CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Reconstituting Politics (Report No. 3)

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Reconstituting Politics

The following publication has been contributed by Democratic Dialogue. The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

Reconstituting Politics
Report No. 3

by Democratic Dialogue (1996)

ISBN 1 900281 02 3 Paperback 75pp

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Democratic Dialogue
Report No 3
March 1996

Democratic Dialogue
5 University Street
Belfast BT7 1FY
Tel: 01232-232230/232228
Fax: 01232-232228/233334

©Democratic Dialogue 1996
ISBN 1 900281 02 3

Cover design by Dunbar Design
Photographs by Lesley Doyle
Printed by Regency Press

Reconstituting Politics


Introduction ROBIN WILSON
Waiting for the big fix JOHN MORISON
Democracy unbound ELIZABETH MEEHAN
Asking the right question ROBIN WILSON
Ten steps to reconstituting politics ROBIN WILSON
Notes on contributors


This is the third report from Democratic Dialogue, the Belfast-based think tank.

DD gratefully acknowledges the generous support of its funders, including the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.

It also acknowledges the generosity of the authors of this report, who write in a personal capacity Their views do not necessarily reflect those of other contributors, or the management committee of DD.

Further copies are available from the address on the inside front cover, price £7.50 (£10 institutions, £4.50 unwaged) plus postage and packing.

DD aims to publish six reports per year. Readers may wish to return the enclosed subscription slip, to avail of reduced-rate payment for all reports, free copies of DD's newsletter and notification of all DD events.

Our next report will explore another critical theme, closely linked to the concerns in this report - Women in Public Life.

Return to Report Contents


Robin Wilson

Politics is about two things. It is about delivering outcomes which people perceive as making a tangible difference to their lives, and it is about ensuring that political processes are experienced by people as in some sense democratically owned by them.

For politics to 'work', and to be seen to work, it must succeed in both these aspects - needless to say, it is currently widely seen as failing to do either. And there must be a constitutional framework, widely perceived as legitimate yet subject to evolution in response to social and cultural change, within which these processes can take place and those outcomes be delivered.

Yet in Northern Ireland, politics follows a vicious circle. There is no agreed framework, so debate rarely turns to substantive issues. There is not even agreement on the principles that might underlie such a framework, so the process of politics is reduced to adversarial repetition of familiar positions, rather than rational argument and pursuit of consensus.

Large swathes of the population were always alienated from the state, and as politics delivers no outcomes, as nothing really happens (though there are lots and lots of meetings), more and more citizens become alienated from the process itself. That, in turn, fails to renourish political dialogue with new voices and themes. So the persistent constitutional fault lines rigidify. And so on.

The challenge is to break this vicious circle. It is to find ways to ensure that something does happen - that things manifestly change as a result of politics taking place. And it is to create opportunities for those who have hitherto despaired of politics in Northern Ireland to feel it can be a vehicle for such change. In tandem, these demands, if they can be met, can set in train a virtuous circle of political renewal.

The challenge is a massive one. It is far more profound than getting parties around a table or establishing dates for talks. All three contributors inside, while their approaches differ, are sceptical that, in and of themselves, renewed inter-party talks will turn the trick.

John Morison suggests one problem - the debilitating legacy of tired British constitutional thinking, which he calls 'Westminsterism', as applied to Northern Ireland. While real political power has been leaching out to quangos and agencies, and to the European Union, conservative constitutionalism thinks only of 'parliamentary sovereignty'.

In Northern Ireland, this means sponsoring a 'mini-Westminster', albeit with power-sharing and an 'Irish dimension' bolted on, where the region's politicians can become sovereigu. Rather than pursuing a 'big political fix', Morison argues, far better incrementally to develop the 'new constitutionalism' that has emerged in Northern Ireland, in the absence of a Stormont parliament, towards equality and parity of esteem between the 'two communities'.

Elizabeth Meehan poses a different set of problems. Her worry is that the reservoir of ideas expressed within organisations of civil society in Northern Ireland - women's organisations, for instance - is dammed up by a barrier allowing only the much narrower stream of thinking amongst the conventional politicians to find an outlet.

Meehan explores various mechanisms through which 'ordinary' citizens can articulate a voice as to what judgments they would come to were they in positions of power. These include citizens'juries, consensus conferences and deliberative polls, or perhaps even a grand convention for Northern Ireland, analogous to that organised by Charter '88 in Manchester some years ago. Any or all would complement - not contradict - more formal, party-political dialogue.

My own contribution - and a practical set of conclusions arising from it which are appended - starts from a different focus again. It suggests that the political culture of Northern Ireland is far too insular, and its political class far too insulated, for its politicians to be able to strike an agreement matching the profundity of the challenge they face.

As a result, the focus should not lie primarily with inter-party talks, but elsewhere. There must be external renewal, informed by the broader challenges of global politics in the 90s and led by the two governments and the institutions of the European Union. And there needs to be internal renewal, an enrichment of the political class in Northern Ireland by new social forces and an associated process of political realignment.

All three contributions agree on this - the need for radical rethinking of how politics in Northern Ireland is done and what it is about. They are, in other words, all about the reconstitution of politics.

While this report has only three authors, it has benefited from the input of many hands. DD is grateful to all those who took part in a seminar on the theme of the report in Derry, especially Marie Smyth and Peter McKenzie, and to those who attended a round-table in Belfast at which some of the ideas were tossed around. Adrian Guelke and Richard Jay added helpful criticisms but the final version, of course, is the responsibility of the authors alone.

The report itself is meant to encourage debate: this theme is one to which DD will return. We would be more than keen to hear from anyone who would like to encourage a group - or area - based discussion of the issues it raises, or who would like to run with any of the particular ideas Meehan suggests.

Before the breakdown of the IRA cease fire, Marie O'Halloran interviewed students at Hazelwood integrated college in Belfast. This is what she reported:

None of them will vote when they get the franchise because they think the politicians are useless and the political choice is either nationalist or unionist. Apathy in ones so young? "No," says Oisin. "People are moving away from the old political traditions. They don't want to have just those two choices. That's progress."[1]


[1] 'Nothing much is changed, students say, and a chance has been wasted', Irish Times, February 17th 1996

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