Time to bring the citizen back in?

As Steven Agnew of the Green Party calls for a Citizens Assembly for Northern Ireland, Robin Wilson writes about the idea which has been under development by a group of citizens and voluntary sector organisations facilitated by the Building Change Trust over the past 6 months.

Northern Ireland seems once again to have reverted to a default state of political dysfunctionality, with months and potentially years of further reluctantly-assumed direct rule from Westminster looming, with its associated ‘democratic deficit’. While often blamed on this or that politician of the moment, depending on the communal background of the observer, this repeated failure is in the long view better seen as a series of political shocks accompanying the gradual separation of the region’s tectonic plates—its sectarian alignments having been embedded almost two decades ago in an agreement ostensibly signalling a new era of reconciliation.

This process has been compounded by the external detonation of the referendum on UK withdrawal from the European Union, whose explosive potential in Northern Ireland should have been immediately apparent to anyone outside the patrician sub-cultures of the English home counties and the Daily Mail—even if the subtly smoothing effects of common UK-Irish EU membership and the normality of regional governance in the EU on Northern Ireland’s historic antagonisms had still eluded them.

‘Brexit’ and the election of Donald Trump as US president have taught the lesson that engaging in identity politics is playing with fire—as those old enough to have emerged in the shadow the Nazi horror left on Europe had been required to learn for the generation of progress that followed. That lesson is fundamentally that democratic societies can only be founded on the understanding that the individual citizen is their unit: they can neither be a permanent battleground between ‘communities’ behind walls—particularly the ones in the head—and nor can they be expressions of an undiluted ‘will of the people’ which shouts down all pluralist conversation.

So how could the long-suffering Northern Ireland citizen (whatever national capital be the source of her passport) take the political stage, having hitherto only really engaged in giving ex post facto legitimation to private interparty negotiations already concluded? And how could that contribute to putting Northern Ireland on a path towards democratic stability and political efficacy?

One part of the answer may be seen on the other side of the—for the moment still invisible—border. The rapid modernisation of society in the republic in recent decades, leapfrogging the north in social policy as well as economic prosperity, far outstripped the Catholic and nationalist pieties of the 1930s constitution. Yet a party system forged in the even earlier divides of the civil war was ill equipped to address that contradiction. Instead, prompted by some progressive political scientists, the parties represented in the Dáil wisely agreed to outsource this challenge to what became known as (in its first iteration) a constitutional convention and (in its current second) a citizens’ assembly.

Each has had 100 members, with interestingly the 25 per cent minority of party representatives in the first removed from the second—an entirely citizen body. The citizen membership is selected by what social scientists call ‘sortition’: a large random sample is engaged and their number whittled down as required, in such a manner as to make it as demographically representative (in age, gender, social class and so on) of the adult population as possible. As with a jury, the citizens so convened are asked to deliberate on an issue or set of issues, on the premiss that they will likely come to similar conclusions, weighing the evidence, as any other such group so assembled.

The constitutional convention was given a raft of challenging issues arising from Bunreacht na hEireann to deal with, including for example its highly dated reference to women in terms of their supposed ascribed role in the home (married women were banned from the republic’s civil service until 1972). Following the success of the convention, the assembly was given a narrower brief by the Dáil—in particular tasked with the charged issue of abortion, on which its membership has mostly come to favour liberalising options to varying degrees.

This has raised some political eyebrows and the still-new taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has suggested the parties may second-guess what the assembly proposes. That remains their democratic right—no such ‘mini-public’ as the citizens’ assembly can assume that—but the value of such initiatives is in bringing fresh ideas to old challenges, raising public awareness and opening up political logjams.

So could a citizens’ assembly add value similarly in Northern Ireland?  This is not without precedent: the ‘shared education’ campus planned for the old army base in Omagh emerged from such a ‘mini-public’ project—this time taking the form of a ‘deliberative poll’ engaging local citizens—some years ago. And a modest citizens’ assembly on ‘Brexit’, part of a research project by political scientists at Queen’s University, is already in gestation.

There are clearly issues which have blocked the working of democracy at Stormont and prevented it modelling a process of reconciliation—such as the ‘petition of concern’ procedure, which was included in the Belfast agreement to protect minority rights but has morphed into a party-political veto, exercised by different parties to different extents at different times. Equally, there are issues arising from the modernisation of society in the region on which once-monolithic views have been challenged—gay marriage and abortion, considered by the citizen bodies in the republic, are similarly issues in the north where the range of views in play has broadened. Other topics could set the agenda: what a citizens’ assembly requires to be a viable vehicle is merely that they be bounded challenges, amenable to a discrete number of solutions.

A number of individuals from diverse backgrounds have come together, assisted by the Building Change Trust, in support of such an initiative, arising from a paper on ‘deliberative democracy’ in Northern Ireland, commissioned by the trust, of which I was (as a political scientist) one of the authors. The trust and other funders  are now actively considering allocating the seed funding required to allow the project to take off. The idea is that a citizens’ assembly could be convened during 2018, before the trust’s mandate—a decade-long role in the modernisation of the region’s voluntary sector—expires.

If the republic’s ‘mini-public’ events have been commissioned by the Dáil, the Stormont assembly is in abeyance and so cannot thus play any such role. Yet the steering group of this project, even when enlarged to engage wider stakeholders, cannot legitimately arrogate to itself a decision on what issue or issues a citizens’ assembly in Northern Ireland should address. The plan, therefore, is to consult intensively with the political parties and the social-partner organisations of civil society, before putting a menu of options out for online debate—before any agenda-setting decision is done.

This is an exciting idea which has already caught something of a breeze, if not yet a wind, over the last few months while it has remained under the radar. After years of growing public frustration with Northern Ireland’s political performance—a frustration which has too often been expressed in populist attacks on ‘politicians’, despite their essential role in a democratic society—it offers a means to enlarge public engagement with politics to constructive ends, for the common good.

  • Robin Wilson is an independent researcher. Views here entirely his own.

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