This is the first time that the current situation in Northern Ireland has been considered through the lens of the deliberative-democracy perspective. It is also the first attempt to test the empirical utility of the systems—or networks—approach to deliberative democracy which, as the literature review indicated, is where this body of work over the last few decades has arrived. We would argue that the former has proved illuminating and the latter has proved robust.
Applying the deliberative-democratic prism to the region has cast a new light on the perennial post-agreement debate about whether the glass is half-full or half-empty: should those who live in Northern Ireland feel thankful that large-scale violence is over and that political institutions signalled in the Good Friday agreement are in place or can they legitimately expect more, nearly two decades on from the agreement? We have shown that these questions, rather than being an either/or choice, can in fact be simultaneously answered in the affirmative. We have shown that the conception of democracy implicit in the agreement was pre-deliberative—a ‘pluralist’ conception which took for granted the aggregation of interests and assumed relations between them could only be of perpetual negotiation and bargaining. In Northern Ireland this meant it was simultaneously possible for ‘the war’ to be over and done but for politics still to take the unending form of ‘war by other means’. Political exchanges, while substituting for violence in large measure, have thus not moved on from the predictable, sectarian conflicts of the past and a more publicly satisfying deliberative discourse has on the whole yet to be achieved. As one of our interlocutors encapsulated it,
‘We still have a massive journey to go to realise the full consequences of democracy.’
This approach also offers a fresh insight into the related issue of the survey evidence of public disillusionment with, and indifference towards, the post-agreement institutions. To some, this might seem disproportionate. But what we have also shown is that while there are important and valuable deliberative spaces in Northern Ireland they are poorly integrated into a deliberative network. The public sphere is fragmented and only weakly connected to ‘political society’. It is this lack of integration, we would argue, which undermines individual citizens’ confidence in the capacity of the institutions to arrive at collective solutions to the problems of their daily lives.
In defending the deliberative systems (networks) approach in an empirical case, we are not suggesting that the individual indicators we have used—in many cases bespoke—are the only ones which could have been adopted, though we have found them very useful. We are not even saying that the seven dimensions of such a system set out by Burall (2015), following Dryzek, are the last word, although again we have found them to offer a facilitative framework. What we would stress is that the approach is a well-conceived answer to the ‘scaling up’ problem with which deliberative-democratic theorists have grappled. This is true in two ways: first, it allows us to think in the aggregate of the various more-or-less deliberative spaces in which exchanges take place, not just of individual sites or mini-publics; secondly, it attends to the inter-relationships among those spaces as a more-or-less integrated network. And both of these aspects have contributed to the illuminating effect on the Northern Ireland case of the deliberative-democracy perspective.
This research has clear implications for policy, practice and institutional development in Northern Ireland. It implies a democratisation of democracy in the region, in two senses. First, it suggests that the recent modest reforms at Stormont, relating government formation to the agreement on a Programme for Government and recognising an opposition comprising those parties declining coalition membership, are only the beginning of a larger process of transition to a deliberatively adequate model. We have presented populism as the enemy of deliberation throughout and pointed, as one crucial challenge, to the need for a reasoned debate on fiscal powers for the assembly and the enhancement of its weak ‘fiscal effort’. Without this, frankly, the assembly will be so resource-deficient as to be highly strapped in what it can achieve.
Secondly, drawing on the network idea, it is clear that effective channels of communication must be established so that the public sphere is able to bring to bear on the assembly and executive—neither of which is omnicompetent—the concrete knowledge and practical experience it contains. A six-person, politically appointed ‘civic panel’ clearly cannot bear the weight of this and is the merest tokenism. The executive is still bound by statute to have a Civic Forum and it is unclear whether the panel would withstand a judicial review, if presented as a simulacrum by the executive, in this regard. But the important question is not the name or the institution: it is that the obstacles to civic engagement with the political arena and to the co-ordination of views within civil society need to be removed. Here, an example of deliberative democracy in action is the Swedish legislative commission. In Sweden, before a bill goes through the parliamentary process, the issue is put out to an independent inquiry to draw on external expertise and analyse what is at stake; the commission’s report is then put in the public domain for feedback from all relevant organisations. Only at that point does the Riksdag take the reins in framing legislation. This means months, even years, of deliberation has taken place—but there is then more consensus around the legislation which emerges.
Researchers calling for further research can always be thought of as acting in their own cause. But interesting avenues do emerge from this project. One would be to try out the deliberative systems/networks approach in a number of other empirical cases around the world and thereby develop a more nuanced understanding of it. More specifically, within Northern Ireland, it is worth remembering that none of the structural reforms to governance in the region, from the 1998 agreement to the 2016 legislation on an opposition, were driven by rigorous and well-evidenced social science. Many of the flaws resulting can be understood in that light. We have sought to identify a number of ‘choke points’ on the region’s progress towards a more deliberative democracy. The next step would be to hone in more forensically on these and on what further specific structural reforms were needed to open them up, so that the region can function as the deliberative network its citizens deserve.