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Published on May 29, 2018

Embracing the challenge of democracy in Northern Ireland

Citizens' Assembly for Northern Ireland

By Rebekah McCabe

Rebekah joined Involve as Senior Project Officer in April 2018. She is the first member of the Involve team to be based in Northern Ireland. Her first project will be to develop a Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland - a democratic innovation designed to put the views of Northern Irish citizens into the heart of decision making on an important regional issue.

I’m introducing myself as the newest member of the Involve team, and the first to be based in Northern Ireland.

My first task is a big one: get a Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland up and running by Autumn 2018. As I’ve bumped into friends and colleagues and told them what my new job is, I’m met with one of two reactions – either they’ll give me a cynical side-eye, or their face will light up. I suspect these reactions may be reflected across the Northern Ireland populace; people will believe nothing can change here and that trying is a waste of time, or they will trust that people like them might just be able to find answers where traditional politics have failed.

Before coming to work at Involve, I spent 6 years working in the Northern Ireland voluntary sector, developing programmes and projects to connect decision makers and the people most affected by their decisions. I worked across scales from local communities to central government, and across realms of knowledge, from lived experience to academic research. That work touched on many aspects of life, from planning and housing to mental health, but at its core it was about understanding how power gets distributed through society and developing strategies to make that distribution more even.

Almost as a precondition, the people I worked with recognised the need for new ways of engaging with people – whether they were communities seeking constructive ways of addressing structural challenges, or officers in public agencies looking for insight to better guide their decision making. Even with that openness to change, transforming systems of power is difficult. People bring agendas, responsibilities, and other people’s expectations, making it hard for them to compromise or change their positions. Citizens often wait a long time for an opportunity to engage with decision makers, and many get few opportunities to do so. This adds pressure to those encounters, increasing the nervousness, anxiety, or anger that can make communication really difficult for everyone. How those encounters ultimately influence decision making is likewise opaque and indirect.

The sum of these experiences over the years has informed how I think about democracy and participation. I’m convinced not only of need to give people better means to make their voices heard by powerful people, but for powerful people to improve how they hear those voices and engage with the complexity of people’s views. Democracy needs to be an everyday practice, not a once-every-five-years ritual at the ballot box. The challenge lies in how we encourage, facilitate, and give value to everyday democratic practices.

And what an incredibly exciting time and place it is right now in Northern Ireland to be addressing that challenge. We’ve been in an uncertain position, caught between devolution and direct rule, for more than 18 months. We are just months away from the UK’s exit from the EU, when Northern Ireland will become a frontier of Europe. Traditional politics have failed to find solutions to this and many other issues, and the high rhetoric that typifies Northern Ireland’s politics is becoming ever more polarising. If there is any silver lining, it is that the time has never been better to start seeking alternatives.

Over the coming months, I’ll be working closely with the Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland Advisory Group and my colleagues across the UK, with civil society and our elected representatives, and with the public, cynical and hopeful, to ensure this initiative has real impact on democracy in Northern Ireland.

There’s a lot to do. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be launching the online home for the Citizens’ Assembly, and announcing the dates when the Citizens’ Assembly members will meet, as well as the topic over which they will deliberate. We’ll be devising a recruitment strategy to ensure the Citizens’ Assembly is composed of a representative sample of the Northern Ireland population, and securing the expertise we need for informed, impartial deliberation of the topic in hand.

It’s my aim to maintain a steady stream of updates as this important initiative unfolds. There’s bound to be a lot of interest, and I’d be delighted to hear from people who want to know more about the Assembly, or chat about how deliberative processes might help them have more fruitful conversations with their publics. I’m based in Belfast City Centre, and can be reached by email at rebekah@involve.org.uk or by phone at 07548 957061.

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