Northern Ireland 2nd February 2018

NI Open Government Network Blog – Have you noticed that we don’t have a Government?

by Connor McLean

Written by Colm Burns & David McBurney

“We are the dupes of those who shape the content of our beliefs, who introduce us to each other as enemies and competitors, and who stand exalted on the shambles they create.”
(Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty” by Dan Hind)

The Street lights are on this morning; the schools are open; the roads are being gritted: all without a government in place. Our political structures and institutions are in bad shape and our Assembly almost redundant, but our public services are being held together by a more dedicated workforce. Life goes on.

Have you noticed that we’ve had a democratic deficit for over a year? Do you care? Surely it’s not the citizen’s fault there is no Executive and Assembly? Or maybe we get the government we deserve?

A new round of Stormont talks kicked off last week with some new players taking the field. Following disappointing performances in earlier fixtures, James Brokenshire has moved on, to be replaced by Karen Bradley who has joined the NI Office on a free transfer from Culture, Media and Sport. Mary Lou McDonald is the new centre forward for SF; and all the smaller parties have returned from injury. But will any of this change the result?

Maybe we need to replace the playing surface – take a look at the political structures that are preventing the free-flowing game the fans of devolved government want to see: fix the design flaws in our constitutional arrangements that help perpetuate polarisation and deadlock.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. Ratified in a referendum in May 1998, this Agreement set up a power-sharing assembly and executive to govern Northern Ireland by cross-community consent. It affirmed the legitimacy of the aspiration to a United Ireland while recognising the current wish of the majority in Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. It provided the North South Ministerial Council to develop co-operation between both parts of Ireland; and it created the British-Irish Council to promote the relationship between Ireland and Britain.

The Agreement was the culmination of a peace process that introduced some political structures that have had the unintended effect of reinforcing sectarianism in our institutions. It introduced us to the concepts of community designation, mandatory coalition and the petition of concern; it incentivised the conduct of politics along community lines in a way that mitigated against any sense of collective responsibility; and it delivered relationships based on confrontation rather than conciliation, negotiation instead of deliberation.

When important political disputes cannot be resolved within the existing constitutional framework, it’s time to rebuild that framework, or risk a prolonged constitutional crisis?

It’s hard to imagine our political representatives resolving the issues that divide them and making decisions that benefit everyone. The forces of unionism and nationalism are not ideologically compatible; and consociation – “the cooperation of different, especially antagonistic, social groups on the basis of shared power” – is difficult to achieve for a prolonged period.

This is not necessarily to suggest that the individual ideologies are the problem, or that the centre ground is the solution to the lack of institutional stability and political progress. It is to make the point that endless negotiations that lack transparency aren’t working. It is to suggest that we need a fresh approach that makes citizens rather than communities the unit of democracy.

People are ahead of politicians on many constitutional issues and citizens should be engaged in a process to decide our future. A Constitutional Convention might help move things along: 30 political appointments based on D’Hondt working alongside 70 randomly selected citizens, taking evidence and making recommendations for a new agreement. If “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”, maybe it’s time to try something new.

The Building Change Trust are leading on the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland. Similar activities in other parts of the UK, in the Republic of Ireland and in other parts of the world have been refreshing in their attempt to change how politics is done: opting for deliberation over negotiation; and offering informed, evidence-based recommendations and solutions. So, why not let the People speak?

Some political pundits are sceptical and uncomfortable with this idea. Without bothering to acquire the substantive knowledge that would enable them to comment in an informed manner, their knee-jerk reaction is to rule out this method of citizen engagement. It is, they claim, unworkable in our polarised society and the divisions amongst our political parties would only be recreated in the Assembly of 100 randomly selected citizens. Besides, it might undermine our representative democracy. After all…where’s the mandate?

Our elected representatives have heard from the people at the ballot on quite a few times lately, they’ve achieved their mandate and are not keen to hear from pesky citizens again until they really have to. And they certainly don’t want citizens to be deliberating on individual policy issues and offering recommendations that might generate solutions for the common good.

It’s much better to keep people focused on the big picture ethno-nationalist issue where allegiance is more assured: much better to keep playing the zero-sum game for as long as possible.