After 11 months without a devolved government at Stormont and the failure of talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin, what’s next?
Direct rule would be a huge backward step. It would signal the failure of our locally elected politicians to fulfil their basic responsibilities. It would show that they just aren’t mature enough, respectful enough or bold enough to govern together.
Meanwhile, given the Secretary of State’s malleability over successive negotiation deadlines, it is quite clear that the UK government is doing everything it can to avoid assuming these responsibilities. Theresa May has a multitude of headaches; she doesn’t need another one.
The people of Northern Ireland surely deserve better than protracted political neglect – and it is the people themselves who can provide something of a solution. If local politicians cannot agree on the restoration of the devolved institutions in the immediate future, the British government – in consultation with the Irish government – should establish a citizens’ assembly.
Here’s how it would work.
First, randomly select at least one hundred citizens.
Every day we trust randomly selected citizens to make decisions of huge consequence. They’re called legal juries. By scaling up the sample size to at least one hundred, the citizens’ assembly would effectively become a rough cross-section of the broader population. It is a beautifully fair process: every citizen would have essentially the same chance of being selected to serve.
The more members there are, the more confident we can be (statistically speaking) that they are truly representative of society as a whole, mirroring its composition according to gender, age, socio-economic status, religion and community background.
If democracy is about government of the people, by the people and for the people, it surely makes sense to entrust the people with a more meaningful role in governing than simply marking a ballot in a polling booth every few years (or few months).
Second, let them deliberate on a pressing issue.
There are plenty of divisive, thorny issues on which politicians can’t agree. That happens everywhere. It’s exacerbated in the power-sharing context of Northern Ireland because representatives from different parties (legitimately) claim to hold a mandate from their voters to deliver their demands.
It’s all about strategic bargaining. Party X (legitimately) wants to push the interests of its voters; Party Y (legitimately) wants to secure the maximum amount of concessions for its electorate.
This leads to stalemate in Northern Ireland. While different parties seek to represent ‘their’ respective groups, it leaves little incentive to genuinely deliberate in the common interest.
Take the issue of an Irish Language Act. If you’re a unionist who’s opposed to an Irish Language Act, what evidence is there that you think it would actually harm the interests of your community? If you’re worried about the cost, do you actually know how much it would cost? If you’re a nationalist or republican who supports an Irish Language Act, then what difference would legislation actually make to promote the Irish language? Does it need a standalone Act? And if you’re neither unionist nor nationalist, and you can’t see what all the fuss is about, do you appreciate or understand just how important this issue is to some people?
There might be very good answers to all of these questions; I’m playing devil’s advocate here simply because it seems like we haven’t really had much of a a meaningful, reflective debate on an issue that’s behind so much of our stalemate.
Politicians from all sides might have plenty of rhetoric on it, and they’ve been arguing about it plenty behind closed doors, but is it just me or does there seem to be so little substantive detail for the public to consider?
In a citizens’ assembly, members would be given an extensive background briefing on the given issue. Just like a jury in a courtroom, they would then hear evidence from different sides of the debate. It is up to the ‘defence’ and the ‘prosecution’ to make their respective arguments. In party politics it is usually enough to shout down the other side; in this format, the whole point is to persuade citizens on the basis of the evidence in front of them.
Third, get them to take a decision.
After weighing the evidence, the citizens must then reach their verdict. This isn’t like a vote in most parliaments around the world where political parties tell their MPs how to vote. This is about asking ordinary citizens about what they consider the to be the most persuasive way forward.
And because they are statistically representative of the broader population, the decision of a citizens’ assembly would have a powerful claim to democratic legitimacy: if a different sample of people were assembled and had considered the same evidence, they would have arrived at the same decision.
In practice, this may not be a final decision. It may be a simply a recommendation to be put to, for example, direct rule ministers. But if direct rule ministers want to take informed, democratic decisions, preliminary decisions taken by a citizens’ assembly could help them accomplish both of these important goals.
Citizens’ assemblies are nothing new; they bear a striking resemblance with democracy in its earliest form in Ancient Greece and they have been established across the world over the last decade. In Canada, the Netherlands and even as close to home as the Republic of Ireland, they have been set up when elected politicians have struggled to find a way forward on their own.
Against the backdrop of growing hospital waiting lists, infrastructure projects in limbo, and the uncertainty of Brexit, the people of Northern Ireland don’t need a power vacuum. They need decisions to be taken.
We elected politicians to make these decisions on our behalf. If they fail to do their job, there are other people who are perfectly qualified to do so. We don’t need a thousandth round of talks. We don’t need another election. We don’t need an international mediator.
If elected politicians fail to restore our institutions, send in the citizens instead.
This article was originally posted on 5th September 2017. It was updated on 5th November to reflect political developments.
Also published on Medium.