Citizens’ assemblies in Northern Ireland planned to influence the Brexit debate

Three academics, John Garry and John Coakley of Queen’s and Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania are planning citizens’ assemblies to feed into the Brexit debate in the absence of the elected Assembly. Good idea. We await an announcement which I hope will not be confined to academe, which is where I picked it up – you know, the liberal elite and all that.

Their pitch is: How NI voted in the EU referendum – and what it means for border talks

The Westminster-based Brexit negotiators are keenly focused on the economics of potential trading relationships and the nuts and bolts of different possible immigration systems. In that context, questions about Northern Ireland may struggle for equal billing.

If it’s decided that a border between North and South is going to be strictly imposed, can it be done in a way that does not undermine the Catholic/nationalist sense of connection with the rest of Ireland? Alongside the logistical questions – about the technology needed to manage such a porous border – lie these equally important identity issues.

If, on the other hand, logistics make a sea border the more workable option, can it be put into effect without alienating the relatively working class and less-educated Protestants/unionists who voted for the UK to leave the EU but undoubtedly did not imagine they were voting for Northern Ireland to become distinct from the rest of the UK?

Popular legitimacy is at the heart of political stability. With the absence of a stable executive in Northern Ireland to provide a clear voice on these issues, citizens arguably need to take up a new role. They may need to feed directly into Brexit decision making. With that in mind, we’ll be holding a series of citizen assemblies in Northern Ireland to generate systematic evidence to inform the process.

Citizens will learn about, and will consider the relative merits of, each of the different border options and will then indicate how acceptable they feel each option is. This crucial information could prove vital for negotiators who seek a border resolution that is regarded as legitimate by citizens and minimises risks to political stability.

On the same QPOL  website the politics academic Peter McLoughlin gives an impeccable analysis of the state of GFA compliance and offers these opinions.

The dual-referenda of 1998 could be seen as the people of Ireland accepting – rather than the British government decreeing – the continued partition of the island, but doing so on the condition of full equality in Northern Ireland as envisaged by the GFA. Moreover, the provisions of the same accord were devised on the assumption of EU membership for both parts of Ireland, making the border less relevant in terms of everything from security co-operation to free trade. Brexit poses a threat to all of this – hence Sinn Féin’s call for a new poll on the border.

The timing of this call is entirely unhelpful, not only feeding unionist distrust, but distracting from the important issues of equality – including provision for gay marriage in Northern Ireland – that Sinn Féin advocates. Moreover, many nationalists in Northern Ireland, and certainly a majority of voters overall, would currently question the wisdom of voting for Irish reunification – despite the deep misgivings regards Brexit. Indeed, any significant shift in opinion would likely come further down the line – when the Brexit talks have outlined new arrangements for the border, and the longer term and particularly economic implications of these for both parts of Ireland become clearer. Then a more constructive and informed debate with unionists about their future relationship with Britain, and perhaps a more advanced relationship with their southern neighbours in the interests of both parties, might be possible.

More immediately, we can only hope that the Easter break heralds a resurrection of political as well as the religious faith, and a renewed commitment by all parties to the principles and spirit of the GFA – political compromise, full equality, and mutual respect. An appearance at the talks by Theresa May and her Irish counterpart, Enda Kenny would also help. As well as focusing minds on both sides here, it would be quite appropriate for London and Dublin to become more involved in the effort to resolve our conflicted past, and address our challenging future.



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  • ted hagan

    ‘less-educated Protestants/unionists who voted for the UK to leave the EU’

    This patronising and demeaning statement is hardly a great the debate

  • Brian Walker

    How would express this demographic reality? Or are you saying it’s irrelevant?

  • ted hagan

    Sorry, but it leaves me feeling rather uncomfortable. It appears to question the intellectual ability of some people to cast a vote simply because the result is unfavourable in the questioner’s eyes.

  • Salmondnet

    It is exactly the mind set that tipped the referendum to leave. Long may the arrogant keep revealing their arrogance.

  • Nevin

    “citizens’ assemblies to feed into the Brexit debate in the absence of the elected Assembly. Good idea.”

    Anti-UK whinge fest.

  • Conchúr Ó Conghaile

    Not having a university degree or graduate qualification means that you less educated than some one who does. It’s not a value judgment

  • Madamarcati

    It is insulting and anthropologically inaccurate. Like another ubiquitous academic self-justifying put down: subculture. There are many other ways to describe that which is Other. But it is recognisably the same old tired Thatcherite meritocratic snobbery informed language and mindset that British government funded peace process reports delivered by the flourishing entitled cabal of social scientists at QUB are riddled with.

    It is one of the reasons why such academic reports are unable to do more than simply reinforce the Northern Irish post peace process problems.

  • Nevin

    Here’s another quaint phrase: ‘justice in transition’.

  • Madamarcati

    It is insulting to call anyone ill educated. It flags stupidity. Looking around at our modern societies it is tragically obvious that high academic achievement is no guarantor of high intelligence. Perhaps it is more accurate nowadays to categorise all those not trained within our academia and its increasingly exclusivist caste systems and unintelligible linguistic gymnastics as, well, simply differently educated ?

  • Brian Walker

    Glad to see everyone’s on the ball!

  • lizmcneill

    Why should Brexit-voting Unionists have their hands held in the event Brexit has outcomes they didn’t foresee? Hasn’t Nelson McCausland assured us that he’s happy with anything, as long as we are out of Europe (sic)?

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    So how would you characterise someone who believes a) a lot of very transparent lies about an “EU dictatorship”, b) that leaving the EU would result in £350 million extra per year for the NHS and c) that obvious clowns like Boris Johnston, Gove and Farage could be both believed and trusted.

    There is a limit to how much idiocy like this can be glossed over as being some kind of real democratic choice. People who swallow what appears in the Daily Mail can only be described as gullible fools. And before anyone gets to it, the same can be said for the supposedly ‘left-wing’ Guardian as well. Plus the EU is not by any means some kind of benevolent Utopia, but the advantages of remaining in it clearly outweigh the mainly illusory benefits of leaving.

    The same applies to working class people who vote tory. The tory party very clearly exists and demonstrably always works to benefit the rich. Anyone who is not rich but who votes tory is to my way of thinking, a complete moron. The tories will do nothing to advance or help such people, so why do they vote for them? From sheer ignorance of history, presumably.

    It really takes my breath away that the public can be so stupid. But then, as someone once said, when you see how stupid the average person is, then recall that approximately 50% of the population is even stupider, nothing should surprise you.

    Lastly, I agree that lack of education and stupidity are not the same thing.

  • Obelisk

    I like this idea.

    Northern Ireland is the region most profoundly exposed to Brexit, and given that the majority of Nationalists voted remain and most Unionists (although by no means all) voted to leave, there is a strong danger that the consequences will again be judged by our familiar battle lines.

    There is a very strong possibility we will have either a border at sea or a border on land. A border on land will produce the following; massive Nationalist alienation due to the division in the island again becoming real through customs posts and the mass disruption they would produce. Those customs post sadly becoming sitting ducks for dissidents. The expense of the inevitable security operation to protect the customs posts. The loss of goodwill from the Irish Republic to the United Kingdom government. Mutual extreme economic damage on both sides of the border. A tool to scare Scots about a potential hard border between them and England.

    A border on sea I think will produce the following. Slightly more cumbersome checks on transporting goods via our airports and ports. Protestant alienation at their seeming abandonment. British chagrin at having their sovereignty even notionally diluted by having to set up an internal customs regime within their own country. A lack of a precedent for Nicola Sturgeon to use to encourage Scots to declare independence.

    It will surprise nobody to learn that if we must have one, I believe it should be the border on the sea. It affects only thousands a day rather than tens of thousands, and of those thousands the effect will be as minimal as flashing a passport. Costs for policing airports and ports will be a fraction of creating a wall of concrete and steel along three hundred kilometres of border, and the economic impact on the north of Brexit will be considerably mitigated.

    For us, these are the consequences of Brexit. And it would be really something if people understood these consequences, something the Citizen Assemblies can help with.

    I don’t entirely agree with the assertion that the vote in 1998 was an acceptance of partition…more a recognition of the reality of the situation coupled with a provision of the tools to democratically bring partition to an end. I also take exception to the notion that using those tools, or the space to argue for them, is regarded as ‘non-helpful’.

  • ted hagan

    I supported Remain. The reason? It certainly wasn’t intellect, more sentiment really, a sense of belonging and a belief in the unity of nations, and also the fact that I voted to join the EEC in the first place. Did I believe much of the propaganda from either side in the debate? No I certainly did not.
    Would I bet my house on the EU being a rip-roaring success 20 years from? No, but it’s possible.
    Would I bet my house on Brexit being a rip-roaring success and the EU disaster 20 years down the line? No, but it’s possible.
    I believe there are many who think like me. There are few guarantees in this debate and deriding opponents by implying ‘stupidity and ignorance’ is stupidity itself.

  • Fear Éireannach

    Sadly, bigotry is not precluded by education, as Oxford graduate Nelson McCausland shows. Many unionists knew exactly what they were doing and saw Brexit as an opportunity to put down uppity Micks and overthrow the GFA. There may be others, less bigoted, who were led by these people. but it is tragic that unionists have abandoned the consensus pf the GFA that has allowed us make so much progress in the last 20 years.

  • ted hagan

    Goddammit, them darn Prods again.

  • NotNowJohnny

    Indeed. Although I’m not sure he was overly happy being out of the Assembly before we were out of Europe.

  • NotNowJohnny

    Some of the least educated people I know have a university degree. One should not confuse having a university degree with having a good education.

  • Madamarcati

    That sounds fantastic to me. It really does.
    Any kind of a hint of possible justice after so many decades where, from my personal ongoing experience here, there remains a moratorium or even amnesty on criminals in all protected sectarian enclaves, for crimes committed in the last few months and years, let alone those from the 1970s onwards. This transition would be a truly revolutionary and very welcome development. But, please forgive me if I do not hold put as much hope of it transpiring as I once did. Every human survivor eventually runs out of courage and of life. Which is, of course, what our cross party apparatchiks are well aware of and using as policy. It is called delaying tactics.
    For goodness sake the evils of the Holocaust only lasted for five torturous years or so and yet the entire world is willing to hunt its criminals for justice to be seen to be done well after their deaths.

  • Nevin

    Apparently we have a world-leading Transitional Justice Institute!

  • Madamarcati

    Hurrah for Us !

    I shudder to think what that means for those benighted countries who are not lucky enough to have one.

    Hilarious. Thanks for the laughs.

  • Nevin

    It seems that we delegate ‘restorative justice’ to ‘community representatives’ whereas other parts of these two islands don’t. Also District Policing Partnerships have morphed into Policing and Community Safety Partnerships. What skills do said ‘community representatives’ bring to ‘community safety’?

  • Nevin

    “With the absence of a stable executive in Northern Ireland to provide a clear voice on these issues, citizens arguably need to take up a new role.”

    Brian, not only an anti-UK whinge-fest but these good folk appear to be living in another galaxy!

  • Madamarcati

    I’ll bite.

    I can only comment on what I have directly experienced or witnessed in the borderlands of an embedded small town/ rural community.

    The day to day life for those for whom The Troubles were kept at bay by local family in the RUC or related paramilitary/criminal gangs are much the same save for when said representatives abuse their absolute powers in collusion with projects funded by corporate or bank big money. These many quick profiteering jolly japes are passed through planning or Stormont sub rosa and imposed top down leaving locals lives substantially degraded and those impacted shocked and feeling both disempowered and alienated from their Big State. For obvious reasons, no one local goes to the police here when stuff happens to them, in any community. The crimes committed by some of the RUC and their politically well placed cronies with total impunity during the past are just still too well remembered.

    As for the rest. It is the much the same as it ever was. With unchecked old tribal hatreds, family or ganglands feuds creating a constant low level terror through the entire community. There is either an unofficial amnesty or an inability for the PSNI to counter criminality here. It is so normalised, this terror, that it has become invisible to those living within its daily strictures. Thing is, I’m from off so I am both constantly aware of it and the first to be violently turned against if I have drawn attention to it. So I have learned to never go out locally alone, stay indoors after dark and keep my mouth shut.
    For you just never know just who you may be talking to.

    Those whom I have spoken to who have lived here for all their lives and who are not within these Peace process highly lucrative localised closed power circles, including younger PSNI from all sides, consistently tell me that the sectarianism and hate and criminality is as bad on the ground now, outside the bubbles of Hollywood/Stormont and their hinterlands, if not worse, than during the Bad years.

    So, how is paying ‘local reps’ on the ground to dole out justice working for those who are not criminals ? Bloody badly.

    It is, however, making alot of local criminals very, very rich and happy.

    So, it is a win/lose situation I guess.
    And it just depends on who your family and contacts are as to whether you are enjoying this new kind of Peace.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    ” It certainly wasn’t intellect, more sentiment”

    Exactly my point – no logical thinking went into the decision, as with many others. The only thing we have going for us is the ability to reason, and if we throw that out and make decisions based on emotion, we end up with things like racial prejudice and ethnic cleansing.

  • Nevin

    “There is either an unofficial amnesty or an inability for the PSNI to counter criminality here.”

    The police have to operate within the guidelines agreed by London and Dublin, or by London on its own if in dispute with Dublin. This has been the case since 1985 and part of the mechanism is described by Dick Spring in that briefing recorded and broadcast by the BBC in July 1996 – and quickly pulled. If you look at some charities, you’ll find a mix of ‘community representatives’, police and civil servants. I don’t know how any of this can give confidence in public governance.

  • Reader

    Madamarcati: Perhaps it is more accurate nowadays to categorise all those not trained within our academia and its increasingly exclusivist caste systems and unintelligible linguistic gymnastics as, well, simply differently educated?
    “differently educated” – or older. Because the older people are much less likely to be educated to degree level but, looking around, it’s younger people more frequently doing stupid things.

  • Korhomme

    And with a sea-border, the need to show a UK passport to go from one part of the UK to another? I don’t see that going down well in some quarters.

    (The land border is 300 miles, more or less, that is 500 km.)

  • Korhomme

    Perhaps. But a university degree, preferably PPE at Oxbridge from Eton, means you have been ‘educated’ in a very particular way. One effect of this seems to be to close rather than to open the mind, a sort of ‘group think’. The Eton-type education with Oxbridge also reinforces a sense of entitlement and arrogance.

    Intelligence is different; and what you think intelligence is depends on what and how you measure it. The first English in Australia thought the aborigines were lazy and ignorant, for they didn’t grow crops, rather they just ate insects. Today, we see that insects are a very valuable source of protein and trace elements. The aborigines used their intelligence to ‘harvest’ their food in a particular way. (Mind you, I have absolutely no desire to eat insects, even if they are now fashionable in ‘top’ restaurants. But that is a result of cultural conditioning.)

  • Korhomme

    Reader, young people have always done stupid things. You and I did stupid things when we were young. You may not want to admit it, but you know it’s true.

  • Obelisk

    Yeah flashing a passport in an area where you have to show identification anyways versus the sheer expense and massive local disruption of policing 500 km of border.

    I’d like to say this was a slam dunk choice but the Tories are in charge so we are probably on a knife-edge between the sane and crazy options.

  • Granni Trixie

    Indeed we have ..over many years I have asked enthusiasts to define TJ but they were never really able to do so.

  • Granni Trixie

    Do tell.

  • Korhomme

    Ladies first, Granni, ladies first.


  • Reader

    Reader: Reader, young people have always done stupid things.
    They were more likely to vote Remain, for a start.
    (I wouldn’t actually want to be the counterpart of the arrogance from Bonaparte above. However, once you have picked a side it’s all too easy to rummage through the statistics and pick out something to say why your side is best.)

  • Reader

    Obelisk: Yeah flashing a passport in an area where you have to show identification anyways versus the sheer expense and massive local disruption of policing 500 km of border.
    There are two types of border – for people and for goods. Since the two governments are committed to keeping the Common Travel Area, there won’t be a border for people within these islands. Sorry.
    I’m not sure how many of your 6 paragraphs can be re-purposed to appear relevant to the movement of goods. However, there is one slight issue. In your scenario, where will the EU build its border posts – within the UK?

  • Croiteir

    This is the nonsense that people have to listen to from all sides on nearly every issue, Crude attempts to demean the others point of view by asserting the opposite viewpoint as somehow better, more enlightened. But for aa piece which seems to encourage participation in a conversation it shows what way the conversation is going to be steered.

  • Croiteir

    The lie is that the said that the £350 million would go to the NHS, actually read the advert on the bus.

  • Croiteir

    Have to do it anyway if you fly