Does the Citizens Assembly proposal pass the Tony Benn test?

The Green Party Leader, Steven Agnew has raised  the issue of a  Citizens Assembly as a possible route towards breaking the current impasse that we fact at Stormont. If you want to read a positive case for this proposal I would direct you towards Jamie Pow’s article on Northern Slant.

For me, I remain cynical about such a proposal. As Jon Tonge pointed out on Talkback yesterday there are myriad of problems with such a proposal in  divided society and certain political realities just cannot be wished away.  Something I pointed out last week is that Northern Ireland is in this position because the electorate put it there in record numbers. The turnout in our last two elections is more than representative of the will of the people and again, very few people had high regard for Stormont to begin with.

There is the argument about what about the 35% who don’t vote? But I am poised to ask, if they won’t take 10 mins out of their day every few years to cast a ballot, why would they give up weekends to deliberate on a variety of issues? The two most recent elections have also shown that higher turnout does not mean we get more “moderate” outcomes. This is once again people transplanting their view of this “silent majority” on Northern Ireland which does not exist.

Then we have this Trudeau notion of rational government, if only people would listen to the experts & evidence then surely they would come to a rational decision. Except, politics is never really rational. Politics is about the heart as much as it is about the head & this impacts on the policy-making process.

Take the party activists for example, many who join a party have an emotional attachment to their cause. This is why in many cases people join parties and endure the rigours of politics, because they have such an emotional desire to achieve an outcome.  I chaired a panel last night with highly regarded experts struggling to explain how farmers benefit so widely from the EU yet constituencies such as North Antrim voted heavily to Leave. Lucy Thomas from the Remain campaign highlighted how their drafting in of “experts” to make the case for the EU had little positive impact. The heart matters in politics, you could put all the experts in the world in front of me and others to tell me about a certain issue, but if goes against an ingrained value set, you’re banging your head against a brick wall.

But what about the Tony Benn test? I know this is a romantic notion, but whenever you propose a new layer of governance in any society you need answers to the following questions;

On these key questions I have little answers, with no Assembly there is little accountability for the decisions made by such a body and I don’t see a mechanism about how I as a citizen get rid of people who make decisions that impact my interests. As much wiser politico than me remarked a Citizens Assembly is a symptom of dysfunctional government, not the cure for one.

We need a system of government that can command broad community confidence, 100 random people sitting in a hall without any proper oversight is not the way forward. I appreciate the intentions are noble and in these politically strained times people like Steven & Jamie should be commended for putting some ideas on the table in this regard, but at this juncture we need to get back to the Good Friday Agreement & other improvements that can be made.

 

 

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs

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