Examining the state of NI’s democracy and the role of civil society within it.

As part of the Imagine! Festival of Ideas & Politics, Involve and the Building Change Trust co-hosted an event that examined the state of Northern Ireland’s democracy and the role of civil society within it, and asked whether there could be a more deliberative democracy here.

Paul Braithwaite of the Building Change Trust welcomed us to the Duncairn Centre, with a survey of widely-held sceptical attitudes about electoral politics here. For example, only 11% of respondents were satisfied with the performance of their MLA; 40% thought that the Assembly had achieved nothing at all.

But this was not just a local issue. Paul quoted one Indian commentator who argued that electoral politics has become ‘anti-democratic.’ And it was important to note that there were positives in the Northern Ireland electoral system, not least a form of proportional representation (PR) and a strong scrutiny role for Assembly committees.

Simon Burall of Involve introduced the system of deliberative democracy that was explored in its recent publication, Room for a View, as a ‘high-level assessment of the UK’s democratic health’. This could be seen as ‘a quest to find a better way of being governed’, over and above a system that made ‘a totem’ of electoral democracy.

Simon set out seven elements of the deliberative systems framework:

  • The empowered space – parliament, government departments, other agencies of the state, but also NDPBs.
  • The public space – ‘the wide range of political conversations which interact with and affect each other within the public realm.’
  • Transmission – of ideas and constraints between the empowered and public spaces.
  • Accountability of the holders of power in the empowered space to the public space.
  • The private space – the political interactions and conversations that take place in non-civic spaces.
  • Decisiveness – to what extent is the system actually able to make decisions and enact power?
  • Meta-deliberation – the ability and readiness of the system to critically examine its own democratic performance.

Mary Lynch, Director of Mediation Northern Ireland, was the first of three guests invited to consider whether this deliberative systems framework offered an alternative way of forming and revealing the public’s preferences. Mary called attention to the role of the unconscious in processing our self interest in advance of any conscious deliberative activity. She also reminded us of how constrained the private space can be (for people living alone, or caring for others, say) and so how little room many people might have for political conversation while the public space bombards them with its obsessions with ‘war, sex and money’.

Sophie Long, recently selected as Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) candidate in Upper Bann, was next to respond. She suggested that the deliberative framework had potential as a solution to the current electoral system’s tendency to exclude or under-represent marginalised groups. There were questions about the groups who would be allowed to participate in the public space, or given the capability to take part in the deliberations.

Sophie spoke of attempts elsewhere to create constitutional fora where marginalised groups (native peoples, Roma, the disabled) were deliberately over-represented. She suggested that a similar process here should see the marginalisation of loyalists or dissident republicans addressed by their over-representation on deliberative fora.

Political commentator Alex Kane accepted that all elections in the current system could do was tell you how people thought of particular political parties on a particular day. But Northern Ireland was probably fairly reflective of the limits of electoral systems, rather than being a uniquely failed example. The danger with any move to new deliberative fora was that these would be filled with the usual suspects among established political parties and powerful interest groups.

People, Alex argued, needed to have confidence in mainstream media and the legitimacy of those in power. That trust was clearly being eroded. People feared they would be patronised if they took part in discussion and deliberation in the public space. And there was a gap between those who were engaged in political deliberation and civic activism and the lives of the disengaged that led to suspicion: ‘They want to change my world, and they don’t live in my world.’

Throughout the event the audience had the chance to query the speakers, explore their own images of what democracy here should look like, and identify key challenges facing the political system in Northern Ireland. Common themes clustered around the issue of non-participation and disengagement, failures of leadership and vision, and the low quality of debate in the media.

Wrapping up the afternoon Simon Burall thanked participants and accepted that the state of public debate was perhaps the key issue. He asked us to imagine the public space as a cathedral where our view was obstructed by the columns holding the structure up. And finally he wondered whether, if the quality of debate was so poor, the challenge wasn’t for each one of us to examine how we as individuals take part in it.

Written by Martin Mooney and first published on northernireland.foundation on 14 March 2016.

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