Democracy in Northern Ireland must become more people-centred & Civil Society must play central role
Our current political vacuum is not a coincidence of unfortunate circumstances, it is the culmination of a longer term pattern of concentrating power in a few hands and an underlying assumption that this is a requirement for the peace process to work.
Representative democracy is fragmenting almost everywhere – a symptom of the fact that our democratic model has not evolved to reflect the changing nature of society – a more educated populace, the end of social deference, a globalised and complex economy where power is located more and more in boardrooms rather than parliaments, and an expectation of equality even while the prospects of experiencing it in reality are receding.
‘Taking back control’ is a worthy and oft repeated slogan these days but what seems to be emerging instead is a polarising and exclusionary form of majoritarianism. Unless this new thirst for people power is nurtured through mechanisms for true public deliberation and ultimately gives expression to the will of all of the people it could be the undoing of democracy altogether.
This is where civil society comes in – non-profit organisations and political scientists around the world are leading a vanguard of democratic innovations such as citizens’ assemblies which are enabling new forms of public participation that can unlock solutions to many of our complex and divisive policy and governance challenges. This is not a new role – it mirrors historical civil society movements that have led the charge in securing our existing democratic model – an end to slavery, universal suffrage and human rights to name a few.
Back in 2013 the Board of Building Change Trust selected ‘Creative Space for Civic Thinking’ as one of its key strategic themes. This was in recognition of the fact that the local VCSE sector found itself being viewed increasingly narrowly as an alternative public service delivery vehicle. There were few mechanisms and funders who were ready to invest in the sector’s role as a facilitator of people’s voice. With a modest resource pot of just over £1 million we set ourselves the task of finding practical ways of re-energising this crucial dimension of the sector’s work.
What resulted were three inter-related interventions:
- A Civic Activism programme that resourced 8 projects each experimenting with creative methods of involving the public in decision-making on issues as wide as welfare reform and renewable energy to community planning and using methods like mystery shopping, pop-up democracy and digital fact-checking
- Establishment of the NI Open Government Network to engage with the NI Executive and campaign for reforms to the governance of the region to advance transparency, accountability and participation
- Research into the independence of the VCSE sector looking at its relationship with government and politics and asking whether it was being co-opted into maintaining the status quo rather than challenging it
Following the success of these initiatives the Trust sought to focus attention more directly on the health of democracy in Northern Ireland through firstly commissioning a report on the subject - ‘Beyond Voting’ - and then using that to stimulate a collaborative design process with civil society groups and activists. This resulted in two new and innovative initiatives aimed at having a region-wide impact in shifting the focus of NI’s democracy back to citizens:
- Northern Ireland’s first ever Citizens’ Assembly – which took place this autumn on the topic of social care for older people
- The Participatory Budgeting Works project which has encouraged and supported the use of participatory budgeting in at least 4 locations over the past year and holds the promise of much more to come
We commissioned Peter Osborne to undertake an independent impact report of all this work and the results can be read here . As well as highlighting many positive achievements and documenting several case studies the report emphasises the long-term nature of this work. The Trust is therefore delighted that the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland has committed to developing a new programme of Civic Innovation work from 2019 onwards to continue the Trust’s legacy in this area.
With Brexit on the horizon, Stormont mothballed and an increasingly unstable international political environment initiatives like this are essential in bringing new ideas to the fore and supporting civil society to rescue and re-energise our democracy.