Filling the Void - Reviving Democracy in Northern Ireland
15 June 2017

In the first in a series of Opinion Pieces looking at the big issues facing the VCSE Sector in Northern Ireland, Nick Gabutt asks questions of Northern Irish democracy and examines  the potential for a more deliberative way of doing things...

Northern Ireland’s democratic institutions are in crisis: not just because parties cannot agree on how to restore them but also as a result of growing public dissatisfaction with both them and politicians in general. 

Reform is required in order to restore faith, improve engagement and end the gridlock which is paralysing the development of public policy. Two relatively simple remedies should be introduced.  They are both tried and tested elsewhere and would put Northern Ireland at the forefront of the growing international movement to breathe new life into working democracies by increasing the involvement of citizens. 

The first would help politicians with public policy issues that are currently intractable, by introducing direct input from the public, through either a Citizen’s Assembly or deliberative polling.    The second, Participatory Budgeting, would empower local communities to drive the regeneration of their own areas by giving them a say in how community funds should be spent.  At the heart of both is the simple, compelling notion that democracy can best be revived by introducing deliberative democracy - providing voters with the information they require and then bringing them directly into decision-making

This article will explore the current crisis and examine how both these remedies work and how they might help. 

It would be irresponsible to understate the scale of the current levels of dissatisfaction with how government works. It is important to understand how this demonstrates the need to supplement representative democracy with direct citizen involvement. 

A Lucid Talk Poll survey published in December 2016 showed Northern Ireland Assembly politicians had the lowest trust rating in a list of 13 professions - below bankers and estate agents. The 2014 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that two thirds of respondents were dissatisfied with the region’s politicians: 21 per cent expressed themselves ‘fairly dissatisfied’ while 45 per cent were ‘very dissatisfied’.

It has become fashionable to blame the consociational power sharing system on which our government is based. We should remember, however, that the system adopted was to cater for our needs in a post-conflict society and that we need to acknowledge its value as well as its weaknesses if we are to successfully implement the reforms required. 

We should also note that dissatisfaction with government and politicians is not confined to Northern Ireland, it is a global trend. A YouGov survey in November of 2016 asked 13,000 citizens of 12 EU countries what they thought of how democracy worked in their own country.  In only one country did more people say they were satisfied than dissatisfied with democracy: Denmark, where 62% of citizens pronounced themselves satisfied.  The figure for Italy was just 17%, France 21% and Spain 23%. 

This growing disengagement with politicians and how democracy works is evident in voting patterns. Turn out at elections is also in general decline.  The recent General Election bucked this trend as a result of an increased turn out amongst the young. However it still resulted in a third of the electorate choosing not to vote.

The rise of what some commentators call the “Apathy Party” is also a global trend. Even in countries where voting is compulsory, non-voting is increasing. 

Admiration for representative parliamentary democracy used to be a given. That is no longer the case. The General Election has provoked a heated debate about its shortcomings. The BBC’s Home Editor Mark Easton’s post-election analysis is especially coruscating reading   demonstrating that the crisis is widely acknowledged. Easton argues that it is impossible to discern “the will of the people” from the result and that closer engagement between politicians and citizens is an imperative. 

Party membership is also low. Despite the recent surges for the Labour Party, SNP and Greens, only 1.6% of the UK population is a member of a political party – remarkable given the iron grip parties have on power. 

In Northern Ireland we are so conditioned to seeing our circumstances as unique that it may provide a degree of comfort to discover that the problems so evident in our democracy are widespread.

Each political system is unique, but the perceived failings fit into two distinct yet overlapping categories, a crisis in the legitimacy of the political process and a crisis in its efficiency

Our current system ensures that political power is dominated by two large parties, whose support derives from their position on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. This arrangement, when it is functioning, ensures stability. But it also creates problems.

The parties themselves have small and unrepresentative memberships. Policies emerge after negotiation that takes place behind closed doors, as is the case for any coalition. 

The nature of our parties and our societies means that voting invariably takes place on communal lines, rather than on social or economic policy. This creates a deficit exacerbated by the fact that ours is a devolved administration which has no power to address the very constitutional issue which defines the main parties. It also leads to scenarios where voters support parties even when they are at variance with many of their policies. For example both nationalist parties are left of centre, both unionist parties are right of centre. Where does this leave right of centre nationalist voters and left of centre unionists? 

Representative parliamentary democracy is based on the notion that citizens give up individual sovereignty to elected politicians who exercise it on our behalf for the public good. Yet today large numbers of people do not vote at all; political parties have become all-powerful and they are controlled by a political class - professional politicians whose allegiance is to party not people, while those parties have tiny and unrepresentative memberships. 

Of course if our present system were to fall and be replaced by Direct Rule, this crisis would be even more acute. We would be governed by a Secretary of State with no electoral mandate from Northern Irish voters who would have no legitimate claim to define and enact appropriate policies on devolved matters. Surely in that scenario, direct citizen involvement would become an imperative. 

Turning to the crisis in efficiency:  coalition governments are increasingly hard to form. Our own experience is far from unique. Belgium earned notoriety by lasting a year without a government at all, and the formation of the last regime in the Republic of Ireland was a long and painful process.

One factor elsewhere is that voters are unforgiving on parties that do not deliver in office and so therefore taking ministerial office can be a pyrrhic victory. Legislation can be difficult to develop and pilot through Assemblies. Global forces can stymie policy objectives.

National and regional governments can appear powerless in the face of economic crises, mass migration, international trading deals and the like. In a devolved system a lack of fiscal powers can strangle key policy initiatives at birth. 

It may well be that in volume terms the Northern Ireland Assembly matches Scotland for legislation. Sadly, that is not the perception. The Life and Times survey tells us that only 11 per cent of the population believe it has “delivered a lot.”

Yet in Northern Ireland voters do not punish politicians for failure to deliver because voting patterns are determined by the constitutional position of candidates rather than their competence.  

Involving citizens in decision-making would not cure all these ills, but it would promote understanding of the challenges and start to break down the barriers within communities and between the people and the political classes. 

In many countries there is a perception, right or wrong that those in power exercise it on their own behalf and at the behest of their funders and other elites rather than in voters’ interests. They are out of touch with “the people”.  In many countries this perception is very much to the fore. 

There have been many attempts to resolve the legitimacy and efficiency problems.  A dictatorship would go some way to solving the efficiency issue, but it would reduce the legitimacy of government to zero.

Populism is not an answer either – leaders of populist movements claim that they embody “the will of the people”. In reality they express the frustrations of some of them and would be unable to explain the link between the undeniable yet inchoate frustrations they have mobilised with the specific remedies they propose. 

Politicians have recognised the challenges around making democracy work in Northern Ireland.  The Good Friday Agreement allowed for a Civic Forum which operated between 2000 and 2002. Under the Fresh Start Agreement this was replaced by a “civic advisory panel”, of six individuals who were appointed last December. The idea is for politicians to be supplemented by “civic society” which would help ensure adequate consideration of policy. 

However, members both of the forum and panel were appointed to their positions by government on account of their standing in industry, trades unions, the voluntary sector and the like. Therefore they constitute a supplementary elite - a melange of lobbyists, representing their own sectoral interests.

The panel is even less representative in any democratic sense. It is hard to see how either body could be characterised as improving democratic accountability however useful they might be in furthering policy debates. 

True democratic deliberation provides a compelling alternative. This starts with the realisation that the systems we now have are not truly democratic.

The fathers of the French and American revolutions may have toppled emperors and created a form of representative democracy which is the basis for most systems of government today but they omitted, quite deliberately, one of its key ingredients: the citizens themselves. 

In the ancient Athenian system much power was exercised directly by citizens, chosen at random every year. Over time every citizen had a good chance of being directly involved in government. The champions of the Enlightenment, which was itself so rooted in Greek philosophy, ignored this aspect of democracy. 

There were two principal problems. The first was entirely practicable: France and America were not small cities of a few thousand; they were large countries and would have struggled to quantify, identify and communicate with their citizens and even if they could how on earth could they devise systems that would enable their participation?

But, even more importantly and despite some of their rhetoric, the fathers of the revolutions were not really interested in the will of the people. The real issue was the transfer of power from the old aristocrats, or from Empire, to a new class of people who, in their own eyes at least, were wise enough and experienced enough to exercise it. 

The revolutionaries who founded the great Republics in France and America did not even describe themselves as “democrats” – a term equated at the time with chaos and extremism. 

James Madison, the “Father of the US Constitution” and fourth President, wrote: “the aim of every political constitution is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society….”

The idea of citizens being directly involved in their own governance was not up  for discussion. The new elites may have seen themselves as acquiring power by merit, but they were still elites. The rest of us “the great unwashed” are not capable of acting in the public interest or discerning the public good. This might have been an acceptable argument in the 18th Century. It is not today and yet our system of government is based upon it. 

There was just one area where citizens did exercise power, and do so to this day: through the courts, where trial by jury is a fundamental principle. Jurors are chosen at random from the electoral register and invited to study evidence in trials and decide on the guilt or innocence of the accused. They provide the Justice System with legitimacy, entrenching public support for the rule of law. The jury system has stood the test of time, it is not in crisis. Nor are jurors subjected to the same vilification as politicians. 

It is time to involve citizens more directly in their own governance.

One means by which every citizen can be involved in decision-making is by holding a referendum. These are useful but imperfect adjuncts to the political process. Useful because, regardless of their constitutional status, which varies between regimes, they provide legitimacy to decision-making.

However they are also flawed in that there is no way of ensuring that voters deliberate on the evidence before casting their vote, or are even provided with balanced factual information to help them to come to a view.

In the case of the UK leaving Brexit, for example, it can even be argued that the issue was so far reaching and complex that few if any of those voting on either side of the issue had any real idea of the implications of their decision. 

One example: before the referendum the then Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers was assuring us that the result would have no implications for the Irish border. Doubtless she believed that. Yet now that Article 50 has been triggered British negotiator David Davis is telling us that Britain can’t agree on border issues before negotiations begin because he doesn’t yet know what trade relations will be agreed. 

A leitmotif of both campaigns was misinformation and scaremongering, rendering the facts difficult to uncover. Referendums may have their purpose in a democracy but on their own they don’t necessarily lead to informed, purposeful governance. 

In recent years there has been a revival of efforts to include citizens directly in decision-making. A whole series of “Democratic Innovation” initiatives have been undertaken across the globe. 

We don’t have to travel far to see one of the most impactful: the Citizen’s Assembly in the Republic of Ireland. 

It comprises 99 citizens selected at random with Supreme Court judge Mary Laffoy as chair and was established last year to examine five key issues: abortion, fixed term parliaments, referendums, population ageing and climate change. 

The first issue to be addressed was, perhaps, the most emotive: abortion. Submissions were invited from the public and more than 13,000 were received. The Assembly then met over 10 weekend sessions, and were given expert presentations from all sides of the debate as part of their deliberations. 

Their findings, which now go to the Oireachtas for consideration were published in April 2017.  The findings are not binding, and ultimately Article Eight of the Irish constitution can only be amended by a referendum. 

However abortion is an extremely difficult issue in the Republic, just as it is in Northern Ireland.  This creates dilemmas for all parties in the state as they grope towards policy positions against the backdrop of an emotive and divisive debate. It is easy to see why they all embraced the Assembly, regardless of what they go on to decide, it helps them deal with both external and internal pressures.

A highly controversial matter has been put to a randomly selected assembly of citizens, they have had unprecedented access to the evidence and the arguments and have formed views, with a clear majority favouring liberalisation of the current law. This will help to validate any referendum that might follow on amending  Article Eight of the Irish Constitution. 

There have been other exercises of this nature in Iceland and Canada. 

There has also been fascinating work undertaken in Northern Ireland, albeit not as an official tool of government. It appears to demonstrate clear potential for a means to help politicians to resolve issues which are currently regarded as intractable. 

And on a community level it could help people engage much more closely with government /decision makers? on matters that affect their day to day lives. 

John Garry, Professor of Political Behaviour at Queen’s University Belfast - has already set out to examine whether deliberative democracy might have a contribution to make.  He did this by conducting an experiment on the highly contentious issue of flags, the results of which he subsequently presented to MLAs at Stormont before its collapse late last year. 

In comparison with the Irish Citizens Assembly, Professor Garry deploys a different, more representative, and less expensive technique for his work, deliberative polling. It involved 1,000 citizens, again selected at random. They were given three options to deliberate on: whether the UK flag should be banned from public buildings, whether it should be flown every day, or whether it should be flown on designated days. 

Some of the 1000 citizens were given no further information and others were supplied with videos laying out the facts and key arguments, others too were challenged to examine the issue from the “opposite” point of view. 

Professor Garry’s presentation on the results shows that the more information people were given the more likely they were to compromise, with the biggest support for a compromise solution coming from those who took the views of others into consideration. 

It is not difficult to see how politicians might find such an exercise useful to help resolve difficult policy matters, and at around £40,000 a time the cost of the work is not excessive. 

Garry’s approach is rather different to the conventional one taken in deliberative democracy exercises. There was no Citizens Assembly – and so therefore no debate between delegates or question and answers for expert witnesses.

There is an interesting discussion to be had about whether allowing participants to influence each other is a good or bad idea. However what is unquestionable is that the way the survey was done permitted a sample size that can be regarded as truly representative, perhaps of particular importance on a sensitive issue in Northern Ireland. There was also no filtering: in a citizens’ assembly scenario, those with very strong views on an issue are preferred as advocates for a position rather than deliberators. 

Professor Garry went further. He also polled both the general public and local politicians on their views about the deployment of deliberative democracy in general. This was interesting.

Perhaps not surprisingly 65% of general public favoured using deliberative democracy to inform decisions, however only 17% of politicians of politicians did.

However, a majority of politicians did see the potential for such an exercise in making recommendations, but not decisions. This is a reasonable level of support from which to build. The Electoral Reform Society has achieved support for deliberative democracy from politicians from all parties in Britain. It is therefore not a party political issue, more a question of the degree to which politicians as a body are prepared to open up political debate, and trust the public to participate. 

Professor Garry is now carrying out a similar project to examine Northern Ireland citizens’ views on Brexit. It is likely to be published in the Autumn.

In terms of community engagement one of the most advanced and interesting models is that currently being pursued by Scotland. In 2015 the Scottish Parliament enacted the Community Empowerment Act.  This is a wide-ranging piece of legislation which, amongst other things places a duty on public bodies in Scotland to involve communities much more closely than before in decision-making in order to strengthen democracy. 

One of its key themes is promoting participatory budgeting, a concept first developed in Brazil in the 1980s.  In Scotland 20 local authorities are now taking part in a consultation designed to involve local communities in deciding how their budgets should be spent. 

As part of that the Democratic Society has been commissioned to support those local authorities taking part to utilise digital tools, putting cutting edge technology to work in order to boost democratic engagement.

These tools which are analysed here  are a useful adjunct to other participatory democracy techniques and remove at a stroke what used to be an unanswerable objection to such exercises – the practical objection as to how masses of people can be involved in decision-making.

Scotland is leading the way in bringing democracy closer to the people, and at the same time strengthening ties between local authorities, the people, and their political representatives. 

In Scotland the lowest tier of statutory representation are community councils which sit below local authorities. The community council for Leith, which is part of Edinburgh has been running a participatory budgeting programme for the past seven years, called £eith Decides

Last year it distributed just under £45,000 to community projects. Groups were invited to put forward submissions for support and then everyone in the area from the age of eight (sic) was invited to vote. Funds were distributed accordingly. Last year it was decided that the entire community budget would be allocated that way. 

There are larger scale projects elsewhere. In what is currently the world’s largest participatory budgeting project the city of Paris in 2016 distributed €100m to 219 projects with more than 158,000 people (including school children) participating in the voting process

Currently no local authority in Northern Ireland has signed up for participatory budgeting. However the reorganisation of local authorities into the 11 councils has meant that many are seeking to redefine and deepen their relationships with communities and unlike the Assembly their stability is not in question.  

Several are working with Community Places NI and other organisations which help to deepen community consultation.  Undertaking a participatory budgeting exercise would be the next logical step to take, especially given that there is now a wealth of experience and expertise in Scotland. 

Deliberative Democracy is spreading globally, it is an idea whose time has come. Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances - its consociational power sharing system which has a tendency to gridlock, and new, energetic local authorities who wish to connect more closely with their communities - provide perfect conditions for experimentation. 

Politicians are, perhaps understandably, opposed to being replaced by an assembly comprising randomly selected members of the public. Yet Professor Garry’s poll suggests that they might work with one which was empowered to recommend rather than legislate and evidence from both the Republic of Ireland and in the rest of the UK suggests that more and more politicians are embracing this as a means of strengthening democracy and re-engaging with citizens: making policy decisions more accessible and improving their own mandates.

There are clear advantages to them in relation to some of the issues they find intractable. For local authorities, the advantages are even clearer- it is hard to argue against communities themselves having the final say on community spending and empowering communities could help shape and accelerate their regeneration. 

We should start immediately. The expertise for participatory budgeting is available in Scotland. The Democratic Society can tell us all we need to know about digital tools and local authorities can advise on impacts and successes. All that is required is for a council to take up the challenge. Participatory budgeting is exciting and empowering, and, as Scotland will attest, it is re-energising local communities and local authorities. 

As to Northern Ireland-wide issues there is nothing to stop civic society taking the lead and funding a citizen’s assembly or a Garry-style experiment, ideally with the support of local politicians. At the very least it would start to build an evidence base for evaluating the effectiveness of such approaches. It is not as if anyone thinks the status quo is working.


Further Reading 

Graham Smith: Democratic Innovations. Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation. Cambridge 2009

The definitive academic work on the subject. Published in 2009, an update is overdue given the fast evolution of deliberative democracy initiatives. 

David Van Reybrouck: Against Elections: The Case for Democracy. Bodley Head 2016

An elegant and persuasive extended essay from a leading European thinker marred by his proposed remedy which is overly complex. 

Alan Watkins and Iman Stratenus: Crowdocracy: The End of Politics Urbane Publications 2016 

A breezy read much of which is compelling. Some readers will be baffled by the authors’ apparent admiration for the Chinese system of government. 

Professor John Garry’s experiment on the flags issue can be accessed here: 

The Democratic Society’s analysis of the use of digital tools is here

The Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment Act is published here

The £eith Decides website is here


This opinion piece was commissioned by the Building Change Trust. Opinions expressed  therein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Building Change Trust . 


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