In deeply divided places like Northern Ireland, it can be difficult for elected politicians to reach agreement on contentious issues - particularly when political parties from different communities are required to share power. Whenever they fail to reach agreement, the business of government can grind to a halt or, worse, collapse altogether.
Led by Professor John Garry from the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, the project explores how 'deliberative minipublics' can play a meanginful role in the resolution of political crises among elected politicians.
Our aim is to consider the extent to which this form of decision-making would be capable of finding a compromise option on contested policy matters, such as flag display and other difficult issues, and the extent to which this form of decision-making would be perceived as legitimate by the public and politicians alike.
We've come up with a short video and Q&A section below to explain more about the idea below.
What are they?
Deliberative minipublics, such as citizens’ assemblies, are made up of a large group of randomly selected citizens. They are usually set up by politicians as a way of reaching a decision on an issue on which politicians themselves are uncertain or divided over the best way forward. The selected members are presented with a comprehensive range of information and arguments on the given issue. They then deliberate on the best way forward by weighing up the most convincing argument for the greater good. Their decision is usually put to politicians as a recommendation on how to overcome policy gridlock. Sometimes politicians may agree in advance to implement the decision of the minipublic, whatever decision it reaches.
Who are selected?
Ordinary citizens. Just as members of legal juries are randomly selected, members of deliberative minipublics are selected at random. This makes sure that everyone has an equal chance of being chosen.
By selecting a large number of citizens – usually at least 100 – the group of citizens is designed to be as representative as possible, hence the term ‘minipublic’. The members are carefully selected so that they are a microcosm of the public as a whole, mirroring the population in terms of gender, age, social class, community background, and so on.
What happens in deliberation?
For most political issues, people might have an opinion, but they may not have had the opportunity to consider it in much detail. Deliberative minipublics provide people with such an opportunity. By considering information from relevant experts, and arguments from relevant advocates for and against a particular policy issue, members of a deliberative minipublic are given the space to reflect on the most convincing way forward. Crucially, they also have the opportunity to deliberate on the best way forward with people who come from different backgrounds to their own. Sometimes people change their minds, sometimes people stick to their initial preferences. The outcome of the process is a considered decision based on mutual understanding and an attempt to find a common interest.
Why might they be considered for Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government collapsed in January 2017. Since then there have been a number of efforts to try and restore the Assembly and Executive, including an election and a series of talks between the main political parties. So far these efforts have failed. In the meantime, the quality of democracy in Northern Ireland is undermined by a vacuum in decision-making and a growing sense of frustration among citizens. Deliberative minipublics offer one possible way of helping to overcome the stalemate.
Have they been used before?
Yes. Deliberative minipublics have been held in different parts of the world to help politicians address controversial issues. In Canada, citizens’ assemblies were held in the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario on electoral reform. In Belgium, the G1000 minipublic helped provide citizens with a voice on political issues in the absence of an agreement among politicians to form a coalition government. In the Republic of Ireland, a Citizens’ Assembly was set up by the government in 2016 to consider a range of issues, including the potential reform of the law on abortion and how to tackle climate change.
Have any been held before in Northern Ireland?
Not really. A Civic Forum was set up under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, but it ceased to exist in 2002 after Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions were suspended. However, the Civic Forum was not a ‘deliberative minipublic’, mainly because its members were appointed by the First and deputy First Minister; they were not randomly selected from the population at large.
In 2007, a ‘Deliberative Poll’ was held in Omagh, whereby 127 randomly selected parents deliberated on the best way forward for local education policy. With an overall decline in student numbers at local schools, the parents decided in favour of the sharing of facilities by greater collaboration between schools, and greater integration in enrolments.
Are any planned for the future in Northern Ireland?
The Building Change Trust has announced funding for a citizens’ assembly in 2018. It will be delivered by Involve, a registered charity and think tank that has run previous citizens’ assemblies in other parts of the UK. For more information, visit the Building Change trust website on this link.