The adoption of a citizens’ assembly could assist with making progress with reform of the health service in Northern Ireland, says Simon Hamilton – a DUP MLA and former health and finance minister. He was interviewed in the latest ‘Forward Together’ podcast.
Speaking about the use of citizens’ assemblies in the Republic of Ireland, Simon explains: “They shouldn’t be dismissed instantly just because you didn’t like what some other jurisdiction was doing with them.” He adds: “I know from my time in the health department that there are a range of issues where you think you know the answer. But executing them in a way in which the public understand, get it and get on board with it is a different matter entirely.” For example with health reform, where service provision might be moved or merged to improve quality and outcomes, yet the public will perceive that they have lost a local service.
With a citizens’ assembly, a randomly selected group of people would listen to experts to brief them so that they have an in-depth understanding of a problem. In those circumstances, the public might have trust in the experts to be guided towards the best solution. Simon explains: “There is a space clearly for civic society to play a role… helping politicians to shape the common good.” However, Simon does not believe the former Civic Forum was the right approach to achieve this. “It wasn’t representative. And nobody really I think understood what its purpose was…. It wasn’t a check on the Assembly, it couldn’t be a check on the Assembly. I think there are far, far better ways in which that voice can be heard.”
Simon adds that he is concerned at how at present civil society presents its views. He believes that too often civic voices tend to say “a plague on all your houses”, rather than being more specific in allocating blame and advocating solutions.
Northern Ireland needs to reflect on the scale of the challenge it is dealing with in moving on from conflict and division, Simon suggests. “We probably haven’t taken collectively the time to sit back and say we believe this is a 50 year job probably here. Nobody wants to hear that it’s a 50 year job, but maybe it’s at that end of the scale. So this is a long-term job.”
What is more, it is an inter-generational challenge. “I think we were all a bit naive” in not recognising the attitudes and beliefs that led to the conflict would not be passed down the generations, he says. It had been assumed “that people who lived through it and experienced that and perhaps were affected were victims or survivors themselves, [as they] got older and passed away that the problem would pass away almost with them. And that hasn’t. And it is being passed on.” What has been left behind with the next generation instead has, for some, been a “romanticism” about the Troubles, he argues.
The challenge of restoring devolution is made more difficult, too, by the lack of contact between members of different political parties. When Stormont is functioning, MLAs of various parties bump into each other and talk. Without Stormont, that does not happen. “There’s not even a place where politicians from across the country come and sit and have any sort of a debate,” says Simon. “And I’m pretty sure that if we were back in business there would be occasional debates and discussions around the constitutional issue. I always think it was a sign of the tone of the progress that we were making that there were debates around the constitutional question.
“Brexit has obviously brought the issue onto the agenda in terms of the constitutional question, but not in a positive way. Clearly atmosphere and context is important, but you’re not going to get a polite, civilized conversation whenever politics itself is not polite and civilized at this moment in time. So I think for a whole host of reasons we need devolution back.”
The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.
- Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.
Paul Gosling is editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects and is Parliamentary Assistant to Sinead McLaughlin MLA, the SDLP’s economy spokesperson.