The State of Democracy in NI

The State of Democracy in NI

30 March 2016

As part of our work in Creative Space for Civic Thinking, the Building Change Trust recently supported the Imagine Festival in Belfast and ran a number of events with partners as a ‘Civic Activism Series’.

One of these events was called “What is the State of Democracy in Northern Ireland?”, the event was designed and delivered by Involve, who have been supporting the Trust’s Civic Activism Awardees to develop their civic engagement projects.

The session began with a short presentation by Simon Burall, the director of Involve. Simon introduced the ideas in his recent report, Room for a View, which uses a deliberative systems approach to examine the state of UK democracy.

Rather than focusing exclusively on the extent to which individuals and communities are represented within institutions, this approach is equally concerned with the range of views present and how they interact, in the public, private and empowered spaces, and the extent to which these spaces are interconnected.

As well as this, we also heard from experts in the field including Mediation NI’s Mary Lynch, PhD candidate Sophie Long and political commentator Alex Kane. The speakers discussed their thoughts on the challenges facing NI and how NI can work towards a more deliberative democracy.

Mary spoke on the challenges of engaging in deliberations in the private sphere when other priorities put pressure on citizens’ time: picking the kids up from school, taking out the bins. There is not a lot of time to talk about more abstract ideas such as the future of democracy.

Sophie explored the idea of citizen assemblies as potential solutions to groups being excluded from public debate. Citizen assemblies can account for power and knowledge imbalances and facilitate deliberations which involve groups usually marginalised from the debate.

Alex gave a critique of Room for a View, seeing a tribal mentality and the importance of identity as missing from the analysis. He also saw flaws in the idea that citizen deliberations can be genuinely equal when there is a significant power imbalance.

There are a number of barriers in place which will stop Northern Ireland from becoming a more participative and deliberative democracy. The group identified a lack of engagement of citizens, a lack of vision and leadership of political elites, and poor debate and poor information in the media.

Solutions suggested include more think tanks in NI to stimulate and create the space for debate, and the creation of alternative forums such as the Pensioners Forum in the Republic of Ireland.

Paul Braithwaite, who oversees the Trust's Creative Space for Civic Thinking theme, said: “Democracy is at the core of the Trust’s Creative Space for Civic Thinking work.

"It’s hard to argue that democracy is in a particularly healthy state in NI - despite the undoubted value of devolved institutions, public approval of the performance of elected representatives and of the difference the NI Assembly is making to everyday life is at a seriously low ebb. In our view part of the solution to this is a wider recognition that democracy is about a lot more than elections and party politics.

"If we give citizens the information and the genuine opportunity to get involved in finding solutions to some of the many challenges we face as a society, it could help and empower politicians to take some of the difficult decisions they have so far shied away from.

"The Trust is committed to helping the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise sector play a full role in developing a more participatory and deliberative model of democracy in Northern Ireland and is providing practical supports to this end through its Civic Activism Programme and its catalysing role in setting up the NI Open Government Network". 

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