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.

 

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London