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Is a Citizens' Assembly the Way Forward?


“How many of you would consider leaving Northern Ireland?” the BBC’s Mark Carruthers asked an audience of students in a special edition of The View ahead of the Assembly election in March

Almost everyone raised their hands – and with barely any hesitation.

In the space of a year we’ve seen outrage over the RHI scandal, polarisation over Irish language policy, and bewilderment-mixed-with-frustration over the lack of a meaningful Northern Ireland voice in a set of negotiations that will have particularly profound consequences for the region’s future.

It’s understandable for people of all ages to feel somewhat disengaged from the political process, but this is particularly true for young people. Under-represented in decision-making, many feel that their voices make little difference. They stare at a host of seemingly intractable problems, with an apparent vacuum of solutions, and many decide that their future lies elsewhere. It’s a vicious circle.

There are two important things to grapple with. First, we need to appreciate why the views of all age groups actually matter in decision-making. Second, we need to consider how they can all get a fair hearing.

So, fundamentally, why should we care what younger people think? The bottom line is that younger people think slightly differently and prioritise different things. There are plenty of pessimists who argue that Northern Ireland politics are destined to be dominated by ‘orange and green’ issues forever and ever, Amen.

As long as different constitutional preferences exist, nationalism and unionism will indeed play an important role in Northern Ireland indefinitely. But that doesn’t mean they have to dominate the political landscape.

Since 2006, the annual Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (conducted on a representative sample of adults) has found that more people identify as neither nationalist nor unionist than as one or the other. This finding always raises eyebrows, but it’s worth noting that it has been remarkably consistent every year for the last decade.

More striking is the age breakdown. In 2016, 46% of all respondents identified as neither unionist nor nationalist (plus 29% as unionist, 24% as nationalist). Of those aged 65 and above, only 30% identified as ‘neither’, compared to 57% of those aged 18-24 and 57% (again) of those aged 25-34. In other words, people in younger age groups are almost twice as likely to identify in this ‘neither’ category as those in older age groups.

Let’s be clear. This does not mean that most young people are indifferent to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, but it does mean that they prefer to avoid it shaping their identity. You can have an opinion on Brexit, tuition fees, and the latest Taylor Swift album, but they don’t have to be central to your identity.

Elections, of course, are very much about rival identities. In Northern Ireland they continue to be shaped by the unionist-nationalist divide, and this leaves younger people turned off. Compared with a very different trend in participation levels across the rest of the UK in June’s general election, turnout among younger voters remained abysmally low in Northern Ireland: only one in three people aged 18-24 decided to vote – half the overall rate. Similarly, across all age groups, 76% of unionists and 78% of nationalists voted, compared to just 37% of those identifying as neither.

To all of this you might simply reply, “You get what you vote for.” If younger people want to see Northern Ireland governed differently, then surely it’s their responsibility to vote for something different? That’s a fair rebuttal, but it doesn’t take into account the fact that the act of voting is largely about a person’s relationship with a political party. Compared to those aged 65+ in Northern Ireland, people aged 18-34 are 3.4 times less likely to support a political party.

That’s a big difference, and it’s not unique to Northern Ireland. All over the world, levels of identification with political parties have been in decline – particularly among younger citizens.

Describing a problem is the easy part. The real challenge lies in finding a solution. If younger age groups are systematically under-represented in decision-making, and if this reduces the spectrum of views that are heard, how can this deficit be easily overcome?

The short answer is, it can’t be – not easily, at least. However, the present political crisis in Northern Ireland presents us with an opportunity to consider radical, innovative ways of making decisions. Here’s one idea: if elected politicians are unable to govern, why not establish a citizens’ assembly to help break the stalemate on various ‘intractable’ issues?

A citizens’ assembly would involve three main features – based on previous models established in other countries. First, members would be randomly selected from the population as a whole. The more members there are (say, at least one hundred), the more confident we can be that it would be representative of the whole population in terms of gender, religious background, social class – and age. In other words, younger age groups (as with older age groups) would mirror their proportion in the population as a whole.

Second, members would deliberate on a specific issue. There are plenty of divisive issues on which citizens and politicians alike are polarised. Part of this polarisation comes from political parties taking strategic positions in opposition to one another. It might help win votes by mobilising their supporters – and that is perfectly fair – but it doesn’t help to find a common solution in the common interest. We know that younger people are more detached from political parties and that they generally hold less polarised views on ‘orange and green’ issues. Their voices could help to find a reasonable way forward, especially if they were simply represented in proportion to their number in the population. There is evidence that people are very capable of respectfully deliberating on sensitive issues – even in a divided place like Northern Ireland.

Finally, the citizens’ assembly would take a decision on the issue, allowing local politicians to move on to other issues on which they can agree. The idea isn’t so far-fetched if you consider that, at the moment, we are essentially being governed by (unelected) civil servants. They will make decisions with good intentions, but it’s not their job to do so. Within weeks or months, direct rule ministers could be taking decisions affecting Northern Ireland from London. Whether it’s civil servants or direct rule ministers governing Northern Ireland, why not be guided in their decisions by the considered reflections of a representative group of ordinary citizens?

It will take more than a citizens’ assembly to help address Northern Ireland’s political problems – and to restore people’s faith in the political system. It could provide (highly) democratic leadership where locally elected politicians have failed to offer it and, in turn, incentivise them to finally form a government.

Part of the reason we find ourselves in the present stalemate is because many views in Northern Ireland are not very well represented through the electoral process – especially those of younger voters. If they are to feel a genuine stake in the future of Northern Ireland, their voices should be heard – not any more loudly than everyone else’s, but simply in proportion to their number. What could be fairer than that?


Jamie is Deputy Editor of Northern Slant and is studying for a PhD in Politics at Queen’s University Belfast


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