North’s failed politics needs a citizens’ assembly kickstart

Inter-party talks will not break the deadlock but ‘ordinary’ people stand a good chance

DUP leader Arlene Foster and  Sinn Féin’s  Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill at  Lyra McKee’s funeral: It’s 27 months since Northern Ireland’s power-sharing structures collapsed. Photograph: Brian Lawless

DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill at Lyra McKee’s funeral: It’s 27 months since Northern Ireland’s power-sharing structures collapsed. Photograph: Brian Lawless

 

Last Wednesday, in the presence of the leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, as well as the President, the Taoiseach, the UK prime minister and the leader of the opposition, Fr Martin Magill asked: “Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get to this point?”

Or, rather, he got through the first half of that sentence before he was interrupted by a spontaneous eruption of loud, prolonged, determined applause.

It’s now 27 months since Northern Ireland’s power-sharing structures, established by the Belfast Agreement 21 years before Lyra McKee’s death, fell into abeyance – and the North-South arrangements with them.

Now Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British prime minister Theresa May have launched a fresh attempt to revive power-sharing. But there is a fundamental contradiction which explains why the region now holds the European record for the passage of the longest period after an election before a new government has been formed.

In the globalised and individualised world of the 21st century, democracy is no longer about the private negotiation among elites, representing supposedly stable communities of fate, which the agreement presumed. It is about public deliberation among diverse individual citizens (of which McKee was an articulate advocate). In that sense, the 1998 deal – as with the 1995 Dayton accords which have left Bosnia-Herzegovina in a similar state of chronic dysfunctionality – is so last century.

Democracy is no longer about the private negotiation among elites, representing supposedly stable communities of fate. It is about public deliberation

In particular, the arrangements for a mutual communal veto built into each constitutional document – precisely because the parties to the conflict were allowed to be so instrumental to it – inevitably set in train not the reconciliation for which war-weary citizens hoped, but an ever-more-destabilising vicious circle of deadlocking behaviour, stalemate and intercommunal mistrust.

Direct deliberation

The last thing which should have been done now is to confirm Einstein’s supposed definition of madness by holding further talks among parties which are inherently full of preconceived ideas. Instead, it’s time to engage the citizens in direct deliberation.

This might have been dismissed as utopian or misinterpreted as populist were it not for the very positive experience of citizens’ assemblies in Ireland. The reference is in the plural because October and November last saw the first citizens’ assembly in the North. Focused on the issue of the future of social care, this was evaluated highly positively by the participants and produced a raft of substantive policy recommendations.

It was an experiment to replicate the success of the Citizens’ Assembly in the Republic – itself of course a sequel to the Constitutional Convention. And the Irish experience, North and South, mirrors the achievements of numerous such “mini-public” initiatives around the world in recent years. These show that “ordinary” citizens are perfectly capable of engaging in democratic deliberation about challenging topics, especially when they are presented with both the evidence and a range of views.

More specifically, the two bodies in the Republic have shown that randomly selected citizens can get their teeth into what might be thought abstruse constitutional issues. The constitutional question for a further northern citizens’ assembly would be this: Is there a way to replace the system of mutual vetoes inherited from the agreement with human-rights guarantees which would allow democratic majority decision and effective opposition – and alternation of parties in power after elections? Could Northern Ireland become “normal”?

Non-sectarian bloc

Because the assembly election of March 2017 failed to lead to a new administration, a supportive political development was missed: there is no longer a demographic sectarian majority that could dominate at Stormont.

The two bodies in the Republic have shown that randomly selected citizens can get their teeth into what might be thought abstruse constitutional issues

Communalist representatives – those the agreement requires to “designate” as “unionist” or “nationalist” – now constitute minority blocs on either side. So, in a new assembly, each would have to persuade the non-sectarian bloc if it were to prevail on any issue. In other words, a party based on communalist identification would have to make an argument in terms anyone could support, regardless of background.

Belfast City Council was a sectarian beargarden in the days of unionist majority during the worst of the Troubles. Now it is the largest democratic authority in the North and rubs along reasonably well – including a shared city partnership with civic stakeholders because no “community” is able to have its way unilaterally while the lever of communal vetoes is not there to be pulled.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster reported in May 2018 that if talks to restore devolution had not been successful in six months, the British and Irish governments should consult on a wide-ranging review of the Belfast Agreement. In an article in Political Quarterly around the same time, two highly respected Northern Ireland academics, Deirdre Heenan and Derek Birrell, argued that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIC) established under the Belfast Agreement could be reconvened to discuss how to fill the “political vacuum”.

Instead of going through the motions of yet another round of inter-party talks, the BIIC should agree to commission a citizens’ assembly in the region to address the constitutional sources of political deadlock.

Of course there might be too much pusillanimity in London and Dublin, with relations scarred by Brexit. There could, and would, be much harrumphing by Northern Ireland politicians burnishing their “mandates”.

But seated at the front of St Anne’s Cathedral, the regional political leaders and the heads of state and government felt the citizens rise as one behind them. It was a collective outpouring they would be unwise to ignore.

Robin Wilson is editor of Social Europe

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