Northern Ireland’s Civic Initiative
The Value of Deliberative and Participatory Processes in Strengthening Democracy and the Social Fabric
Emma DeSouza, Civic Initiative Co-Chair and Co-Facilitator
A wide range of Civic society organisations have come together to roll out a new participatory Initiative to facilitate communities in identifying and asserting priorities as well as to put forward solutions. The Civic Initiative will create the space for individuals and organisations to examine key challenges and make proposals on policy positions that advance peace, reconciliation, and wellbeing in Northern Ireland.
Within the text of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement there is provision for engagement with civic society, intended to foster better understanding between communities and to act as a much-needed mechanism for broadening political engagement through a Civic Forum to promote participative democracy. The Civic Forum was a consultative mechanism on social, economic, and cultural issues first proposed amid the multi-party talks. The Forum was constituted and met over a two-year period before being dismantled as a result of the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in 2002. It was never re-established. Subsequent Agreements have referred to potential mechanisms for civic engagement, albeit in a more limited format. To date this has not been implemented in practice leaving a considerable vacuum in structured civic engagement.
In this climate of political instability and socioeconomic challenge it is suggested that civic society should again step forward to offer views about the current state of the many social, economic, rights and cultural issues highlighted in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement with the objective of creating space for a strong civic voice and to find pathways to tackle some of the issues hindering progress.
While it is recognized that the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement contained provision for a Civic Forum, the Civic Initiative is actioning a new approach over the period 2023/24, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the Agreement. The civic landscape has been significantly transformed over the past 25 years, with a marked increase in participatory and deliberative processes being rolled out the world over, there has been considerable learning in this area giving way to more innovative and expansive approaches to civic participation.
The Civic Initiative will have a specific focus on the principles and commitments outlined in the Declaration of Support and Sections of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement covering – Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity. We see the Initiative as providing an opportunity for the sharing of ideas and discussion across regions of Northern Ireland as well as ensuring the active involvement of groups of people specified under Section 75 of the Equality legislation. There will be a focus on local community-based participation as well as wider citizen engagement.
The Initiative has an Oversight Committee that consists of several key arms and networks across civic society in Northern Ireland with focus on diversity and inclusion including LGBTQI+, PUL, disabled, migrant and ethnic minority, women’s networks and rural community inclusion. The Civic Initiative Oversight Committee will apply a trauma-informed lens with the aim of working across difference, underpinned by the values of social justice, community development, and participatory practices. Examining issues through a human rights lens with awareness of intersectionality and region-to-region difference.
Democratic processes and institutions are increasing citizen engagement and civic society inputs, In the UK over 30 deliberative democracy processes have been actioned over the past three years on topics ranging from Climate change to covid-19 recovery, other countries such as Denmark, who have been holding “consensus conferences” since the 1980’s, have long recognised the value of wider citizen engagement in policy and decision-making. Participatory processes can take many forms from town halls, participatory budgeting, deliberative polls, to forums and assemblies, decentralising power over policy design to the local level and increasing citizen participation in decision making. Evidence demonstrates that this form of civic participation can lead to stronger decision-making as well as having a positive impact on the social fabric. Citizen empowerment through deliberation can have an even greater outcome in post-conflict societies, breaking down barriers between communities and fostering greater cooperation.
Participatory democracy is about ensuring citizens are afforded the opportunity to be involved in decisions that impact their lives, it is not a threat to representative democracy but rather complements it. However, for both to coexist in harmony there must be an acknowledgement of the relevance of public opinion and civic voice. In this regard the Civic Initiative has a job of work to do in de-politicising this form of civic engagement and in demonstrating that this kind of approach is not just beneficial, but necessary.
Many within civic society have had an active role in bringing about positive change for our communities. The need for this role has not diminished. If anything, it has grown with the current political impasse, the cost-of-living crisis, the challenges to basic human rights and over a decade of austerity led policies from Westminster, hollowing out key public services for our communities.
Peace has not been felt evenly across Northern Ireland, with many areas remaining disadvantaged and marginalised. The 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement presents us with an opportunity to critically analyse and support the advancement of peace, reconciliation, and well-being, by ensuring the agency and ownership of local people and communities of proposals for progressive social change. Communities across Northern Ireland have never lacked ideas, but we are concerned at the lack of structure and framework necessary to harness those ideas – the Civic Initiative aims to provide such a structure with an innovative approach to ensuring voice on priority issues as we look toward the next 25 years.
Emma DeSouza is a writer, campaigner and peacebuilder. She served as Chair and Facilitator of the All-island Women's Forum 2021-2022, and works in the area of constitutional law and international human rights. Emma took forward a high profile court case in relation to the Good Friday Agreement that changed UK immigration law and is a regular contributor to the Irish Times, Irish Examiner and several other publications.