What are the prospects for citizen-led democracy in Northern Ireland?

This important question will be addressed at a seminar in Belfast on 15 September marking the International Day of Democracy.

In the run up to the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Imagine! Belfast Festival, we want to discuss how a more participatory and deliberative approach to politics can help to restore, strengthen, and sustain devolved government in Northern Ireland.

In association with the Democracy Network and Involve, the event will bring together a range of perspectives to discuss the potential for improving citizen participation, as well as some of the risks and challenges with contributions from Professor John Garry, Queen’s University Belfast; Rebekah McCabe, Head of Northern Ireland, Involve; Karen Smyth, Head of Policy & Governance, NILGA; Celine McStravick, Chief Executive, NICVA;  Alan Renwick, Professor of Democratic Politics and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, University College London; and Dr James Greer, Senior Researcher, Pivotal.

It is clear democratic institutions in Northern Ireland have been stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of restoration and collapse for the last 25 years. As a result, much needed policy reforms are long overdue and NI has failed to keep pace with the extraordinary challenges facing our healthcare, education, energy, and housing systems as well as the rapidly escalating climate crisis.

Almost half of people across all communities in NI believe that our power sharing agreements need some change, but what should that change be? Could giving citizens a greater role in politics through deliberative mechanisms such as citizens assemblies help to strengthen government in Northern Ireland? Where can we look for lessons on making government more effective and what needs to happen to make it a reality in NI? And how could deliberative mechanisms contribute to the debate about a potential referendum on the choice between Northern Ireland remaining in the UK or reunifying with the rest of Ireland?

As well as these issues we will also discuss some of the following ways in which a participatory approach to local politics can be beneficial:

  1. Promoting Inclusive Decision-Making: A participatory approach to government ensures that a wider range of voices and perspectives are included in the political decision-making process. This inclusivity helps to address the concerns and interests of all communities in NI, promoting a sense of ownership and legitimacy in the decisions made by devolved government.
  2. Increasing Trust and Cooperation: Deliberative processes, such as citizen assemblies, participatory budgeting or public consultations, provide opportunities for dialogue, understanding, and bridge-building across different political, cultural, and religious divides. By creating spaces for respectful and open discussions, a participatory approach to local politics can foster trust among communities and political actors, enhancing co-operation and collaboration.
  3. Promoting Reconciliation and Healing: Given our history of conflict and divisions, a participatory approach provides opportunities for effective conflict transformation and reconciliation. Through inclusive and respectful dialogue, citizens can reflect on their shared history, build trust and work together to create a more harmonious and cohesive society. This process can contribute to the promotion of trust and the transformation of relationships within and between communities.
  4. Enhancing Accountability and Transparency: A participatory approach can improve the accountability and transparency of devolved government. By involving citizens in decision-making, government can become more responsive to their needs and expectations. This approach also helps to reduce the influence of special interests and powerful lobby groups and fosters a culture of openness, thereby increasing public trust in the political process.
  5. Strengthening Legitimacy: A more participatory and deliberative approach can help to address the perceived democratic deficit that exists in NI. By involving citizens in decision-making, the devolved government can enhance its legitimacy and strengthen its mandate. This, in turn, can increase public support for the institutions of devolved government, leading to their long-term sustainability.
  6. Encouraging Long-Term Solutions: Participatory processes focus on engaging citizens in policy formulation and problem-solving. This approach encourages a deeper understanding of the complex issues faced by local communities, leading to the development of more sustainable and long-term solutions. By involving the public in shaping policies and strategies, devolved government can better address the needs and aspirations of its citizens.

It is important to note that implementing a more participatory and deliberative approach requires careful planning, resources, and commitment from political actors. However, by investing in inclusive and collaborative processes, Northern Ireland can foster a more engaged citizenry, build trust among communities, and create a stronger and more sustainable devolved government.

The event will also celebrate the United Nations International Day of Democracy which is celebrated every year on 15 September in order to promote and uphold democratic principles and values worldwide. The day was first celebrated in 2008 and provides an opportunity for governments, civil society organisations, and individuals to promote and advance democracy, and to raise public awareness about the importance of democratic values such as respect for human rights, freedom of expression, and the rule of law, for example.

The event is taking place on 15 September 2023 from 2-6pm in the Cube Theatre, Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast

Registration is free via this link

Closing on 11 September

We’ll be in touch.