Our democratic systems seem to be ailing and unfit for purpose. There is a sense of ‘dis-ease’.

Democracy: “Government Of The People, By The People, For The People” Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

We in this northern Irish place live in a form of democracy. The way we are governed, the rights we value, and institutions we benefit from enable us to live in ways that are not possible for very many of our fellow humans across the globe. And yet many of us are less than happy with our situation and disillusion with politics is rife. Our democratic systems seem to be ailing and unfit for purpose. There is a sense of ‘dis-ease’.

The reasons for this dis-ease are many. There is, for example, the financial crisis of 2007-08, when bankers were bailed out with tax-payers’ money, and the aftermath of austerity politics which is reinforcing perceptions that the world is ill divided. Or there are the perceived inadequacies of our peculiar form of devolved administration in NI, recently described by a friend, in a neatly understated manner, as “quite incompetent”!

Not surprisingly then, politicians – our ‘elected citizens’ – come in for a lot of criticism and are often the focus of much complaining. It is important, of course, that people who are elected to representative assemblies/parliaments, and the parties that form governments, should be subject to critical appraisal of what they do, and how they act, in our name. In a democracy, politicians are there to serve the people; they are employees of the public, salaried generously from the public purse; they are accountable to the civic society of which they are members.

But what of our role, those many of us who are ‘unelected citizens’? Living as we do in a representative democracy, is it the case that our only civic duty is to be part of the periodic electing process, casting our votes every so often for local councillors, MLAs, MPs of MEPs? Certainly voting is important and there is understandable and growing concern that ‘turn-outs’ at elections are disturbingly low. But while citizens voting is necessary, it is hardly sufficient. Increasingly, we hear voices calling and arguing for a shift towards much more participative democracy, for more ‘civic participation’.

So imagine, if you will. What would participative politics look like? And how might we who may feel powerless help to cultivate that different, arguably healthy form of democratic society?

One idea – it’s only one, not imagined as a panacea – is that we need to be much more engaged in conversation about things that matter to us as citizens. Such ‘civic conversation’ involves listening and learning, as well as talking. Frequently, the conversation will include elected with non-elected citizens. It will often be challenging, grappling with hard, contentious issues with the creativity that all of us possess in some measure. And, whatever the issues, the conversation can and should be courteous; disagreements can be handled in a friendly rather than ferocious manner.

Imagine, if you will. In the face of disillusion, defeatism, despair – all symptoms of societal dis-ease – is it possible that many small actions – like people gathering in civic venues to engage in a variety of forms of creative, courteous conversation about things that matter to them as citizens – could be sowing the seeds of a new, healthier political ecology?

The sessions of Civic Conversation in the Café, along with other parts of the Imagine! Festival, will offer opportunity to explore some of these questions. Come along and join in!

Denis Stewart, International Futures Forum

We’ll be in touch.