Could our citizens hold the key to breaking the deadlock at Stormont?
Plans for an assembly of ordinary people could encourage new engagement with the political process, argues Robin Wilson
Northern Ireland's main political parties returned yesterday to the Stormont talks table, amid low expectations of any imminent return of the democratic institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement two decades ago.
The deadlocks and suspensions which have pockmarked that history have led many to vent their animus at 'the politicians'. But without condoning failures of political leadership, this is to miss a deeper problem.
Politics in Northern Ireland, as in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Lebanon - two other societies in which power-sharing institutions were established in the wake of violent conflict - is organised along communalist lines. All three societies have dysfunctional political institutions, because democracy can only work if the individual citizen is the unit, not a religious 'community'.
Democratic societies are not divided between 'us' and 'them'. They contain as many opinions as there are individual citizens - their views ranging along a spectrum from left to right and from libertarian to authoritarian.
Well-functioning democracies thus recognise that citizens and civic associations should have an active role in the public sphere. In Sweden, major items of legislation are given over to legislative commissions to consider, with months and even years of public consultation before a bill goes through parliament.
Legislation thereby enjoys greater consensus and the number of government officials can be kept relatively low.
In other words, in a strong democracy a strong civic society and a strong party-political system go hand in hand. After all, political parties can only thrive if they have large, active memberships - and membership rates in Northern Ireland are low by the standards of advanced democracies.
So how could citizens play a positive role in renewing democracy in the region in 2018? Part of the answer may be found across the border.
The rapid modernisation of society in the Republic in recent decades, leapfrogging the north in social policy as well as economic prosperity, has far outstripped the Catholic and nationalist pieties of its 1930s constitution.
Facing this contradiction, and prompted by some political scientists, the parties represented in the Dail outsourced the challenges this posed to what became known as (in its first iteration) a constitutional convention and (in its second) a citizens' assembly.
Each has had 100 members, with the 25% minority of party representatives in the first consensually removed from the second. The citizen membership is selected by what social scientists call 'sortition': a large random sample is whittled down to make it as demographically representative (in age, gender, social class, etc) of the adult population as possible.
As with a jury, the participants are asked to deliberate on an issue or issues, on the premiss that they will likely come to similar conclusions, weighing the evidence, as any other such group so assembled.
The constitutional convention was given a raft of issues to consider arising from Bunreacht na hEireann, including for example its highly dated reference to women's supposed domestic role.
Following the success of the convention, the assembly was given a narrower brief by the Dail - tasked with the charged issue of abortion, on which its membership mostly came to favour liberalising options.
These initiatives have already had a big impact. The constitutional convention led to a referendum and then legislation establishing marriage equality. And, on abortion, a consensus is emerging in the Dail in favour of a liberalisation which would allow a woman to seek a termination for up to 12 weeks on request.
So could a citizens' assembly add value similarly in Northern Ireland?
The 'shared education' campus planned for the old army base in Omagh emerged from such a 'mini-public' project - this time taking the form of a 'deliberative poll' engaging local citizens - some years ago.
And a modest citizens' assembly on 'Brexit', part of a research project by political scientists at Queen's, is now in train.
There are clearly issues which have blocked the working of democracy at Stormont and prevented it modelling reconciliation - such as the 'petition of concern', which was included in the Belfast Agreement to protect minority rights but has morphed into a party-political veto, exercised by different parties to different extents at different times.
Equally, there are issues arising from the modernisation of society in the region on which once-monolithic views have been challenged - gay marriage and abortion are issues where the range of views has broadened.
Other topics could set the agenda: what a citizens' assembly requires is merely that they be bounded challenges, amenable to a discrete number of solutions.
A number of individuals from diverse backgrounds have come together, assisted by the Building Change Trust, in support of such an initiative, arising from a paper on 'deliberative democracy' in Northern Ireland, commissioned by the trust, of which I was (as a political scientist) one of the authors.
The trust has now agreed to furnish £100,000 towards the budget for the initiative, in the expectation that other funders will find the remaining, similar, amount.
The idea is that a citizens' assembly could be convened during 2018, before the trust's mandate - a decade-long role in the modernisation of Northern Ireland's voluntary sector - expires. It would be facilitated by an organisation called Involve, which ran a very successful citizens' assembly on Brexit in Manchester last September.
If the Republic's 'mini-public' events have been commissioned by the Dail, the Stormont assembly is in abeyance and so cannot play any such role. Yet the steering group of this project, even when enlarged to engage wider stakeholders, cannot arrogate to itself a decision on what issue or issues a citizens' assembly in Northern Ireland should address.
The plan, therefore, is to consult extensively before any agenda-setting decision is made and consultation with assembly members has already begun.
This is an exciting idea which has captured much public attention since the trust's funding decision was announced last week.
After years of growing frustration with Northern Ireland's political performance, it offers a means to enlarge public engagement with politics for the common good.
Dr Robin Wilson is an independent researcher; his Meeting the Challenge of Cultural Diversity in Europe: Moving Beyond the Crisis is forthcoming from Edward Elgar