Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland citizens' assembly ready to give public a voice

By Mark Bain

Northern Ireland's new Citizens' Assembly will meet for the first time at the end of October.

Modelled on a similar system operating in the Republic of Ireland, it's hoped the forum will put the public at the heart of decision-making and provide guidance on key issues.

Rebekah McCabe is senior projects officer with national advisory group Involve which will be running the Assembly.

"This is more than simply getting opinions from the public. Assembly members will hear presentations from experts and advocates," she said.

"There will be active discussion, not passive listening. In the end it's all about decision making."

The Citizens' Assembly will meet over two weekends in October and November at a Belfast hotel with the focus on the social care system.

"Come the final weekend decisions and recommendations will be made," said Ms McCabe.

"These will then be presented to the public and will certainly be of interest to the various government departments.

"The recommendations will give a clear picture of how the public wants its future to be shaped by government.

"I'm sure the Citizens' Assembly can have a great impact. Similar concepts have been effective all over the world and they can really help deal with contentious issues.

"In recent years, the citizens' assembly in the Republic, the Constitutional Convention, has made recommendations which led to referendums on changing the Irish Constitution's stance on abortion and same-sex marriage.

"The forum can be influential. Over these first two weekends it will be interesting to see how the Assembly develops and we would hope to persuade the NI Office and the NI Assembly, when it gets back up and running, that this is something they should be getting behind."

The Citizens' Assembly will bring together 50 to 100 broadly representative citizens.

"We have engaged with a polling company to recruit a group of people to become involved from a large sample," Ms McCabe explained.

"People will be randomly selected and we're hoping there will be at least 50, though that could be more depending on what funding streams become available."

Although it is hoped the Assembly will be a fresh democratic instrument, any recommendations it makes will be advisory and it will not have legislative or statutory decision-making powers.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew has said the new Assembly is "a ray of light as darkness creeps across local decision making processes."

The North Down MLA said: "I believe people are more capable than many of our politicians in finding consensus and having rationale policy discussion and debate.

"It's important to remember that the advice of the Citizens' Assembly is non-binding and I'd agree that citizens' assemblies are no substitute for democratically elected bodies.

"However, in the context of the breakdown of devolution and with the Secretary of State set to hand over the reins power to unaccountable civil servants, the Citizens' Assembly is a ray of light as darkness creeps across local decision making processes."

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