Time to Bring the Citizen Back In
As the political impasse in Northern Ireland continues, Building Change Trust ask: is it time to bring the citizen back in?
Politics in Northern Ireland is often something which turns people off. With identity politics the central plank that shapes our ideology, and repeated political scandals resulting in diminishing trust in the institutions, there is a need to reengage ordinary people in shaping the decisions that affect our day to day lives.
Whilst it is essential that we get a government back up and running again as soon as possible, unless public trust is rebuilt, the institutions’ long-term stability will continue to be fragile. We need new mechanisms that can directly engage the public in decision-making, to complement our existing electoral and political processes.
In response to this and with an urgency made greater by the absence of government, the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly has come to the fore.
The Republic of Ireland is the world leader on the issue, convening a Citizens’ Assembly to consider a range of different issues, including one of the most controversial social issues of the day; abortion. This has created fierce debate in the media but the assembly members have impressed many with their ability to calmly, intelligently and empathetically consider the evidence and the many, often emotive, points of view.
With 100 members, membership is selected by a process called ‘sortition’, which is essentially a lottery that is as demographically representative of age, gender, social class of the adult population as possible. As with a jury, the members are asked to deliberate on an issue or set of issues that broadly reflect the views of wider society, unencumbered by the constraints of political party membership, and based on a review of evidence on any given issue.
So could a Citizens’ Assembly add value in Northern Ireland?
There are clearly sensitive issues blocking a working democracy at Stormont. The petition of concern procedure, included in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement to protect minority rights, has morphed into a party-political veto. Equally, social issues play an increasing role in political debate, ranging from educational disadvantage and hospital waiting lists to marriage equality and abortion.
Building Change Trust believe that by engaging with political parties and the voluntary/community sector, a citizens’ assembly could be convened – and funded independently - in 2018, which represents the anniversary of the arrival of a devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland. With a fair political wind the NI Assembly may be back in business by then, but whether it is sitting or not, unresolved issues will remain; issues that a Citizens’ Assembly could play a vital, complementary role to that of elected representatives.
The idea is an exciting one and, while remaining mostly under the radar, it has caught something of a breeze over the last few months. After years of growing public frustration with Northern Ireland’s political performance—a frustration often expressed in verbal attacks on elected representatives, in spite of their essential role in a democratic society—it offers a means of steering public engagement to a constructive end, for the common good.