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.




  • Ian James Parsley

    You are no doubt about to be accused of “not understanding deliberative democracy” – the standard accusation of anyone who does not agree to this proposal.

    And yet that is the key point. A “Citizens’ Assembly” (and it needs to be called something else precisely because our legislature is already called an “Assembly”) does not solve the problem in front of us. Indeed, for many, it will look suspiciously like another liberal attempt to ignore election results because they don’t like them very much (Greens have been known even to take cases to court to try to overturn election outcomes they don’t like, after all).

    The idea, by the way, is a good one. A Citizens’ Convention could indeed be used for referrals on broad and key issues – from climate change to managing ageing. But those referrals have to come from (and the subsequent reports/recommendations have to go to) a functioning elected legislature. It was noted on The View last night that nothing would be worse than getting people to do a lot of work on a subject only to find the elected legislature ignoring it (just as it ignored the report on abortion in case of Fatal Foetal Abnormality).

    And the problem is we do not have a functioning elected legislature because two parties have a veto over allowing it to function and at least one is (ab)using that veto; and then of course even once it is functioning any progressive policy is also subject to veto.

    So it is fundamentally a very good idea – but it does not solve the problem before us. Therefore I’m not entirely sure why we are giving it such air time.

  • David McCann

    Slim pickings at the moment Ian.

  • aor26

    There was a ‘civic forum’ idea as part of the 1998 Agreement

    So I think Agnew is talking about reestablishing a part of the GFA that was forgotten about.

    I’d be sceptical that it would make huge differences, but would it do any harm to try it ?

    At the very least it would be a body of (hopefully) well informed people conjuring up possible solutions to problems the politician s can’t fix

    & in the end the elected people can choose to take their ideas on board or choose to discard them.

    Would it be a sweeping change for us? Possibly not. Would it cause any major harm? Definetly not

    I say give it a try

  • Karl

    Cantonalise NI and have local referendums on all substantive issues including the constitutional one. The old council boundaries seem to be small enough and big enough at the same time.

  • Croiteir

    The people whose lack of electoral support flounder around trying to get some sort of relevance beyond that which their support provides. There should be no assembly other than the one elected at the polls, if the smaller parties would produce policies that people support then they too would be able to influence developments. This is just the forlorn cry of those who wish to subvert the electorate.

  • Easóg

    Would they be paid?

  • Nigel McKinney

    There’s a good reason to provide some sort of stipend to randomly selected people who agree to give up their time to participate – why should the plumber who works on a Saturday morning be disadvantaged or the single mother who needs childcare – I understand that the models used elsewhere have different approaches – some compensate , others don’t . Personally I’d be in favour of some stipend to recognise that people giving up time shouldn’t be less well off as a result

  • Easóg

    Who is going to choose these citizens? We already have a paid elected body to ‘govern’ us. One shower of squabblers is more than enough. Why pay for another when that money could be going to our crumbling schools?

  • notimetoshine

    “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.”

    That is the crux of the problem. Too much heart, not enough head in politics, the world over.

  • Easóg

    War by another name?

  • notimetoshine

    I’m not sure what you mean…

  • Granni Trixie

    The Civic Forum fizzled out. I know of two people who were asked to leave it because of nonattendance, for example. So before contemplating something like Citizens Assembly, it would seem sensible to revisit CF and identify lessons. And when alls said and done such an initiative cannot be allowed to obscure that we have a dysfunctional government.

  • aor26

    Probably. Would people do it if they weren’t paid?

  • aor26

    Well there’s no way it would obscure the fact we have a dysfunctional government.
    Its been dysfunctional government since 1920.
    I’d be amazed if it was functional at some point in the future

  • William Kinmont

    The same sheep would be herded into the same halls by the same shepherds. We would still be fleeced by hook and crook.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    They can have my fleece, it’s those chops in the window worry me.

  • Gavin Crowley

    Cantons in Switzerland, like small German principalities, were formed in an era when you could stick a religious or language flag on the highest building and tell everyone who didn’t like it to hike off to the nearest town that will have you. That era is long over.

  • Gavin Crowley

    Tony Benn wasn’t infallible. I think any trial jury would fail his five tests.
    A jury has the power to (indirectly through the judge) deprive you of your freedom. The power derives from an ancient custom, you can’t be dismissed without reason and you are vaguely accountable to you fellow citizens.
    A citizens’ assembly is akin to a jury – so I don’t think Benn’s questions are relevant.

    The two attempts at this in the Republic have shown that politically experienced members, and the agenda setting Chair and Secretariat, can unduly guide the deliberations towards the outcome they desire. Benn’s questions should be directed at the Chair and Secretariat.
    In the latest version a retired judge was in the Chair. This muzzled barristers from making public comments about the Chair because criticising a judge is regarded by the Bar and the Bench as misconduct. Avoid picking a Chair who is above criticism.