Every day is democracy day
The MAC Belfast was a hive of drama, discussion and new ideas as more than 200 people gathered for a full day event to examine just how healthy democracy is in Northern Ireland.
As part of the Imagine! Festival of Ideas & Politics the Building Change Trust hosted ‘Democracy Day’ as a means of reasserting the idea that citizens should be at the centre of decision-making. It was a showcase of both local and international democratic innovation with the Trust’s Civic Activism projects, the NI Open Government Network, as well as contributors from Scotland, Estonia, Iceland and the US pitching in.
The day kicked off with an interactive breakfast drama performance from the Waste No Time team on the theme “If you’re not at the table you could be on the menu”. With breakfast consumed the first event of the day was the launch of the Trust’s landmark Beyond Voting report examining the health of democracy in Northern Ireland.
That set the scene and they day followed from there with a series of democracy-themed presentations, workshops, card games, debates, discussions, theatre performances and a jam-packed wall of ideas. There was even a democracy-themed cinema an opportunity for passers-by outside in St. Ann’s square to share their ideas at the ‘campervan of dreams’.
International experts as well as colleagues and friends of the Trust, representing an array of democratic societies and forums, provided a lively and engaging line up of speakers that allowed for plenty of examination from the floor.
One of the highlights of the day was ‘Democracy on Trial’ by the NI Open Government Network which posed the crucial question of whether our current political system is broken beyond repair. Democracy won a reprieve but the consensus was that serious reform is needed, and soon.
Róbert Bjarnason, tech guru and president of Iceland’s Citizens Foundation, talked about how digital democracy was engaging the citizens of Reykjavik and beyond who are using technology to have a say in how they want their city to change.
Hille Hinsberg, from think tank Praxis in Estonia, talked about how Estonian politicians concluded they didn’t have all the answers so created a forum – the People’s Assembly - whereby citizens had a direct say on proposals for legislation on particular issues.
In the workshops school children, policy gurus, voluntary sector representatives and all in-between enthusiastically rose to whatever challenge was presented before them, from acting alongside the drama performers to an on the spot social media pop quiz.
Throughout the day participants posted their thoughts on the ‘Wall of Ideas’ which posed the key question ‘How do we get a better democracy in Northern Ireland’.
Some of the key themes emerging were:
- More focus on involving young people
- Innovate and encourage a culture of participation, deliberation and empowerment
- Develop skills and educate people in politics, rational evidence based thinking and facilitation
- Create formal spaces for public dialogue and debate (e.g. a citizens’ assembly or civic forum) in addition to improved representative democracy structures.
You can get a fuller flavor of what people thought in our report here.
Paul Braithwaite, who heads up the Trust’s work in this area said: “People have lost trust in politicians, and ironically that may only return when politicians learn to put their trust in people.
"In the end democracy boils down to people power, with citizens coming together to debate, deliberate and assert real control over their lives and society. As our Beyond Voting report makes clear, elections are only one piece of that puzzle.
“Democracy Day was about kick-starting the next phase of our work in this area – we want to bring together a broad coalition of organisations and individuals who are committed to nurturing and deepening a more deliberative and participatory model of democracy in Northern Ireland. In the next few months we’ll be doing all we can to make that happen".