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

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Reconstituting Politics

Democracy unbound

Elizabeth Meehan[1]

In March 1995, Fortnight Educational Trust held a workshop on problems in Northern Ireland of accountability in government through non-departmental bodies. There were two remarkable things about the day.

One was that, in the wake of the cease-fires, people of divergent views about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland did enter into discussion with one another (albeit subject to a certain amount of cosmetic arranging) about an issue which is of concern in any democratic constitution, whatever its 'national' complexion. The second was a dawning sense - if diffident, because of the vulnerability of what was then the new situation - of the opportunities that seemed to present themselves to create institutions that would do the job their creators wanted done. A comparison was made with the United States in the 18th century, when the peoples of America (hardly then 'Americans' in a singular sense) entered into debate about and finally agreed upon the constitution they wanted.

In many ways, even with the ending of the IRA ceasefire - whether there could be a restoration was unclear at the time of writing - thinking of Northern Ireland in this context could not be more appropriate. The peoples of Northern Ireland do not enjoy quite the same tabula rasa as did their American cousins (probably real, ancestral cousins). But there is one factor common to these past and potential experiments in institution-building. This is a backdrop of interest, then and now, in forms of democracy that are not predominantly about formal rules and procedures but which stress dialogue and deliberation.

There are two related, but distinct, aspects to thinking about a new Northern Ireland. First, there is the question of how best to discover what kinds of institutions can be accepted or welcomed ab initio - the constitution of institutions through which policies will subsequently evolve. Secondly, there is the question of how, once agreed and in the context of 'normal' politics, new institutions should operate so as to bring about policies and provide services that adequately reflect the needs and aspirations of all citizens.

We have become accustomed - even in places outside Northern Ireland where people do not speak of 'democratic deficits, - to thinking of democracy in ways which almost stand its ideal meaning on its head.[2] Far from being inspired as the classical Greek and 18th-century democrats were - by the idea of popular self-government - revisionist theorists of democracy in the mid-20th century recommended minimising mass influence on the body politic.

To them, as in the case of earlier thinkers who wanted democracy but only for property owners, 'ordinary people' would be too preoccupied with the day-to-day scrabble for personal survival to be able to exercise the disinterested rationality necessary for public life. Thus, their role should be restricted to the periodic electing of competing teams of people experienced in political arts. In between elections, according to such theories, it was best that ordinary people remained passive, being administered but not contributing to administration.

The protection of the interests of ordinary people, as well as everyone else, was thought to lie in the application of simple precepts and criteria - for example, government through the will of the majority and universal justice through equal treatment. If the will of the majority led to government but not necessarily to justice that embodied equal treatment, modern theorists advocated 'consociational democracy'. This is a theory of democracy which acknowledges that some societies are divided, usually on the basis of religious, national or ethnic differences, and that - in contrast to the assumption of universal similarity behind the idea of equal treatment - there are inequalities between the segments. Neither of these approaches stands the tests of time or of ability to inspire.

As Richard Jay has argued,[3] the idea of consociational democracy has become somewhat discredited by its association with corporate management and because its success depends on deference and collective discipline within the social segments. On the other hand, it is no longer possible to revert to seeing majority rule as a means of securing justice. It was never enough on its own for classical democratic theory of the modern age, which always made majority rule conditional upon the protection of minority rights. Moreover, as many have pointed out, there is increasing cynicism - beyond the shores of Northern Ireland, too - towards parties, party systems and policy processes which treat citizens as passive,[4] all of which are associated with the coming to pre-eminence of simple majoritarianism.

The conditionality of majority rule upon the protection of minorities has been overlooked in dominant understandings of democracy in Northern Ireland. Elsewhere, simplistic majoritarianism is under attack for its adverse effects - closing discussion and being susceptible to the suppression of legitimate minority viewpoints.[5] Though supporters of unconditional majoritarianism have assumed that the interests of minorities in situations of majority rule were protected by the rule of law, many other people do not share this confidence.

The best known rule-of-law precept, equal treatment, is increasingly regarded as an inadequate method of ensuring outcomes that are just. This critique has emerged most strongly from feminists[6] and analysts of race relations, who point out that the principle rests on a misapprehension about equality among individuals.

Though the claim of universal equality is revolutionary in import, it is a mistake to divorce the abstract equality of people from their real situations. Individuals are rarely in similar material situations to one another. Thus men and women or black and white people are unlikely to enjoy equal outcomes by being treated in the same way as one another. As Phillips suggests, though it is liberating to say that differences between people should not count in determining who may participate in politics, this is not the same as saying that all differences can be discounted altogether.

The various criticisms of revisionist democratic theory and thoughtless reliance on ill-considered principles have led to alternative ways of thinking about how best to arrange political participation and to bring about policy outcomes that are seen as just. Likewise, worries, based on experience, about the marginalisation of most citizens from public policy-making and implementation have led to the idea that it is sensible as well as just to foster participation. As Wainwright argues, bringing people in who have direct knowledge of a problem can help to avoid mistaken solutions.[7] It is more likely that people will accept institutions and policies if they have had a hand in the making of them or feel that solutions have been devised reasonably and fairly.

Though new ways of thinking emanate from a variety of preoccupations, they have a common focus: decisions which are just or practicable are not necessarily those that have been arrived at through applying the rules of majoritarianism or equal treatment. Instead, provided that arrangements allow the voices of minorities or the marginalised to be heard with equal clarity, the best outcomes will be those which reflect what has come, through discussion, to seem reasonable to all concerned.

It should be stressed here, however, that modern participatory democrats - unlike the Greeks and Rousseau - do not expect that all people will want to spend most of their time discussing things. Indeed, compulsory participation - and active citizenship in the sense of snooping on neighbours - would be as inimical to freedom as was the deliberate exclusion of certain categories of people from participation. But it is clear that a good many people are willing to do more than vote or deliberately abstain. Stewart, Kendall and Coote find evidence for this in people's willingness to respond to surveys of public opinion and to be members of studio audiences or panels used for research purposes.

Their observation was confirmed by the findings and experience of researchers into the question of Women and Citizenship in Northern Ireland.[8] This work reinforced other findings about women's great energies in civil-society organisations. The research methods - developing the questions and testing and disseminating the findings, with the help of women themselves, in discussion groups and workshops - were a resounding corroboration of the idea that taking part in focus groups for research purposes breeds a hunger for more knowledge and opportunities.

Though there has been a great deal of interest recently in deliberative and participatory approaches to politics and social choice, the basic ideas are not new - and comparing Northern Ireland with 18th-century America is not farfetched. In his account of the intellectual influences on American constitution-makers, Samuel Beer[9] places considerable significance upon the 17th-century English poet and thinker John Milton. In particular, Beer draws attention to Milton's theory of 'government by discussion: Free thought and free debate will for individual members of society heighten their grasp of truth and also bring them into agreement upon it."[10]

Another likely influence on 18th-century Americans, according to Beer, was the Scottish Enlightenment thinker David Hume, who is also drawn upon by the modern feminist Selma Sevenhuijsen.[11]

Sevenhuijsen proposes that his theory of moral reasoning can be used by feminists and fellow citizens in devising an appropriate mix of policies which takes into account sex differences as well as similarities between men and women. Thus, whereas the quote from Milton suggests that discussion can be used to reach consensus on what is the common interest ('a single truth'), Sevenhuij sen's use of Hume indicates that it can also be used to find agreement on how to accommodate different interests in a consensual manner.

Modern versions of 'government by discussion' can be found in the ideas of Anthony Giddens on 'dialogic democracy',[12] David Miller on 'deliberative democracy"[13] and lain McLean on democracy and information technology'[14] Miller, McLean and Demos draw on techniques and technological developments unavailable in the days of Milton and Hume. But they, and Giddens, are motivated by similar concerns: to regenerate the abstract value of participation as a democratic norm, to make participation worthwhile in practice, to overcome weaknesses in 'winner takes all' systems of making social choices, and to avoid negative spirals in which disagreement leads to destructive conflict.

If these ambitions are to be equally effective for people not among the élites of revisionist theories of democracy, it is necessary also to think about the nature of the political system within which dialogue takes place and forms of debate that encourage fruitful outcomes. Again, there is new thinking taking place of relevance to Northern Ireland, in which we have the opportunity to design the institutions and practices that we need.

The new democratic theory, which stresses the importance of freedom to enter into debate, proposes more than the classical liberal ambition to remove patent and tangible barriers to universal free speech. In common with Americans of the 1960s who tried to ensure that civil rights were more than symbolic," and with recent influential feminist political theory in Britain, radical democrats argue that the political authority cannot be a neutral arbiter in the arena of public discourse.[16]

American civil-rights advocates used to point out that laws purporting to confer equality could not effectively do so where there were imbalances of power and access to information. If, for example, black, female cotton workers in the south were to be able actually to enjoy their formal rights, officials in the Department of Labour or the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission needed to take special steps to inform them of the law and the possibility of appealing to it - to overcome the much greater countervailing power and influence of the large or multi-national corporations which employed them.

Writing more recently about liberal-democratic politics and women, Anne Phillips similarly points to the onus on those in power to ensure that women's voices, hitherto marginalised, can be properly heard in the public arena. Modern radical democrats say the same for society in general - and a little more.

Chantal Mouffe, for example, argues that the political authority must define the public space so as to allow a genuine pluralism; at the same time, however, the way in which the public space and agenda are defined must always be open to challenge by citizens. In arguing for deliberative or dialogic democracy, Miller and Giddens echo the older views of David Hume on the need for small assemblies of 100 people by arguing that arrangements to bring about real participation can and ought to be made at all levels of decision-making, from small localities to the apex of parliament and government.

Upshots may not always be comfortable for those in power or in favour of conventional approaches to things. For the conditions set out in this diverse literature about democracy can be summarised thus:

  • participation by those who want to participate - not necessarily everyone - is essential to the fullest expression of democracy;
  • participation means not only voting but freedom to enter into debate about what arrangements would be best for all concerned;
  • if people are included in debates whose voices have not been heard before, and if debate is conducted rationally and fairly, the outcome will embody outlooks that may differ from what has previously been taken as reasonable, sensible or just; but
  • an outcome that is different from what might have been predicted on the basis of assumptions about equal treatment or majority vote is, nevertheless, just - if it has been arrived at by people themselves, acting in a fair and reasonable way.

Participatory and deliberative democracy depend not only on putting into p lace, at various levels, institutional arrangements which allow decisions to be reached but also on commitment to new forms of debate. For example, speaking at the Reconstituting Politics seminar which launched Democratic Dialogue in Derry, Marie Smyth drew attention to the damage done to political processes by decades of adversarial conventions (something people also say about the UK as a whole). She pointed out that how power is conceived in adversarial systems means people who want change think change must mean they, old 'bottom dogs', become new 'top dogs' - and those who do not want change think so too and, conversely, fear it.

Thus, it has not been possible to use the language of generosity, compassion and trust. Moreover, compromise is a word that is taken to denote weakness instead of strength. In contrast, in Smyth's view, it is both realistic and fruitful to think that giving ground can also be a means of taking power. For example, power-sharing is not a concession which necessarily reduces the power of the 'top dog': in a situation where the 'top dog' has no policy-making power, 'top dogs' would gain as well as 'bottom dogs', because accepting power-sharing would bring about an institution that would give both some real power.

Smyth's ideas are echoed in Christine Bell's reflections on forms of negotiation. At a conference organised by Belfast Trades Council, she described how such adversarial politics lends itself to 'positional bargaining', as in the barter between buyer and seller in a market. In such a situation, both sides are afraid to volunteer the first concession, each may take up a harder position than that for which they are prepared to settle and the whole thing is a zero-sum game.

Bell argues instead that we need to define problems in ways in which there can be 'win-win' outcomes. Smyth's way of defining power-sharing would be an example; Bell's own illustration is that of human rights, where the existence of international norms can help people to see themselves as contributing to something universally important, rather than being overwhelmed by suspicions that campaigns for rights are partisan ploys.

There is some corroboration for her identification of human rights as a promising area for new forms of negotiation in Peter Emerson's report[17] of the dynamics amongst groups which led up to the experiment he conducted in preferential voting. In his day-Long seminar, organised by Fortnight Educational Trust, a bill of rights was the issue about which it was easiest to develop an agreed form of words upon which to vote.

New fora and forms of negotiation - in moderately severe conflicts and in conflicts of core values - have been used elsewhere. The practical possibilities are summarised by J D Stewart.[18] He deals with innovations which build on communities and councils and ways of improving participation in institutions that already exist. The innovations described by Stewart which seem best suited to a situation such as ours, where we want to take part in designing new institutions from scratch - institutions through which we can have fair participation in the future in developing substantive policies - are citizens' juries and consensus conferences. Others of his proposals - deliberative opinion polls, study groups, citizens' panels, advisory, focus and community planning groups, open council meetings, co-options to councils from voluntary bodies and so on - seem more suited to attempts to guarantee democratic practice once new institutions are agreed.[19]

Paraphrasing Stewart, a citizens' jury can be described as a group of citizens meeting to explore an issue, taking their job seriously, assimilating evidence and discussing it before coming to their decision.[20] According to one of their creators, citizens' juries can be about a wide range of topics, because their fundamental aim is to tackle the question 'how should we live together?'[21]

Perhaps of special interest in Northern Ireland, the citizens' jury method was used recently in Spain in the wake of a violent reaction - bringing deaths and injuries - by the separatist movement ETA to proposals by the public works department of the City of Maltazaga in the Basque region for the routing of a major trans-European highway. ETA had claimed that only it could speak for the people of the region. The city put this to the test in 'planning cells' of ordinary citizens and has since been reviewing the findings. More finished examples can be found in the us, on the federal budget and on health, welfare and social issues, and in Germany, on architectural and environmental matters.

In most cases, juries of 12-25 members sit for about a week, hearing evidence and drawing conclusions. Jurors may be selected at random from the electoral register or by representative sample. They may be selected by independent specialist centres, jurors may ask to consult additional or alternative witnesses and written evidence is provided. There may be multiple juries, as in the Basque region, where wide coverage is needed - which, in Germany, raises the average cost from about £13,000 for local inquiries to over £100,000 for national projects.

In Germany, local authorities or other levels of government undertake to take account of juries' views. In the us, juries are not a direct part of the decisionmaking process but do attract media attention and, therefore, contribute indirectly to decision-making. Stewart reports that the jury process "generates a deep commitment amongst the jurors" and that jurors "have shown great competence in grasping the issues".

The final reports of juries need not be unanimous. Where there are divergent opinions, in whole or in part, these have to be set out with reasons for each. If juries in Northern Ireland were to come up with a mixture of agreements and divergences, that at least could help set priorities for talks - which changes could be brought about now, and which would need to be shelved.

In this sense, juries would have comparable results to Emerson's voting experiment. In his conference on preferential voting systems, part of the day was spent on negotiating the topics that would appear on a ballot slip, as well as designing wordings most likely to command electoral support. The jury process, at least those that have been tried, would be comparable to a longer and deeper version of the first part of Emerson's experiment and less about finding precise words for a ballot slip. However, the ballot part of his scheme could be considered as another possible answer to the questions identified by Stewart, Kendall and Coote about how jurors might arrive at the conclusions or recommendations of their final reports.

Unlike juries, where differences of opinion may be expected and which have to be explained, consensus conferences, as their name suggests, aim for agreement on a set of recommendations. A definition of a consensus conference has been provided by John Durant of the British Science Museum, in his introduction to the final report of such a conference held in the UK. It is:

a forum in which a group of lay people put questions about a scientific or technological subject of controversial political and social interest to experts, listen to the experts' answers, then reach a consensus about this subject and finally report their findings at a press conference.[22]
Durant played a leading part in adapting Danish experience to the UK. The National Consensus Conference on Plant Technology, held in November 1994, was funded by the Agricultural and Food Research Council (now the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council) and organised by the Science Museum. Its subject was the 'socially sensitive' topic of the 'genetic engineering' of plants (limited in the first instance to plants because of the breadth of the topic, which also covers animals and humans).

Durant explains the success, over eight years, of this Danish way of encouraging the habits of active citizenship and improving the quality of public debate and decision-making-on childlessness, identity cards, food irradiation, transgenic animals and animal biotechnology (such conferences in Denmark have cost £35-50,000). The Danish model was used in the Netherlands before being applied in the UK.

Following Danish practice, the Science Museum appointed a steering committee to oversee the conference. A call for volunteers to join the panel was made in advertisements in 11 regional newspapers and on BBC and independent radio stations. More than 350 people applied and the final 16, including an A-level student from Antrim, were chosen using the same socio-demographic criteria used in sampling. The conference was preceded by two briefing weekends, to identify areas for study, key questions to be put and the witnesses who would address them. The questions were used as organising principles of the main conference and the final report, written by the panel themselves.

Durant reports:

Faced with a massive amount of information and only a comparatively short time in which to digest it, the lay panel has produced an exceptionally measured and balanced report ... [L]ay panel recommendations deserve consideration by scientists, industrialists, retailers, policy-makers, special interest groups and others with a direct or indirect involvement in plant biotechnology. Of course, the ultimate responsibility for determining public policy cannot be delegated to a consensus conference lay panel; but such a panel is broadly free from the multiple sectional interests that are at work within the field of plant biotechnology, and for this reason alone its informed judgments deserve to be taken seriously - particularly by those who claim to speak about this subject 'in the public interest'.[23]
It may be argued that scientific matters, which form the bulk of consensus conference experiments so far, are not comparable with the problem that needs to be solved in Northern Ireland. And this unsuitability may be thought to be reinforced by Durant's reference to freedom from sectional interests. But the Danes have used this approach on an essentially political issue - the electronic identity card - and something like a consensus conference has been used by disparate groups who want to reform the UK constitution to grant a measure of autonomy to Scotland (see below).

To argue that the scientific emphasis of most consensus conferences rules them out as a model for Northern Ireland would be to belittle the passionate views 'social engineering' excites. And to take the view that such an experiment would be invalidated by not being 'free from sectional interests' might underestimate desire among people in Northern Ireland to find a way round their sectarian equivalent. Moreover, even if a consensus conference in Northern Ireland were composed of participants initially predisposed to sectarianism, if such a body could produce at least some agreed recommendations they would carry all the more force.

Citizens' juries and consensus conferences are likely to be used in research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council into how UK central government works. Something like them - though spread over years rather than weeks or weekends - can be seen in how the Constitutional Convention has come to agree upon its proposals for a devolved Scottish parliament.

The convention arose out of the new Claim of Right, declared in 1988[24], and the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament. It was boycotted by the Scottish National party, which is in favour of full independence, and by the Conservative party, which wants no significant change at all. But all other parties, including Labour, which has pledged to introduce the convention's recommendations if and when returned to power, participated. So, too, did church organisations, associations of councillors, trade unions and other bodies - meaning, it is claimed, that about 80 per cent of Scottish society was represented in its deliberations about the accommodation of diverse interests.

Though those on the extremes absented themselves from discussions about the future of Scotland, this does not mean that there were no strongly held differences to resolve before the convention published its fully agreed, final recommendations on St Andrew's Day, November 30th, 1995. Women's groups found it necessary to declare a Women's Claim of Right so as to ensure that the convention would devise a non-sexist parliament. And, of course, the disputed question of the appropriate electoral system had to be resolved.

Deliberative opinion polls are designed not to find out what citizens think, given the little that they know now, but, as Fishkin puts it, what the public would think if they had better opportunities to think about the questions at issue.[25] As such, they, as well as juries, have some resemblance to the experiment which took place at Emerson s conference. Though, like citizens' juries, deliberative polls are intended to help citizens to be better informed about policy, and policy-makers better informed of citizens' views (in this case, hundreds), unlike juries the engagement with the issue at hand is more fleeting. Fishkin piloted a British deliberative poll on law and order through Channel 4 and the Independent. And similar ideas for 'preferenda'[26] in Northern Ireland are being developed by Fred Boal, Tom Hadden and Colin Irwin.

Given that consultation is comparatively fleeting in deliberative polls, the profundity of the problem of institution-building in Northern Ireland may initially require a more deeply qualitative approach. Deliberative polls and preferenda could come into play after agreed institutions had been set up, to canvass opinion on the substantive policy responsibilities that would be devolved to a Northern Ireland assembly. A similar judgment may be made about some of the other innovations discussed by Stewart.

He discusses many other methods of improving democracy, some of which may be particularly relevant to Northern Ireland - such as the relationships between the voluntary and community sectors and the administration and political parties, and how these components can effectively interact in the hoped-for 'normal' politics. There is some ambivalence about the current networks and, hence, the proper relationships amongst these actors in a new policy-making system.

As Jay points out,[27] the absence of 'normal' politics has meant strategic policy questions are often discussed in what may appear a complex, back-room web of relationships between the voluntary sector and executive bodies. In one sense, the direct relationships between groups in civil society and departments or quangos mean Northern Ireland is a better example than Britain of participatory democracy - as is suggested by John Morison's contribution to this volume. But questions are asked about the representativeness of voluntary groups and there is some disquiet that lines of accountability seem obscure or absent.

Accountability and influence are supposed, in theory, to be realised through elected politicians. Political parties in Northern Ireland, however, are sometimes despised and eschewed by individuals in community groups, perceived as taking no interest in the politics of everyday life. In any event, constitutional arrangements leave parties with few responsibilities and little power to deal with 'normal' policies, and so little option but to be preoccupied with the conflict over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

Evidence submitted to a recent review[28] indicates a strong feeling among some members of political parties that, in a new Northern Ireland, the voluntary sector will have to give up its policy roles - an unattractive future for groups which have provided opportunities for popular participation and have so much experience of day-to-day policy negotiation. It would not be easy for them to accept an insensitive resumption of the mantles of legitimacy and exclusive access to government, by bodies thought to have abdicated every-day policy responsibilities until now. But it need not be like this.

The recommendations of the review echo what Stewart tells us of experience elsewhere. He indicates that parties and community groups can accommodate each other to their mutual benefit, and that of citizens in general, retaining the good things about non-partisan participation and allowing party channels of accountability to spread further into society Study circles on public issues, for example - arising from trade unions, churches, youth groups, chambers of commerce, community centres - have been established in Sweden, the US and Bristol in England. Other possibilities are standing citizens' panels, which might be consulted regularly by public authorities or, as in Bradford over health and social services, be specially constituted for consultation.

Stewart also draws attention to neighbourhood committees in Bradford, Tower Hamlets and Somerset and community groups in Middlesborough, comprising elected residents and representatives of voluntary groups, which have the right to be consulted. There are also focus groups, as in Hammersmith and Fulham, on social services; advisory fora, as in Hampshire, on waste management; and, elsewhere in England, panels which bridge gaps between government and the elderly or young people. Such sub-municipal councils or advisory committees have been accepted in most continental European cities since the 50s.[29] Given the special role of the voluntary sector in Northern Ireland, the idea of 'associative democracy,[30] - in this case, voluntary self-governing bodies acting as partnerships between the recipients and providers of services - deserves closer attention.

Drawing these threads together suggests a two-pronged conclusion for action in Northern Ireland, and two problems.

To summarise: the normative claims of participatory democracy demand that a broad swathe of people be involved in devising new institutions that will be part of any settlement. Nor may enforced passivity be the source of comfortable stability élites think - at best it may result in poorly designed policies and, at worst, it may only enhance alienation and so volatility.

The more participatory approach has the pragmatic benefit that people will accept and work with institutions if the making of them has been seen to be fair. Experience shows a willingness among significant numbers of citizens to be involved, and a desire to have some real influence; it also offers practicable ways of achieving this. Such considerations are applicable in Northern Ireland, to both the creation of new institutions and subsequent policy-making within their framework.

The basis for the normative claims and pragmatic benefits of participation is also evident in Northern Ireland. In the research into Women and Citizenship, women said they saw themselves as having to 'mend a lot of pots' because of societal and systemic failures. But they want to be free to use their energies to design the pots in the first place, they think that the pots would be a better shape if they did so and they would like practical opportunities - like those Stewart identifies - to enable them to do so.

The findings fit in with Jay's point about the strengths and hopes of the voluntary sector.[31] They also fit in with the experiences of successful pluralist, public fora which have generated concrete outcomes and of which more could have been made by policy-makers - for example, a 1993 conference on 'Power-Sharing and the Administration of Power' in Dungannon,[32] Emerson's voting experiment or, more currently, public hearings on minority rights in Derry.[33]

It is also plain that people do not want to be alienated from the search for a political settlement. Perhaps surprisingly, given the cynicism with which politicians are generally regarded, President Clinton was able, as no one else seemed to be during the period of the ceasefires, to release feelings amongst people that the peace belonged to them and was not merely a game for poker-faced political élites. New political deadlocks and the ceasefire breakdown were, as we now know, to dissipate that sense of exhilaration.

Perhaps anticipating the danger of further stalling in 'high politics', the incoming chair of the Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland opened the new year by saying with some urgency that business had to make its voice heard in the search for an agreement; the Irish News backed the call editorially while stressing that other social groups had contributions to make.[34] A new framework must not only secure agreement for the moment but also stand the post-settlement test of enabling parties and groups to work effectively with the grain in subsequent, every-day policymaking - or be able to cope reasonably with proposals for change as and when reform seems necessary.

These needs and aspirations, and practical experiences, suggest two sets of short-term actions to help engender institutions and practices, right for now yet stable and adaptable enough for longer-term policy-making. The first set of actions is similar to the component parts of the Scottish Convention - that is, a series of citizens' juries and/or consensus conferences based on either locality or social roles. These should comprise interested individuals and representatives of voluntary and community groups, political parties and movements. Their agenda would be set by themselves but might include new institutions, new methods of negotiation and post-settlement practice for policy formulation, implementation and evaluation.

Smyth's experience of research and of bringing people together suggests that, if these issues seem too much or too threatening to confront together or head-on, a start could be made by beginning with a part of the bigger issues - a part with direct meaning to those involved.

There are many possible openings which, when delved into, bring people face-to-face with the wider political questions - for example, identifying issues to do with living in border or interface areas; the role of policies aimed at eliminating discrimination and establishing 'fair participation' in socio-economic life; how to acknowledge the rights of people who identify themselves on the basis of, say, gender, sexuality or non-Northern Irish cultural origins where these identities are stifled by differentiations based on Catholic-nationalist or Protestant-unionist; and so on.

There is already a reasonable body of written guidance that could be used by such juries or fora, some of it cited in this chapter. What they would need in the way of substantive evidence would vary, depending on their interests. What they would have in common is the idea that whatever they agreed upon would have to be open to discussion by a wider group. That is, all these small juries or conferences could culminate in a Northern Ireland-wide, popular Constitutional Convention.

Such a meeting in respect of the UK as a whole was sponsored in 1991 by Charter 88, which, if people wanted, could be invited to assist in the calling of a special convention for Northern Ireland to consider the best arrangements and powers for a devolved assembly, its role in north-south-east-west relationships and the general question of the protection of rights. Held in Manchester, the Charter 88 convention was an exciting experience. It combined the serious study of the work of its subscribing signatories and sympathisers - for example, the Scottish Convention, human rights activists from Northern Ireland, trade unionists, women's groups, regional groups and so on - with an atmosphere of celebration which had the sense of the whole city, including the splendidly Gothic city hall, being taken over for a party of current friends and people rediscovering friends from the past.

Another analogy might be the nongovernmental organisation (NGO) fora which preceded and coincided with the United Nations conferences on women in Copenhagen, Nairobi and Beijing - gatherings which, like the Manchester convention, combined challenging work in grappling with profound differences with the celebration of opportunities for change and the making of friendships. The UN conferences had a further, important feature: they were designed to ensure that official delegations felt it incumbent to pay attention to NGO delegations from their own countries and NGO representatives had observer status at the official conferences - interactive opportunities which NGOS used as fully as possible to have their voices heard.

There are two main practical problems in such suggestions. The first is money and the second timing. As indicated earlier, citizens' juries and consensus conferences are not cheap; a Northern Ireland - wide convention on the scale of and in the mood of the Manchester one would be expensive - let alone one like the UN conferences. And the question of timing is crucial. These things must begin while the situation is still fluid enough to be able to be influenced and take place over a period which does not miss the boat.

It has been suggested to Democratic Dialogue that it is time for a 'second Opsahl' and it may be that the kinds of proposals indicated above could be thought of as exactly that - especially if they paralleled official talks and if the 'grand' convention were so magnificent that official delegations were forced to acknowledge that it was in their interests to pay some attention to it.

If such proposals, or something like them, were to find favour among readers, Democratic Dialogue could perhaps act a 'lead' organisation in application for funds. If so, this would be an important way we could live up to our name.


[1]'The author appreciates the comments on her preliminary manuscript made by Richard Jay and the participants at a seminar organised by Democratic Dialogue.
[2] Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory, Cambridge University Press, 1974
[3] Richard Jay, 'Democratic dilemmas', in Democratic Dialogue report 2, Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion, p69
[4]A Heath and R Topf, 'Political Culture', in R Jowell, S Witherspoon and L Brook eds, British Social Attitudes: The 1987 Report, Gower, Alder-shot, 1988
[5]Chantal Mouffe, 'Democratic Citizenship and the Political Community', in Mouffe ed, Dimensions of Radical Democracy: Pluralism, Citizenship, Community, Verso, London, 1992
[6] Anne Phillips, 'Must Feminists Give Up on Liberal Democracy?', in David Held ed, Prospects for Democracy: North, South, East, West, Polity, Cambridge, 1993
[7]quoted in K D Stewart, E Kendall and A Coote, Citizens' Juries, Institute for Public Policy Research, London, 1994, pp 3-4
[8]Women and Citizenship: Power, Participation and Choice, written by a research team accommodated by the Women's Resource and Development Agency, Equal Opportunities Commission, Belfast, 1995
[9]Samuel Beer, To Make a Nation: The Rediscovery of American Federalism, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1993 [10] ibid, p75
[10]ibid, p75
[11]Selma Sevenhuijsen, 'Justice, moral reasoning and the politics of child custody', in Meehan and Sevenhuijsen eds, Equality Politics and Gender, Sage, London, 1991
[12]See his contribution to DD report 1, New Thinking for New Times, pp 8-23.
[13] David Miller, 'Deliberative Democracy and Social Choice', in Held ed, op cit, pp 74-92
[14] Ian McLean, Democracy and New Technology, Polity, Cambridge, 1989; see also Demos Quarterly, no 3, 1994, on 'tele-democracy'.
[15]A Blumrosen, 'Towards effective administration of new regulatory statutes', Administrative Law Review, parts I and II, winter and spring 1977
[16]Mouffe, op cit
[17]Peter Emerson ed, Where Lies the Compromise? An Experiment in Decision-Making, conference report, Fortnight Educational Trust, 1995
18]J D Stewart, Innovation in Democratic Practice, Institute of Local Government Studies, Birmingham, 1995; see also Stewart, Kendall and Coote, op cit.
[19] See also P Beresford and S Croft, Citizen Involvement: A Practical Guide for Change, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1993, on citizen involvement in the delivery of 'quality' services.
[20]Questions, and various answers, about how to secure legitimacy and representativeness in the establishment, agenda-setting, methods of investigation and final decision-making of citizens' juries are addressed in Stewart, Kendall and Coote, op cit.
[21] Crosby, quoted in ibid
[22]Science Museum, UK National Consensus Conference on Plant Biotechnology (November 1994): Final Report, British Science Museum and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, London and Swindon, 1994-95
[23] ibid
[24]Campaign for a Scottish Assembly (later, Parliament), A Claim of Right for Scotland, Edinburgh, 1988
[25] quoted in Stewart, op cit
[26] Preferenda are more sophisticated than referenda in that they offer more than two options for voters to rank one-two-three-..., rather than a binary, yes-no choice.
[27] Jay, op cit
[28]Technical Aid/Community Participation Working Group, Developing Community Participation in Greater Belfast: Summary and Recommendations, Belfast, 1995 (the submissions about some party attitudes referred to in this text are available in the full report; only the summary and recommendations were available at the time of writing)
[29]Stewart, op cit
[30] See DD report 2, Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion, pp 75-78, 91-92.
[31] Jay, op cit
[32] Power-sharing and the Administration of Power, Conference Report, Green party, Belfast, 1993
[33]as reported by Marie Smyth to a DD seminar in January 1996
[34]Irish News, January 3rd 1996

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