Can a deliberative democracy model help steer Northern Ireland politics out of the current crisis

24 March 2017

After Northern Ireland’s second election in under a year, with the two main parties struggling to form an Executive, do we have to start asking questions of whether a purely electoral form of democracy is enough?

At the Building Change Trust we are interested in how the Voluntary, Communuity and Social Enterprise Sector can help bridge the gap between citizens and the people who make decisions about their day to day lives.

To this end, we commissioned Robin Wilson and Paul Nolan to look at the health of what can be called ‘’Deliberative Democracy’’ here in Northern Ireland.

An overall report on the health of democracy in Northern Ireland, the report argues that a more engaged style of democracy could chart a way out of the current political impasse, as well as making future political impasses less likely in the future.

By way of a definition, deliberative democracy differs from traditional models of democracy in that it involves discussion between citizens and their representatives at all levels, seeking better outcomes through mutual exchange, rather than mere aggregation of voter preferences and negotiation between interest groups.

The report, which is being launched on Democracy Day (March 24) as part of the Imagine Festival of ideas and politics, examines the chequered history of democracy in Northern Ireland leading up to the current political crisis and applies a deliberative democracy lens to its political institutions.

It also considers how the media, civil society and the VCSE sector interacts with the political classes and assesses current levels of engagement and accountability.

There is a less threatening civic culture emerging in Northern Ireland, shown by the growth and popularity of Belfast's Culture Night and Pride Festivals, contrasting with the lack of change in the way politics is being done. 

Our report argues the need for a better connection between the policy and legislative output of the NI Assembly and changing public opinions on issues such as same sex marriage.

The ‘war’ is over but politics has become the medium for conducting it by peaceful means.

Political exchanges, while substituting for violence in large measure, have not moved on from the predictable, sectarian conflicts of the past and a more publicly satisfying deliberative discourse has yet to be achieved.

This research has clear implications for policy, practice and institutional development in Northern Ireland. It implies a democratisation of democracy in the region, in two senses.

First, it suggests that the recent modest reforms at Stormont, relating to the agreement on a Programme for Government and recognition of an opposition comprising those parties declining coalition membership, are only the beginning of a larger process of transition to a deliberatively adequate model.

Secondly it argues that much fuller engagement with civil society is required for Northern Ireland to have a functioning democracy. The report cites the Swedish Legislative Commission as an example of deliberative democracy in action.

In Sweden before a bill goes through the parliamentary process, the issue is put out to an independent inquiry to draw on external expertise and analyse what is at stake. The commission's report is then put in the public domain for feedback from all relevant organisations.

Only at that point does the Swedish Parliament, the Riksdag start framing legislation. The process can take month or even years of deliberation but there is at least a consensus around the legislation which emerges.

In the Northern Irish context, could this be a useful method to deal with contentious legislation in Northern Ireland including issues around parading and the provision of an Irish Language Act?

There is much more in the report than summarised here, but some of these ideas and concepts show there is much more to democracy than showing up and voting every once in a while.

The recent election was encouraging in terms of turnout, but only time will tell whether this was a once-off due to the exceptional circumstances that brought the election about, or a positive turn in terms of broader re-engagement with politics. Prior to March 2017 turn-out had been steadily decreasing in every election since the late 1990s.

It is only when we put democracy back on the daily agenda for people in Northern Ireland, coupling that with turning out on polling day, that we’ll make real progress and start to see a truly democratic Northern Ireland.

You can reach the research over on the Trust's Civic Activism website.

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