irish Constitution to render it more suitable for the 21st Century, the convention consisted of 100 people – an independent Chairperson, 66 randomly selected citizens, stratified to be broadly representative of Irish society, and 33 elected representatives (including 4 representing NI). Over a period of more than two years the Convention received thousands of written submissions, held a series of (live-streamed) public meetings and ultimately produced a series of recommendation to which the Irish Government was required by law to respond. Whilst a number of key recommendations have not been acted upon, the Convention’s key success has been the equal marriage referendum which passed with a resounding yes vote in May.


Obviously a model suitable to our local circumstances would need to be developed, one that had a realistic prospect of influencing future Programmes for Government, as well as political and institutional reform more broadly.

I’m not the only one thinking along these lines – there’s clear synergy with the Carnegie Roundtable on Wellbeing and the Make It Work campaign for example.

There are also clear linkages with other aspects of my work in the Building Change Trust around open government, civic activism and social innovation.

Individually all of these initiatives are really important, but if they, and plenty of others, could all be brought together as a broad coalition with an agreed process and objective, it could help stimulate the genuine solidarity and positive vision that society in Northern Ireland sorely lacks.


Paul Braithwaite leads the Building Change Trust’s work on Social Innovation and Creative Space for Civic Thinking. You can connect with him on Twitter @Paul_BCT

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  • Turgon

    Amidst all the waffle there is actually a somewhat dangerous concept here.

    This appeal for “moving forwards” “national conversation” “change” etc. is all very political: that is fair enough.

    Then though there is the suggestion that “politicians notbe in the driving seat”

    That is fundamentally wrong. In a democracy people elect their politicians. Like them or not they are the people elected. Trying to propose political change without politicians is actually a form of dictatorship. Who will decide what this progressive, changing etc. will of the people?

    The example Mr. Braithwaite raises is of the former Basque President who apparently helped transform the Basque region. There is the critical point: Mr. Ibarretxe was elected.

    Mr. Braithwiate is welcome to have whatever “progressive” conversations etc. he and like minded people want. However, to have any say at all in governmental decisions they have to get elected. Like all too many of the people (the sadly missed) Fitzjameshorse called letsgetalongerists, Mr. Braithwaite seemed to have missed that critical part in the process of governance: getting elected.

  • Niall Chapman

    People vote along sectarian lines and as long as this is the case the DUP will continue to play to their Bible thumping party faithful and the moderate unionists will vote for them because they want the (current) largest unionist party to have as much of a say as possible.

    So the political process in the North is defunct, when every piece of progressive legislation is rejected via petitions of concern because the DUP don’t want to let the “other” get a win, then alternatives to “normal” government must be sought.

    I think like the Basque Country, people in the North need to organise themselves via education and co-operative business and to stop expecting an inept government to fix their problems for them

  • Turgon

    The traditional mechanism by which people organise themselves and change things is by voting or if they are more interested again organising a political party and trying to get themselves or like minded people elected.

    The simple fact is that people vote for whom they choose.

    Your argument seems very like a variant of Mr. Braithwaite and seems essentially to be we do not like the electorate’s choices so let us change the electorate.

    An election is coming and I suggest you Mr. Braithwaite and like minded people stand and try to get elected either as independents or even organise a political party.

    You could have a non sectarian neutral on the union party (there are, you will be surprised to learn, even precedents).

    Then you can have a say proportional to your electoral strength. We even have proportional representation in NI so you have a good chance of getting an / some MLA(s) provided your appeal is sufficiently convincing.

    Alternatively if you lose: the people will have spoken. You can of course continue to agitate for change: that is entirely your right. What you cannot do though if you have not been elected is decide on major public policy areas.

    Incidentally I am pleased to see that your comment is all about unionists voting DUP: as I suspected it’s all themmuns fault.

  • Thanks for sharing your perspective – your view that democracy = only elections is one that i believe is widely shared in NI and that i’d like to challenge. Your statement that “to have any say in governmental decisions at all they have to get elected” is a fairly purist expression of this. Don’t get me wrong i think elections are a fundamental part of the democratic process, as consequently are elected politicians (they are the legislators after all), but the idea that citizens ‘sell’ their entire voice to a politician once every four or five years and then should stay quiet is both illogical and very out of date. This is particularly the case in Northern Ireland where voting preferences are often inherited at birth rather than arrived at through a process of rational and informed debate. Representative democracy has barely evolved at all in the last hundred years and yet some of its fundamental assumptions – widespread political party membership, high electoral turnout and a level of trust between the electorate and politicians have been seriously undermined. Hence i think we need a more deliberative model of democracy whereby citizens have a greater say in government decisions and elected representatives become facilitators of that voice, rather than assuming ownership of citizens’ voice which seems to be the current model.

  • Niall Chapman

    I was going to elaborate but thought the comment was
    getting a bit long.

    Nationalists vote in exactly the same way (not IRA supporters but vote Sinn Féin to give Nationalism a bigger mandate)

    The reason why I mention DUP is because it seems that any legislation which seems to have the support of most people but goes against some biblical ideology then it gets blocked, Sinn Féin did not block the welfare bill based on religious ideology.

    I agree with you on this point:

    “Alternatively if you lose: the people will have spoken. You can of course continue to agitate for change: that is entirely your right. What you cannot do though if you have not been elected is decide on major public policy areas”

    But I’m saying that people should just forget about the political institutions and start their own businesses and education systems (in terms of job training not primary and secondary education), in this technological age people don’t need to go to university to learn a skill or profession, they can find out via the internet or via co-operative education, so that they don’t have to end up in debt. The government should simply be taxing at an appropriate level and providing an apt level of public services and equal rights for everyone, anything else is just overkill

  • Thomas Barber

    “In a democracy people elect their politicians. Like them or not they are
    the people elected. Trying to propose political change without
    politicians is actually a form of dictatorship. Who will decide what
    this progressive, changing etc. will of the people”

    Trying to propose political change without politicians is dictatorship so whats this then British democracy working at its best, and who voted in Phillip Hammond.

    British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond
    says the democratic process of Western governments is “cumbersome” and
    presents a roadblock in the fight against the Islamic State and Russia.

    Hammond criticized societal “buy-ins” required in the decision making
    process and lamented the inability of government to confront enemies
    without first seeking public consensus.

    “We need to get buy-in for any action from a wide range of actors
    —buy-in from the media, buy-in from parliament and buy-in from the

    “The remarks came after Britain’s previous coalition government lost a
    vote to intervene militarily in Syria. The defeat prevented Prime
    Minister David Cameron from invading Syria to take out the government of
    Bashar al-Assad.

    The British government, however, decided to secretly embed military
    personnel with US forces conducting an air campaign against ISIS in
    Syria without parliamentary consent”

    Does it really make any difference if the people are part of the democratic process, will the government listen to them.

  • Turgon

    Ah yes you want democracy to “evolve” or whatever so that decisions you like more get made.

    “Our current Democracy has not worked.”

    The cry of anti democrats of every generation.

    I will indulge you slightly though. Tell me how will you establish the results of this “national conversation”: will it be via say a petition or maybe rallies? and if so how many people would need to take part in such an event or sign such a petition to show that “something must be done”.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you for so clearly pointing out the glaring flaw here, Paul. “the idea that citizens ‘sell’ their entire voice to a politician once every four or five years and then should stay quiet is both illogical and very out of date.” This ingrained oligarchic idea that the only task of an electorate is to pick representatives who then are effectively their only voice is a politically infantalising concept that has long been seen to be simply an apology for an increasingly remote mode of decision making, where the absurdity of much of what passes for debate encourages political indifference.

    As Emma Goldman said in 1911:

    “The average mind is slow in grasping a truth, but when the most thoroughly organized, centralized institution, maintained at an excessive national expense, has proven a complete social failure, the dullest must begin to question its right to exist. The time is past when we can be content with our social fabric merely because it is “ordained by divine right,” or by the majesty of the law.”

    I am entirely with you in your speaking of the need for a more direct participatory democracy! In an age were modern communications systems have at last made possible such popular direct involvement in the decision process, the continuance of a nineteenth century representative system that ensures the monopolisation of power by a small group of “professionals” is becoming increasingly difficult to accept for anyone who really believes in the ability of ordinary people to control their own lives. Power is simply too important to be left to the politicians.

  • Turgon

    Try not to tell lies about what I said. I specifically stated that people should organise etc. as they chose. I suggested they continue to agitate for the change they want even if they lost an election. It is written above. You have chosen to ignore what I have written.

  • I’m not going to pretend i have the best ideas about the specifics of how it would work, that’s why i suggested there needs to be a broad coalition of people and organisations with expertise in civic engagement

    However in general terms it should start very broad – engaging with as many people as possible across society, using a whole range of techniques – online and offline – the more diverse and creative the better – here’s 29 for starters: http://civicactivism.buildingchangetrust.org/tools-directory

    A media campaign to raise awareness of the process and ways to participate in each area would be essential

    This broad engagement process is how the key themes would be identified.

    Then a more intensive process of dialogue and debate would follow, necessarily involving a smaller group of people but selected via stratified sampling (as per the two case studies in the blog) to ensure broad representativity of society. The public should have opportunities to remain engaged through live-streaming, social media and other online mechanisms

    And out of all this a series of recommendations would be produced and presented to government. Ideally some kind of kind of advance commitment from government to at least listen to the outcomes would be preferable.

    And in order to increase the chance of things being listened to, the process would continue by providing mechanisms for people express support for the recommendations (e.g. petitions, rallies, etc.)

    It may be a pipe dream but i’d love to see it happen

  • barnshee

    “People vote along sectarian lines and as long as this is the case the DUP will continue to play to their Bible thumping party faithful and the moderate unionists will vote for them because they want the (current) largest unionist party to have as much of a say as possible.”

    Society in NI is wholly polarised- like it or lump it- its not going to change any time soon -middle class letsgetalongists are not going to make any difference

  • chrisjones2

    …. and they have the right to ignore them and work past them when they are bigoted fools

  • james

    The difficulty seems to be that many unionists neither want, nor feel the need for, a national conversation and would neither believe, nor want to hear, what Republicans have to say. That unwordy intransigence is an unfortunate part of who they, we, are. This is often misrepresented by nationalists as obtuseness.

    Republicans are frequently unconvincing in their innocent mewings and a grave doubt exists over their ability to accept that unionists even have a voice worth listening to. Furthermore, Republicans, when they can (with great difficulty) be pinned down to what their vision of the future is often have little or nothing to say, though they often say that nothing with commendable eloquence and large helpings of sociological jargon.

  • Dan

    ..eg, Declan Kearney

  • Turgon

    I am sorry this is so woeful as to be laughable were it not
    a direct and narrow minded attack on the democratic process and an insult to voters (for assuredly so called liberals can be as opposed to democracy just as anyone else).

    All of your 29 mumbo jumbo strategies involve looking for
    involved and interested people to get involved. Then you decide to have “stratified sampling” by whom? some high minded and “independent” persons (aka
    letsgetalongerists). Then you will keep the public informed and involved with live streaming. This is utter gibberish what about those without the internet or with actual jobs and responsibilities to get on with.

    Worth noting that even in your makey uppey pseudo scientific
    set of “tools” even the makey uppey nonsense itself admits that there is public oversight over precious few of them.

    Then when this wonderful committee of “sampled” people
    decides something what are you going to do: ask the politicians to enact your nonsense? Demand a referendum on it?

    A further problem for your make believe ideas, however, is
    that there have been examples of what one might call civic activism or whatever and they have not always been in a direction that letsgetalongerists would like.

    The vast protests against the Anglo Irish Agreement drew crowds to dwarf anything since: calling for the end of the Agreement. We also effectively had a referendum on it which clearly rejected the Agreement. Now had this sort of direct democracy been followed the Agreement should have been

    The other more recent example was that at the 2010 election
    in the midst of the UCUNF idiocy the Tories refused to have a joint unionist candidate for Fermanagh South Tyrone. The local unionist population demanded a pact and it came within 4 votes of unseating Gildernew and clearly laid the ground for Tom Elliott’s victory this year.

    You see if people got a direct voice it would include people
    other than just letsgetalongerists and the result might well be remarkably similar to the current electoral strengths.

    Presumably that is why you envisage assorted antidemocratic nonsense such as “civic engagement” which is really a code for letsgetalongerist rule.

  • Robin Keogh

    Turgon, he didnt tell any lies nor did he ignore anything. Have some manners man !

  • Reader

    Robin; I might think that Turgon is somewhat touchy at times.
    However, Paul mentioned, and Seaan repeated: “the idea that citizens ‘sell’ their entire voice to a politician once every four or five years and then should stay quiet…”. And that quite clearly wasn’t what Turgon had said. Surely it is better to take issue with what Turgon actually said than set up a straw man?
    [And I am sure that Turgon will hate my idea of Direct Rule from Westminster for a year or so while the Secretary of State kicks arse.]

  • Robin Keogh

    So if Sean missed that why should he be accused of telling lies? Is that the correct way to engage with a fellow poster? I think we all need to start treating each other with a decent level of respect before we preach to others about anything.

  • Turgon

    Thank you Reader. Direct Rule might not be that bad an idea at all.

    My concern is that letsgetalongerists and other utterly unrepresentative, too often work shy, very well paid spongers off the state would replace our current elected too often work shy, very well paid spongers off the state. Just as they tended to in the past.

  • Ian James Parsley

    To play devil’s advocate – do we? Really?

    Or do we need to get on with it?

    I get the sense that all we do is talk. How about actually doing things?

  • Given the undoubted flaws in the proposed remit of this ‘conversation’ – “segregation, the crisis in public finances, chronic poverty and inequality, a health service unable to meet increasing demand, to name a few”.

    And in its proposed method – “all of these initiatives [] could all be brought together as a broad coalition with an agreed process and objective”.

    I’d suggest we’ve already seen the non-working of such an approach in a more closely defined area of policy.

    NI Bill of Rights, anyone? Anyone?

    “The process would need to be co-designed and driven by those with a passion for and an expertise in civic engagement – community and voluntary groups, independent funders, academia and activists.”

    You’re having a laugh!

    “The media would need to be a key partner.”

    No change there, then…

    Representative democracy is still the least worst option.

  • Nevin

    The Opsahl Commission proposals, published in 1993, got a brief mention in the Commons in 1994 as the PRM dithered:

    Harry Barnes: The Opsahl report on Northern Ireland, published in June 1993, was based on the views of many ordinary citizens of Northern Ireland rather than on those of politicians. The range of views expressed to the commission was as wide as those of politicians and perhaps more complicated because they reflected many different nuances and attitudes, as might be expected when speaking to the general public.

    A charitable body established with the backing of charitable-trusts and foundations, Initiative 92’s Citizens Inquiry, obtained 3,000 responses in the form of 545 written and taped submissions. Many of them were examined in meetings and by seven experts from both parts of Ireland, from Britain and from the United States of America under the chairmanship of the leading Norwegian human rights lawyer, Professor Torkel Opsahl.

  • Deke Thornton

    “Nation”…a very recent concept. Extremely recent in human history and a tiny fraction of time in our ape/mammalian time on our little pale blue rock.. Tribe/Territory is built in to our ape genes. (And competition for resources were the foundation for that- Evolution). Nobody-locally- was born Irish/British/Unionist/Nationalist.(|Or none of the above) Just top of the ape pile in looking for the best resources on a planet looking increasingly fragile in terms of how those finite resources are available. This parochial squabble will become irrelevant very swiftly. As will the premise of this article.

  • Thanks Nevin a very useful reference and a clear precedent. These types of processes are necessary once in a while i think to help push the process of change forward. Would be good to know what could be learnt from the Opsahl Commission process.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Robin, It’s how I’d understood what he had written. I know that Turgon seems to believe he has been perfectly clear about what he meant, but it would help us all if he would engage in explaining things clearly when he is misunderstood instead of resorting to accusations such as “liar”, “man playing” and “troll”. I’m not the only person to be so accused over the past six months, and feel that such “touchy” responses simply serve to stifle debate, where a serious and courteous attempt to clarify misunderstands occasioned by his occasional vagueness would perhaps stimulate fuller debate. It would certainly help general debate here if he were to address himself to answering the core of a criticism rather than simply focusing on one tiny issue to the exclusion of the main critique.

    I have no wish to misrepresent Turgon’s words on the issue of “citizens ‘selling’ their entire voice to politicians every five years” but still cannot see how his suggestion that they “agitate for change” through the electoral process in any way qualifies what appears to be his seeming belief that once the election is over, the representatives are the sole legitimate voice of the people, in effect the people have “sold” their political voices for five years, the point over which I was supporting Paul Braithwaite’s comment. Perhaps Turgon has simply misunderstood the point I’m trying to make, however.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Reader, I’m rather inclined to agree with you (and Turgon, below!) about the need for someone external to step in and genuinely try to break the stalemate to create some sanity here. The system we are all suffering under clearly is not working to my mind. Reconfiguring this would certainly be easier if we could offer a decent number of MLAs who could match the calibre of, say, Danny Kinahan.

    I’d taken issue with Turgon’s statement regarding the community, that “to have any say at all in governmental decisions they have to get elected”, and the gist of what I’d said was focused against that. By nit picking on a detail Turgon is avoiding the need answer this core challenge. I do not feel that all power should entirely go to representatives every few years and that the only right anyone then has is to organise for the next election. I feel that the community has every right to confront their representatives on issues, through every single non-violent medium available. For me anything else is a denial of popular sovereignty, something to my mind given in only trust to representatives at elections. Should this trust be abused (as it so often is) the people as a whole should withdraw power back to themselves, its true source.

    And I’d still also be at odds with Turgon on the his comment “Trying to propose political change without politicians is actually a form of dictatorship.” I cannot see how a serious and responsible consultation of the entire communities opinions can be represented as in any way “dictatorial”. An important thing to recognise is that those engaged directly in the current political system, as politicians so obviously are, have a strong vested interest in its continuance in its present form. Suggesting that they alone are empowered to determine these issues and that no serious attempt to examine what the community is actually thinking, beyond the crude device of judging this from those manifesto issues they vote for in elections, would effectively perpetuate the very elitist practices that need to be called into question.

    Representative democracy has always been an expedient system, in my understanding simply a crude approximation of the genuine personal involvement of all in everyday politics that a true democracy should strive for. Modern representative practice is an historically situated “habit” left over of earlier times, when direct democracy was impossible. Greater popular direct involvement in government is entirely possible now, with modern communication systems, and so the need to use approximations such as the representative system is becoming less and less necessary. And if we genuinely believe in a sovereign people, it is for them to decide what form of governance they should live under, not for them to be told what is good for them by an oligarchic elite. In this context each representative is simply another citizen with equal rights to every other citizen in the process of honestly re-thinking the art of being ruled.

    Accusing others of being “anti-democratic” while demanding that the people have no direct say whatsoever in their governance beyond a most circumscribed vote every five years, with simply the preparation of candidates for the next election “permitted”, simply does not make sense to me!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Please forgive me Turgon, if I have in any way misunderstood the gist of your postings. I have no intention to misrepresent you. I did not ignore, but simply did not notice that you stated that organisation for the next election was a permissible activity. I have perhaps concentrated on what seems to be a core idea above, that all democracy must be a representative democracy that vests power every few years in a limited number of people. If I am still misrepresenting you, please expand this clearly.

    But do such representatives perhaps not have a vested interest in the continuance of the system as it stands, and the concentration of power that it offers them? Accordingly, they should be the very last people to have final say over any constitutional change. I have, since my early involvement with NICRA and the PD, believed in the moral right of a community to publicly highlight injustices, or even simply the ignoring of important issues, where their elected representatives are unwilling to address these. If the representatives derive their power from a sovereign people, why should those people in their entirety not have the right to re-configure how that power should be used where their representatives arrogantly ignore broad public opinion?

    The representative system here is currently unable to command more than a part of the communities confidence, as a sizeable portion of our community simply does not vote. Most major parties in our community drum up “traditional” support at election times, and at other times are all too willing to behave in a most irresponsible manner in pursuit of their various agendas. This habit is perpetuated by their monopoly of power, for where any party such as the Greens contests elections, the traditional voting pattern ensures that they will not get a look in. The electorate sees politics as something only for professionals, and this creates a vacuum of indifference. Perhaps it is now time for more popular bodies to step into this vacuum nurtured by the oligarchic centralising tendencies of successive administrations, and break the steadily developing deadlock.

    To my mind this is what Paul Braithwaite’s excellent lead article is requesting, and offering three decent examples of how this might be done. To call such a thing “anti-democratic” (as you do below) is, to say the very least, rather confusing.

  • Reader

    Quick Quiz – Which well known Slugger poster replied to another poster using the classy line: “Knowing No Other Bloke”?

  • D99

    Who do you think is more honest – the average career politician or the average citizen?
    What we’ve been witnessing here is the abdication of governmental responsibility for the well-being of the citizenry under cover of sectarian disagreement or imposed cost-cutting from Westminster.
    There are clearly serious problems with our form of representative democracy:
    Politicians seeking reelection become demagogues, appealing to the public’s emotions, rather than their reason, to win votes. They shy away from necessary reforms that might come at an electoral cost.
    They are immune to control by the public. And very often, they are unable to adopt the perspective of those affected by their decisions.
    The insularity of our political classes – the way they exert power from the comfort of the bubbles in which they live – leaves them and their preconceptions safely unchallenged. So inherited notions continue to shape the debate and guide public policy over crucial matters.
    Corruption is rife: whether in the form of serious conflicts of interest, secret campaign contributions, or exchange of money for political favours.
    We have delegated power to the political class and hardly supervise it. At elections, we are condemned to unreflective and easy to influence decision making.
    Reasonableness and public spiritedness have disappeared as essential public virtues.
    Unraveling, dysfunctional, impotent, and toxic – just some of the words commonly used to describe the Assembly and Executive.
    In this context, those who belittle the prospect of meaningful democratic reform must answer for the economic, environmental & political situation we find ourselves in.

  • Robin Keogh

    Whats wrong with that?

  • Reader

    Calling someone a knob isn’t “…treating each other with a decent level of respect before we preach to others about anything.”

  • Robin Keogh

    Sorry Reader but can i respectfully suggest that u are losing your mind

  • D99

    Yes great idea Pete, let’s leave it to the politicians who have done so well to date. And let’s continue to buy into the notion that there’s no alternative and settle for the ‘least worst option’, pretending it’s the best.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Reader, this sort of thing is sheer whataboutery. Calling someone a “liar” for simply not seeing a minor phrase that does not in any way effect the gist of what is being said seems to be evident man-playing in my book. Robin’s actual point stands, and I cannot see how I can be accused of “lying” when what I’m saying still clearly addresses a significant feature of what Turgon is actually saying.

    Turgons “dangerous concept” is that “politicians should not be in the driving seat” in a situation where they clearly have a powerful vested interest. That is the point both myself and Paul Braithwaite are addressing with the offending sentence.

  • D99

    You seem unusually confused on this one T.

    Surely more citizen engagement is good for democracy. In fact it’s part of the definition of ‘democracy’ – a system of government by which people govern themselves. The goal of democracy is the condition where all people can participate fully and equally in decisions that affect their lives.

    And I’m not sure where this notion of ‘letsgetalongist rule’ comes into it. Participatory democracy is not necessarily about getting along. It’s about engagement and accountability.

  • Hard to disagree that our ‘squabble’ will become irrelevant ‘swiftly’ on an evolutionary timescale but i’d prefer not to see survival of the fittest played out and am arguing that the collection of humans living in this place have it within themselves to sort it out a bit sooner, if only they’d be given the chance!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    When we use the term “Democracy”, D99, few of us are saying the same thing. Each of us means what we have come to think of as democracy in the course our own lives and our political development.

    Some of us, possibly we two, think of it as the sovereignty of the entire people. Others may be quite technical in their definition, and see it as referring to a system where all power only accrues to the people at election times, and after the action of voting, that power has been entirely vested in the representatives elected, such abdication of responsibility to last from that point until the next election. In this interpretation of the word the only power that the people actually employ is in the act of voting.

    I’ve attempted to describe my understanding of what the word means to me in several of my comments above, but it is never safe to think that any word in mouths of any two people means the same thing. It is not just the Americans who are divided from us through common language.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    He is also rather importantly failing to address the actual point you made, Robin.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    This “Representative democracy is still the least worst option” quote is to my mind an avoidance of the very important observation that something is clearly failing and needs to be analysed and improved if such a thing is possible. In effect what Pete seems to be saying with this is that what we have is the very best thing we can expect. I’d value his feedback if I am in any manner misrepresenting his comment.

    Even on a basic level, we could have the sort of review through direct democracy that the Swiss may employ. We are after all small enough community to contemplate such a restraint on what our politicians may seek to do in our names once the ink is dry on the ballot papers. For myself, I’d prefer a much more active role for the voting public, a system of full public consultation on issues such as Beppe Grillo and Five Star are proposing in Italy, using modern communications to effect a genuine popular will. No, we are not even beginning to live in “the best of all possible (democratic) worlds”, Pete!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you D99 for an excellent and very much to the point posting! To all of this must be added the trend of every representative system to avoid those checks and balances that would in any way question their ability to act unrestrainedly. In the UK, the Crown, the Lords and the Judiciary, and even the almost now monocameral Commons have all been seriously restricted in their ability to question what, since the “Thatcher Revolution”, the Prime Minister and his executive may do. The OFMdFM here tend in the same direction.

    With these shifts in actual wielding of power we are approaching the point where this will be no longer a democracy in any meaningful sense.

  • Nevin

    You could talk to Andy Pollak and Paul Burgess, two names familiar to regular Sluggerites; they were part of the commission. I went along to the very sparsely attended session in UU Coleraine and I also made a submission based on my own analysis; no-one from the commission engaged with me. I’ve concluded that the general public prefer to leave politics to the politicians and that those who vote mainly endorse those who are strongest on the respective constitutional aspirations, a triumph of brawn over brain. Even here on Slugger, conversations are often little more than the dialogue of the deaf.

    Democratic Dialogue is either dead or has morphed into another brand.

  • D99

    So where to begin the transformation to a better form of democracy?

    Perhaps it’s too much to ask our politicians to come to objective, rational decisions that benefit the wider community rather than their individual constituencies and parties. But surely the least we can expect is some kind of transparency around their discussions and decisions. And some sort of accountability.

    When politicians make decisions behind closed doors and can’t even agree on what they agreed, we know that the old Blairite tactic of constructive ambiguity is alive and well. Except now it’s used in relation to bread and butter issues like health (hospitals), welfare and general economic policy. So much so that, in the absence of sunshine, it’s become a much more destructive ambiguity, and spin reigns.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’m hopeful about the Green Party, and their interest in real grass roots democracy, but I’ve been about since the 1960s and am pretty accustomed to disappointments. Five Star talk good, also, but the proof of the pudding and all that……

    But keep up the good work of asking for accountability, its a good place to start. I like the way you come straight to the real issues on all of this in your comments.

  • D99

    “We are the dupes of those who shape the content of our beliefs, who introduce us to each other as enemies and competitors and who stand exalted on the shambles they create.” (Dan Hind, Common Sense)

  • D99

    Yes, I know what you mean.

    “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” is the best definition I’ve seen. The more direct, deliberative and participatory the better.

    Voting once every five years or so for the usual suspects who can’t represent us doesn’t really cut it!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    In full agreement. “The more direct, deliberative and participatory the better,” especially now the redevelopment of communications has made such participation a simple matter. There is no excuse for continuing with an elitist nineteenth century system of representation that politically infantilises those who it pro ports to govern.

  • Skibo

    Why keep perpetuating the myth of a northern Ireland nation. It does not exist. Either it is a region of Ireland or a region of the UK. A failed entity. Why not put it out of its misery and accept a united Island and then talk about a National conversation?

  • Brian Walker

    Paul, There’s quite a lot of unpicking to do here. First, what are the problems that need solving? In NI terms, “constitutional” means the border. In the Republic because of the written constitution, the term takes in political reform. I suggest in the north, the political structures are clearly settled for the foreseeable future, Further reforms supposed to have been decided in the Stormont House Agreement are clearly incremental. .

    I believe ” the peace process” is an idea which has run its course. .Not because peace is perfect but because after so much political change, problems which are actually marginal like the flashpoints, are bound to be as central to politics,if politics continues to be seen mainly in terms of a ” peace process.” The result of too much prominence without a result is greater aggravation.

    We need to bite the bullet, so to speak, and move politics on. A new concept for the next stage is required.

    Don’t get me wrong, Community relations ( my preferred term for “peace process”) are indeed a continuous process but are now well understood.
    The broad blueprint to develop here is the cohesion strategy

    Beyond it ,a new direction is needed. Ending deadlock and stasis requires new thinking about matters which are not directly about deadlock and stasis yet would have a bearing on ending them.,

    The introverted Assembly is bereft of constructive policy ideas ideas and seems at a loss as to how to find them. They are unknowns unknowns at Stormont.

    A new emphasis should be placed on finding new policies designed for a too structurally divided society, on education, housing and above all, economic development and trade. For this we need less about peace and more about economic progress,.

    For that we need three things: one, a civil society not, as at present, to frightened to speak out for fear of losing government investment ; two, disinterested outside intervention; and three, local politicians able and willing to respond.

  • Reader

    Robin Keogh: So if Sean missed that why should he be accused of telling lies
    You are right enough. My own take on the issue was that Paul created his straw man out of careless reading and binary thinking; and that Seaan accepted it wholesale because it was disparaging a Calvinist – which always flies in under Seaan’s radar.
    However, Turgon saw his actual position misrepresented. Some people handle that better than others.

  • Reader

    SeaanUiNeill: …failing to address the actual point you made, Robin.
    Well OK then. I felt that Robin was definitely not the right person to make *that* point, and his latest mental illness gibe sort of reinforces my case.
    On the general issue of polite discourse, it is perfectly clear that different people engage at different levels of debate. Someone who is here on Slugger as a tribal cheerleader or party-bot will have different standards from a lets-getalongerist; or an otherwise frustrated voter, or an academic. Some people here are committee-room debaters, front-bar debaters, back-bar debaters, back-street debaters or mass debaters. Where will they find a common standard?
    And I suspect that the most important thing about Turgon’s specific challenge to being misrepresented wasn’t the level of courtesy – it’s that the complaint couldn’t be ignored. Job done.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Reader, taken pretty broadly I agree with you about the wide level of engagement, and the problem of manners. But there is a serious underlying issue here. Any engagement “in good faith’ required a degree of polite listening to the other person. If Turgon has any point here, it is that I perhaps missed a pretty irrelevant detail of what he appeared to be saying. We all do this at times. But to jump to calling someone a liar, or a troll for missing a minor point that does not actually seriously answer the gist of the criticism takes us absolutely nowhere, it is a stifling of debate. Correcting misunderstandings of the trivia by unpacking detail and answering the main point made is actual engagement in debate. Ignoring the point I was making and distracting attention by highlighting my failure to account for the one small “concession” for popular (and in practical terms impotent) involvement outside of the few moments during which a ballot form is filled out is not. As the Slugger Comments Policy states: “By all means challenge the things people say or do, but don’t be personal and keep it civil.” Is using the term “liar” in this context not clearly personal, rather than a genuine robust response to what I was saying?

    I’d still hold that “the idea that citizens ‘sell’ their entire voice to a politician once every four or five years and then should stay quiet is both illogical and very out of date” is quite accurate to the general gist of what seems to be intended by the comment ” to have any say at all in governmental decisions they have to get elected”. Effectively, this implies an attitude of “give us your vote and then shut up for the next five years”. If it can be unpacked to show that this does not actually suggest that the people should not interfere in actual political power between elections, once they have “sold” their vote, I am happy to eat crow.

    And as I said above “Turgons ‘dangerous concept’ is that ‘politicians should not be in the driving seat’ in a situation where they clearly have a powerful vested interest.” We question the effect of outside financial interests on the conduct of our representatives, so how much more should we question their involvement in anything that might erode the very representative system that they have committed themselves to.

  • John Collins

    Red Lion
    I just wonder are Unionists as straight talking as you make out. For decades the DUP reviled and sneered at the ROI, SF and the RC Church. Yet when it suited them they could work away no bother with all three. The ‘chuckle brothers’ episode and Paisley’s glad handling of Bertie Ahern gave the lie to the myth of the ‘straight talking Unionist’.

  • Thanks Brian for this useful analysis. I deliberately avoided the term constitutional in the article due to its local connotations (and the absence of a constitution!), though obviously I referred to the Irish Constitutional Convention (which had nothing to do with the border) as an example of a national conversation-type process.
    Two things I certainly agree with:
    1. cohesion is key if we are to move on from the ‘peace process’ into an era of permanent stability; however cohesion can only come about through broad and sustained engagement of citizens in the task of building a shared society. We need to move on from ‘expert dependency syndrome’ and realise that the real experts in solving intractable problems are the ones experiencing them.
    2. we need an independent, diverse and vociferous civil society to hold government and politicians to account. Civil society, whilst a term that is in common parlance internationally, is not widely used/understood in NI. Paraphrasing a widely used definition it’s the arena distinct from the market and the state where citizens organise to share and promote common interests. The community/voluntary sector is a key part of it but as are more informal groupings of activists, interest groups, etc. Fostering an independent and vociferous civil society is a key focus for my work with Building Change Trust – I referenced our civic activism and open government work in the article and we’ve also commissioned UU to carry out research into the independence of the voluntary sector

  • Ian – a delayed response, but surely in order to ‘do things’ we need a clear direction of travel i.e. a vision to work towards and an agreed series of problems that need resolved? To say the least I don’t think most people get a strong sense of vision emerging from Stormont, hence my suggestion that citizens should have a go themselves

  • Barneyt

    Ian Paisley once said he would welcome a United Ireland…that swore an allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II. Now, whilst provocative, its worth pursuing a statement like this to see if we can extract something from it.

    The reality he meant that he would like to see the 26 counties of the Republic returned to England, as it was during the height of colonial period. However, does this mean he was prepared a few years back to accept an All-ireland politically ruled from Dublin?

    The point I am making here is that Ian Paisley did make a statement that expressed how a United Ireland would be acceptable to him (however unreasonable it seems). We should take this and see how others might attach conditions.

    This would generate a true national discussion and provoke many conditions.

    There is however no-one that is capable of work-shopping such a discussion. We each need to step outside our boxes and try to contemplate the two most extreme proposals, which I believe represent the ideal from each of our tribes in this conflict.

    1. All Ireland with a devolved government but under a UK franchise with the British Monarch as head of state
    2. A United Ireland ruled by the present Dail and formed as a 32 democratic republic.


  • Barneyt

    A knob in this world has proven to be very useful. Get to know the right one and you could find they might open doors….I’ll get my coat