The Initiative for Civic Space Citizens’ Panel brought together a diverse group of people from across Northern Ireland to explore how the Northern Ireland Assembly could better capture ‘citizen voice’ in future approaches to engagement and participation in decision making. The project set out to understand what public appetite there was for different methods of participation, alongside evaluating how well members thought these methods would work in a Northern Ireland context.
The Initiative for Civic Space (ICS) is a non-aligned network of academics and active citizens working to promote inclusive and respectful dialogue between all citizens irrespective of political opinion or community background to achieve a more inclusive, participatory democracy in Northern Ireland.
With the Stormont Assembly now suspended for over 2 years there is a growing consensus that returning to ‘politics as usual’ will not bridge the disconnect that seems to be growing between citizens and the politicians and officials making decisions on their behalf. Instead they believe there will need to be new opportunities for citizens to influence public debate and policy-making if government is to reclaim the public’s trust.
The ‘received wisdom’ however is that Northern Irish society is too divided to be able to engage in effective cross-community dialogue and deliberation, something that seems to be played out in traditional Political forums time and time again. ICS wanted to challenge this through the Citizens’ Panel to not only demonstrate that local people can talk to each other and reach solutions - despite their diversity, different politics and different interests – but also measure the extent to which people thought greater public involvement would improve how political decision making is done.
In order to better understand the public’s appetite for wider engagement and participation, and what methods they preferred ICS commissioned the Citizens’ Panel and will be using its conclusions to make citizen led recommendations to the to the British and Irish governments, and local political parties, to help develop a more democratic, participatory form of politics.
What we did
Involve designed and delivered a one-day Citizens Panel in May 2019 at Queen’s University Belfast. The Panel brought together 45 people, aged 16 and over, from across Northern Ireland. They were recruited through a civic lottery to be broadly representative of the population in terms of age, gender, community background, occupation (socio-economic status), geographic region and level of political engagement.
The key question put to the Panel was: how can the Northern Ireland Assembly create space for a citizen voice and build an inclusive, participatory democracy?
To help inform the discussions ICS gave presentations on four different participatory models that could strengthen citizen participation in decision making:
- Mass Online Participation;
- Constitutional Convention (based on the Irish Model);
- Citizens’ Juries;
- Citizens’ Assemblies.
The presentations highlighted the different features of each model and how they could/had be utilised in different circumstances or for examining different topics.
Facilitated discussions took place in small groups to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each model before sharing in plenary ideas that could improve the effectiveness of each. More importantly however the members also considered the relative ‘space’ for each of these models within a Northern Irish context and the perceived legitimacy that decisions informed by each of the methods would be granted by both politicians and the wider public.
The outputs of these deliberations on the day demonstrated that a diverse group of people with little or no pre-existing knowledge or interest in the topic, could come together to make considered contributions to the wider debate, putting forward clear preferences and recommendations. (Report to be published soon)
Participant evaluations of the experience further show that the members valued the opportunity to take part in the discussions.
“I liked the fact that I was given adequate information about a topic as well as provided with different opinions. This enabled me to come to an informed decision about issues I knew little about before.”
“I enjoyed learning new topics. I am not very interested in NI politics but realised through discussion that things could be changed by ordinary people.”
The evaluations also highlighted that the members themselves recognised the diversity of the group, and that the structures and facilitation put in place to support inclusive, collaborative and informed deliberations worked well.
“Welcoming environment made it easy to participate”
[the best thing was] “Not needing to speak about profession or background”
“As a young person, I expected to be patronised and not have my opinion fully heard. I was proved wrong and that was a great surprise.”
“Post it notes - so everyone's opinions, negative and positive, were each heard and noted. Great idea so everyone's 'voice' was heard”
“I felt really comfortable speaking. I wasn't made to feel that my opinions or way of speaking was stupid”
“Met nice people and became a bit more open minded on other's opinions”
 The Citizens’ Panel was funded by the Irish Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs as a joint project between the Initiative for Civic Space, the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool and the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's University, Belfast.
Photo credit: By Ardfern - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8292945