A group of 80 people from across Northern Ireland will be brought together over two weekends in October and November to consider the topic of social care for older people in the first Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland.

The Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland is a civil society initiative designed to demonstrate the potential of deliberative democracy to help break the stalemate on contested policy issues and put citizens from Northern Ireland at the heart of decision-making.

Run by Involve – the UK’s leading public participation charity – the Citizens’ Assembly will consist of approximately 80 citizens selected at random to be broadly representative of the population in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, regional spread, community background, and socio-economic status. This composition of citizens is also known as a ‘mini-public’.

The Citizens’ Assembly will first meet this weekend, 26-28 October and again on 16-18 November, in two residential weekends in the Europa Hotel, Belfast. Over the two weekends, Citizen Assembly members will be taken through a facilitated process of learning, dialogue and deliberation. The process will be designed to ensure participants receive the evidence they require to make informed recommendations.

The members will look at the public’s aspirations for social care for older people, including the role the health service, communities and individuals need to play.  The output from this process will be realistic recommendations to bring the social care system into the 21st century, and future-proof it to cope with the needs of the next generations within the context of limited resources.

As well as helping to break the impasse on this important issue, the Citizens’ Assembly will demonstrate a model of deliberative democracy that may be used in Northern Ireland to help resolve other contested issues in the future. However, this is something that only a future Northern Ireland Executive can decide. The Citizens’ Assembly currently has no legislative or statutory decision-making powers and will operate in an advisory capacity.  

An academic team of social policy experts has been assembled under the leadership of Professor Ann Marie Gray from Ulster University. This team will ensure a foundation of impartial evidence to support the discussion and deliberation between citizens.

Over the weekends, Citizens’ Assembly Members will hear from expert contributors who together reflect the range of views on the future of social care for older people in Northern Ireland. Citizens’ Assembly members will hear presentations from contributors and also have the opportunity to spend time questioning them. They will discuss what they have heard in small groups, identifying the issues and arguments that they feel to be most important. The discussions will be led by independent facilitators to make sure everyone has a chance to be heard and feels comfortable participating in the discussions.

At the second weekend of the Citizens’ Assembly, the Members will discuss what they have heard and reach a set of recommendations. To do this they will work through a series of exercises, involving small group discussions, as well as some voting and ranking of options. At each stage of this deliberative process the arguments and conclusions will be recorded to enable decision makers to fully understand the rationales behind the recommendations.

The Citizens’ Assembly will provide informed recommendations from a representative group of the public and can help give decision-makers the information and social-license to make difficult decisions on the future of social care for older people. 

Tim Hughes, Director of Involve, said:

“We’re excited to be holding Northern Ireland’s first ever Citizens’ Assembly this weekend. 80 citizens from across Northern Ireland will meet for the first time to discuss the critical issue of social care for older people. This is an issue that will affect everyone in some way, but it requires difficult decisions and trade-offs to be made, particularly in the context of limited resources. The Citizens’ Assembly will give its citizen members the evidence, time and support they need to develop recommendations for bringing the social care system into the 21stcentury. We’re pleased that the Department of Health has committed to take on board the conclusions as they develop plans for the future of social care in Northern Ireland.”

Sean Holland, Chief Social Work Officer at the Department of Health, said:

“I am delighted that the Citizens’ Assembly Advisory Group has chosen to focus on the public’s aspirations for the future of the social care system. As the Chair of the Department’s Project Board for the Reform of Adult Care and Support, I welcome the interest of the Citizens’ Assembly.  A key aspect of the Reform Project is the need to have open and honest discussion between citizens and government about people’s rights, entitlements and responsibilities with regard to social care. The Citizens’ Assembly will be a great asset to this ongoing discussion.”