There’s a qualified hope in the air this morning in Northern Ireland as people scan the 60 pages of the draft deal published at Stormont late last night.
As expected, the draft addresses a number of touchstone cultural issues in what, at first read, appears to be an agreeable compromise for both the main parties and commits to increased public spending on crucial services.
But the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal is also replete with a number of provisions on issues that have been consistently campaigned on even if they drew less prominent headlines over the last few years. The deal would provide for a standalone climate change act for NI, an independent Environmental Protection Agency, a mental health action plan within two months, with anti-poverty and childcare strategies to follow.
It also acknowledges the need to improve the sustainability and health of our democratic institutions through better engagement with civic society. Notably, and particularly exciting for us, it provides for one citizens’ assembly a year. While details are still scant, the proposal as it stands is for a reformed compact civic advisory panel (itself a revision of the Civic Forum provided for in the Good Friday Agreement), which would select the issue to be addressed by the citizens’ assembly from a small set of options proposed by the Executive.
The Parties have agreed that about 1-2 issues will be commissioned per year for civic engagement. The Panel will be invited to propose the most appropriate model of engagement for specific issues, including one Citizens’ Assembly a year.1
The detail of how these civic engagements will be delivered is going to be crucial. The last two years have seen a proliferation of deliberative models for involving the public in complex issues, and agreement on best practice is beginning to emerge. The number of members and how they are recruited, the framing of the question, the length of time given over to deliberation, the number and frequency of meetings, the independence and quality of facilitation - all of these factors and more will need careful elaboration.
But we know now, from experience, that this model works well in Northern Ireland. Not only can it produce workable recommendations on specific policy issues, but it also has the potential to shift politics away from the winners and losers mentality of post-conflict compromise towards decision making based on broadened political interests and common aspirations.
- 1. Page 23, 'New Decade, New Approach'. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/deal-to-see-restored-government-in-no...