Democracy without politicians


PISP's John Garry considers whether we really need politicians in a new animation informed by his recent research.

Do we really need politicians? Could we have democracy without them? What do you think? 

A study led by Professor John Garry considers what types of decisions randomly selected citizens may make, over controversial issues, in a divided society such as Northern Ireland. Conclusions suggested that a majority of citizens tended to compromise, and more so with preparation and dialogue in advance.

Researchers tested 1000 citizens who were asked about the Union flag flying over government buildings. Flags in Northern Ireland have been a controversial issue throughout its troubled history. In 2012, rioting and weeks of civil unrest followed a Belfast City Council decision to reduce the flying of the Union flag from 365 days per year over the City Hall. Irish nationalist politicians generally advocated the removal of the flag while unionist politicians lobbied for it to remain all year round. 

In the research, citizens were prepared in different ways, with some given no preparation and others an outline and summary of the main arguments and issues. Another group was asked to imagine a dialogue with someone of 'the other' community. Of note was that this final group was more likely to compromise (59% in total with 14% unsure and 27% against) than those who had no preparation (48% in total with 20% unsure and 32% against). These results suggest that randomly selected citizens tend to compromise, and more so with preparation and dialogue in advance.

Would politicians and the general public be supportive of the idea of randomly selected citizens making political decisions? The project asked a sample of 1000 citizens what they thought of the idea and also asked a sample of Northern Ireland's politicians (MLAs). Support from the general public (62%) was a lot higher than support from MLAs (17%).

John Garry ( is a Professor of Political Behaviour at Queen's University Belfast, School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Research Institute for the Study of Peace, Security and Justice.

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) of the UK.

Latest News