This category requires the system to have mechanisms which allow its processes to be assessed. Our indicators include: exclusion from public discourse, digital exclusion, unheard voices, international perspectives on governance and international benchmarking.
Deliberative democracy, as we have seen, is about who gets to deliberate as well as what is at issue. So Who is missing? Exclusion from public discourse becomes another indicator. In Northern Ireland, most obviously that involves the exclusion, or at least under-privileging, of women’s voices. The region has for years had the lowest percentage of female representatives of any of the four UK parliaments, but the situation is improving. There was now—until the latest Stormont crisis—a woman in the first-minister post and following the May 2016 election 28 per cent of MLAs were female, compared with 19 per cent in the previous assembly—an increase of 50 per cent. SF has appointed Michelle O’Neill to follow Martin McGuinness as leader in the assembly; together with Arlene Foster as leader of the DUP and Naomi Long as leader of Alliance, this makes three female party leaders.
While these improvements are to be welcomed, the balance is still far short of equal representation, and the assembly still lags behind the Scottish Parliament (35 per cent female) and the National Assembly for Wales, which comes closest to equality with 43 per cent female representation. The increased numbers have yet to result in anything like a ‘women’s voice’, and the all-party women’s caucus has not met since the May 2016 election. As one institutional insider put it, the Belfast agreement had been successful ‘in bringing the former protagonists together in government’. But this had been at the expense of the ‘crystallisation of conflict-related identities’ and an emphasis on associated issues rather than those of gender.
In the digital age new forms of exclusion have become possible and parts of Northern Ireland are among the most digitally excluded in the UK. This was the finding of the most systematic attempt to date to map digital skills and access in the UK. The study, published in October 2015, was led by by the digital-exclusion charity Go ON, working in conjunction with the London School of Economics, the Local Government Association and Ipsos MORI. Unsurprisingly, broadband access and skills levels are highly correlated, which means that many rural areas feature in the lowest rank for digital ability. Fermanagh, north Antrim, east Antrim, south Armagh, south Derry and the Ards peninsula are ranked alongside the highlands of Scotland and the rural parts of Wales as the parts of the UK with the lowest digital skills. There is also a high correlation between social class and digital ability, which means that the areas ranked as having the highest level of skills are in London and the south-east. The survey showed that 77 per cent of the UK population was able to complete basic tasks, such as using Google to search for information or buying items online. But in Northern Ireland the figure was much lower, at 65 per cent. This means that over one third of the population in the region possess virtually no digital skills.
The grinding effect of several years of austerity in Northern Ireland has largely not made the headlines or grabbed political attention. The reality however is that the region has the highest proportion of what the prime minister, Theresa May, calls ‘just about managing’ households, or ‘JAMs’, in the UK—68 per cent, eight percentage points higher than the UK average. This was the estimate issued in January 2017 by money.co.uk, which also estimated that 5 per cent of households were not managing at all. This raises the question of ‘unheard voices’ in the public sphere. A number of interlocutors for this research noted how little protest there had been against austerity measures. One explanation given was that SF, which had presented itself as challenging austerity, in the end had given way to the DUP on welfare ‘reform’—albeit with mitigations—because this was seen as a trade-off with the conflict-related issues higher on the party’s agenda. Another is that voluntary organisations which might have led protest have instead focused on survival with reduced funding, sometimes in competition with others—even such substantial organisations as the single-parents’ lobby Gingerbread and the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities have gone under. And for individuals and households on the breadline, just getting by from day to day has been the priority. Advice services provide what one worker in the field described as ‘a voice for people who don’t have their own voice’ but she said:
‘Getting buy-in from politicians and getting them listening is hard unless you have a juicy topic.’
How does all this look from a comparative perspective? Looking at international perspectives on governance in Northern Ireland raises two related concerns—a tendency to over-rate the performance of the region and a relative ignorance about comparative examples and associated performances. A notable case is the education system. As we have seen, experts and practitioners tend to be highly critical of how the system focuses on individual examination outcomes and school competitive achievement, at the expense of developing well-rounded citizens. Bute let us take it only on its own terms. Even then what is striking is the official complacency, usually based on comparing Northern Ireland A-level results advantageously with those in England—with the implication that it is Northern Ireland’s selective system which achieves this superior outcome. Yet there is a recognised, global comparator on the performance of education systems, the Programme for International Standards Assessment (PISA), which in fact shows, as the 2015 triennial data record, that Northern Ireland 15-year-olds have competences in science, reading and mathematics just a little above the OECD average, behind their English counterparts except in maths (where they are level) and well adrift of the top performers in Europe, Estonia and Finland. The latter have comprehensive, public education systems where children do not attend school until they are seven and they are not divided (into academic and vocational strands) until age 16. Ignorance of these basic international comparisons has made it impossible to have a deliberative debate about the education system in Northern Ireland—and, in particular, the issue of academic selection at 11—which as a result has defaulted along the sectarian axis.
Another angle on the view from outside comes from international benchmarking. A review of governance in Northern Ireland, commissioned in 2014 by the executive from the OECD, highlighted this problem when published in July 2016. Tellingly subtitled ‘Implementing joined-up governance for a common purpose’, It said that in the PfG a ‘common vision’ should frame just ‘three to five’ strategic objectives, linked to a ‘limited number’ of outcomes/indicators and meaningful public engagement. But it diagnosed the problem in the following comment:
Solidarity among members of the Executive is evidently weak, which undermines the principle of the collective responsibility in decision making and the concomitant role the civil service, notably in its senior ranks, ought to play in supporting it. This lack of political cohesion reverberates throughout the system with managers and staff-level civil servants focusing on their minister’s immediate term political interests rather than seeking to work collaboratively towards an outcomes-based whole-of-government solution to the issues facing their department.
The Executive itself could play a greater strategic role in the governance of Northern Ireland if the behavioural norms were to evolve over time into a steward of a ‘single government’ working towards a common purpose. This requires building a more robust commitment to the principles of cabinet solidarity, with the Executive speaking with a single voice on the issues of the day.
In deliberative-democratic terms, what the OECD observers were discovering was a brittle set of relationships among ministers failing to recognise one another as part of a well-functioning deliberative network. The prescience of the OECD analysis was amply demonstrated in January 2017 when, in the very last days of the assembly, the finance minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, and the communities minister, Paul Givan, had a running spat over how Northern Ireland could avoid the ‘bedroom tax’, with the two ministers citing contradictory advice from their officials and lawyers. Nothing could have been more illustrative of the fatal flaw that was about to see the closure of the political institutions.
Overall, the picture here is of a lack of perspectival challenges to taken-for-granted ways of behaving in governing Northern Ireland as a society. Internally, too many voices are excluded, unheard or distracted by day-to-day survival. Externally, there is too little networked connection internationally to even recognise (never mind criticise and argue over) other policy approaches. As we have argued, the paradox of deliberation is that it requires the stimulant of informed dissent and fresh voices if a well-formed consensus is to emerge, as against the maintenance of an unquestioned groupthink.