I saw a prominent journalist in conversation a few weeks ago who made many interesting points, one of which was that in the era of Nolan and social media clickbait, there is now nowhere really for proper civic debate and dialogue.
The consequence is that everything is presented in absolute black or white terms, with no means of introducing moderation, objectivity or frankly even proper expertise into the discussion. This, in turn, is seriously harming our politics.
It strikes me that Ireland has hit upon a solution, at least to some extent, in its ‘Citizens’ Assembly‘ concept. Of course there are modifications in every sense, but a Citizens’ Assembly or Citizens’ Convention is a concept whose relevance is surely greater now than ever. The fundamental principle is that people are selected at random (a little like jury service; in Ireland’s case, 100 people are so selected), and they are introduced to factual papers and presentations on a particular subject from impartial experts and asked to come to as consensual a conclusion as they can (through what is known as ‘deliberative democracy’). On these pages, I have long advocated a UK Constitutional Convention along these lines, to address issues around Brexit, devolution, identity and political reform.
The Irish Citizens’ Assembly showed its worth a fortnight ago when it produced an outcome on abortion. This was, of course, highly contested, and that fact alone is useful to know. The outcome would inevitably have satisfied absolutists in neither the ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice’ camp, but it did give as fair an assessment as you will get on the general Irish view on where abortion law should be.
One of the issues holding up the Northern Ireland institutions in the area of ‘implementation of past agreements’ is the Civic Forum, which was essentially abandoned after the 2006 St Andrews Agreement having by common consent achieved very little. Nevertheless, there is now some agitation for its return, if only because it is still in fact part of the original 1998 Agreement and was never formally abolished.
There is, therefore, an obvious solution. Why do we not just, by ‘Civic Forum’, bring together 60 people on the Northern Ireland electoral roll selected at random to find (as best they can) consensus on issues such as abortion and voting rights just as the Irish Citizens’ Assembly has done? The template already exists; the outcome would be a much more precise assessment of Northern Ireland public opinion (rather than the absolutist positions which pass for “debate” anywhere from the radio to the Assembly floor); and it would be difficult for MLAs to ignore. It would cost next to nothing and would surely provide much better value than the original version.
Just a thought. By the way, is anyone out there actually thinking?!