This category relates to the flow of information and perspectives between empowered space and citizens. It is working well when the full range of views is transmitted and has impact on decisions taken. Our indicators include: relations between the assembly and the media, the existence of a civic forum, the distance between the political class and the citizen, differential access to power, the use of public space for exchange of views, and the quantity and quality of public consultations.
The media are clearly central to the transmission of views between ‘political society’ and ‘civil society’. So relations between the assembly and the media matter. In October 2016, it was reported that the executive employed fully 55 press officers—more than twice the 25 employed by the Scottish government to address a significantly larger population. The figure may not even tell the full story: when Jim Allister MLA asked how many staff were in the Executive Information Service the figure was put at 161. And working journalists still complain of poor communication: with a politically-appointed press secretary, one claimed, individual press officers felt unable to answer journalists’ inquiries without an agreed line from DUP and SF special advisers, leaving such inquiries sometimes simply unanswered. Paradoxically, he said (and a Stormont insider said the same independently), the move towards an opposition had made the information blockage worse: when there were five parties in the executive, with the minor parties often frustrated, the latter were a source of media leaks.
In recent years the usual relationship between the media and the political class has reversed itself. Formerly, opposition politicians would release information in the parliamentary chamber and the media would chase the story. Now it is the politicians who chase the stories first broken by the media. A series of investigative reports by the BBC programme Spotlight began to make the political weather: the DUP was subject to scrutiny over, among other things, the awarding of contracts to the party-linked Red Sky company, its connections to the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association through an organisation called CharterNI and—in a forensic piece of evidence-gathering—its dubious financial transactions around the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) fund arising from the property collapse in the republic. SF, for its part, was exposed for milking public funds for a non-existent research organisation and leading figures in the party were linked to the murder of the informer Denis Donaldson.
Any one of these scandals would, in any other polity, have led to instant resignations but investigative journalism in Northern Ireland is disabled by the bulletproof security of parties which simply circle the wagons when the wrongdoing of any of their members is exposed. A chink in that armour seemed to have opened up with the ‘cash for ash’ scandal. The Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme was mismanaged on the DUP’s ministerial watch and the controversy which blew up as a result eventually led to the collapse of the assembly in January 2017. The main driver in this controversy was the Nolan Show, both in its radio and television formats, and the relentless pursuit of the story took on a self-propelling character: the more of the story that Stephen Nolan exposed on air, the more that whistleblowers came forward to provide further, damning detail. The acknowledged site of authority for anyone with a complaint is no longer their local political representative, but the Nolan Show.
What had begun as no more than a populist, shock-jock phone-in show has become an important part of the political landscape, but one which reinforces a narrow set of political debates: flags and bonfires are often used as stand-by topics, and on both the BBC and the commercial channels local sectarianism is often indulged as a form of entertainment. Displays of adversarial anger are more common than any reasoned debate. One senior BBC insider complained that the organisation had come to disfavour the presentation of the expert knowledge which might speak truth to power and privileged instead populist broadcasting, such as the Nolan Show. Far from this being challenging, it allowed a relatively small number of recurrent contributors to ‘just shriek’. From the outside, an environmental campaigner complained that the media agenda in Northern Ireland was narrowed to the ‘crisis and resolution’ narrative in which the political class was caught up, thereby crowding out coverage of civil-society activities which may require other narrative structures.
Bearing in mind that deliberative democracy is a regime for free and equal citizens, differential access between business organisations and civil society bodies would be of consequence. Political power, according to Ulrich Beck (2005), is essentially a battle between the representatives of capital and civil-society movements for control of the state. And as one observer very much involved with the transmission of views put it,
‘If the C[onfederation of] B[ritish] I[ndustry] phone, they get a meeting.’
For the NGOs, meanwhile, it was ‘charity candy’—hosting a meeting in the Long Gallery at Stormont which gave the appearance of input. He also felt, however, that, given the challenges to the independence of the voluntary sector discussed earlier, genuinely independent actors like Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International were being ‘increasingly pushed to the fringes’, while others were being drawn into
‘cosy and collusive relationships with government’.
Interestingly, the CBI is by no means so sanguine about its access to Stormont. One source there said:
‘I don’t think there is any really significant engagement between CBI and government when it comes down to it—because they don’t need us.’
And he said:
‘The business community’s incredibly feeble really.’
He painted instead a picture of an inward-looking political elite presiding over an economy with no access to capital markets, a ‘completely dysfunctional’ regional capital, a segregated education system, a looming health crisis and the coming Brexit ‘tragedy of great proportions’. And indeed there were howls of anguish from business organisations, including the CBI, when the latest Northern Ireland political crisis was precipitated by the resignation of the deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, on 9 January. But groups like FoE do indeed feel left out in the cold. The environmental campaigner spoke ruefully of how
‘it would have been easier to get a hearing under direct rule’.
But now with an ‘ideologically anti-environment party’, in the shape of the DUP, not only in government but able to use the PoC procedure as a generic veto, any access to Stormont was ‘almost useless’.
The Civic Forum mandated under the Belfast agreement brought together business, trade-union and voluntary-sector representatives, and miscellaneous others, until the suspension of the institutions in 2002. It was not, however, renewed in 2007 and so the absence of the Civic Forum or successor body becomes of concern. The two main parties did eventually agree upon a ‘compact civic panel’ of just six political appointees, established in 2016, but a former forum member was dismissive (Nolan and Wilson, 2015):
’I really think it’s a nonsense. It’s not a Civic Forum or remotely like a Civic Forum. They choose a few people who tell them what they want two times a year … I do think it’s an extremely important dimension of democracy and we don’t really have democracy here.’
The observer cited two paragraphs earlier concurred: ‘They’re scared of anything structural that will weaken the elites that surround them.’
Particularly in the context of the abolition of the Civic Forum, the distance between the political class and the citizen becomes a potential arena for concern. The expert analyst argued that the new opposition at Stormont could play a key role here, ‘feeding ideas in from the bottom up rather than a top-down exercise’. But he said: ‘The opposition is still trying to find its way. To date it hasn’t been a particularly edifying spectacle, let alone an effective one.’ One interesting prism on that is the marriage-equality issue which has become so topical in recent times—obviously because of its significant substance but also as a touchstone to a wider divide between what might be called a civic cosmopolitanism on the one hand and a conservative communalism on the other. A trade-union officer focused on equality said:
‘Things are changing very quickly for young people in the whole thing of gender identity. It’s very interesting and in no way reflected in the political class and the elite.’
In this context, the ten-year Gender Equality Strategy, begun under direct rule, expired at the end of 2016. There is as yet no sign of a successor—the Department of Communities is apparently considering it as part of the mooted ‘social strategy’ (see below)—or of the sexual-orientation strategy, which first appeared as a draft in 2005. And equality legislation more generally has been allowed to fall behind that in Great Britain since the Equality Act 2010 at Westminster.
It is important in any deliberative democracy that expert evidence is made available as an impartial source for policy-making. This raises the question of the use of public space for exchange of views and accountability. In this arena, however, there has been a decline to zero in substantial centres of such independent expertise. The think tank Democratic Dialogue closed in 2006 and an Institute of Governance, Public Policy and Social Research at Queen’s University, which DD had partly initiated, did not outlast the finite private support of Atlantic Philanthropies. The corporatist Northern Ireland Economic Council (mimicking the old National Economic Development Council in Britain) was merged with the private Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre to form the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland in 2004. But the then OFMDFM brought about its closure in 2011 by denying further funding—the annual budget was only £1 million—thereby leaving the executive bereft of independent expert advice on the very policy domain the Programme for Government had prioritised. The senior voluntary-sector figure complained that the universities were not
‘driving the intellectual debate in Northern Ireland’
and he said: ‘We’re missing a think tank here.’ In that context, he said: ‘I don’t see any big ideas coming through.’ A former MLA concurred:
‘We’ve never invested in real policy development or think-tank work.’
As a result, he said, the Programme for Government (PfG) was ‘very much Northern Ireland civil service-driven’ and ‘evidence-based policy’ had been sacrificed to electoral considerations. And the CBI source quoted above called for an all-Ireland economic think tank:
‘When it comes to the economy, no one is calling it as it is. The really big question is: what is the viability of this state?’
The assembly has however established a deliberative network connecting the universities in the region with it. A ‘knowledge exchange seminar series’ has been run by its Research and Information Service (RaISe) since 2012. For example, a very enlightening seminar on the vexed (in Northern Ireland) issue of abortion was held in the Long Gallery in November 2016. The network is not as effective as it might be, with seminar attendance by MLAs patchy, but it is a very positive exposure, for those willing to engage, to objective academic evidence as a basis for good policy-making.
There are major issues in Northern Ireland about the quantity and quality of public consultations. In particular, the former, largely owing to the stipulations of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, can be massive while the latter can be formulaic—one participant in our community arts discussion group told of a phone call from an official who asked her:
‘Those Chinese children: were they Protestant or Catholic?’
A government official pointed out that there were more dialogic opportunities for citizen consultation via specifically the Pensioners’ Parliament—and there are local and thematic supplements to that—and the Youth Forum. A general complaint is however a debasement of language: a participant in our discussion group on ‘Is government delivering?’ told of how a consultant had asked elderly people: ‘What are your goals?’ In other words, a consultation discourse which should be defined by good social science, accessible language and citizenship is replaced by one marked by buzzwords, jargon and a ‘customer’ focus. Here intermediary organisations like the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action have been better at organising ‘secondary’ consultations among their own affiliates but it is harder to rely on such mechanisms in a context where the drying up of funding is seeing the ecology of voluntary organisations atrophy. Moreover, there is no weighting of responses to consultations in reflection of the organisational composition of the public sphere: the ICTU complains that its responses only count the same as any individual citizen’s.
In sum, the arteries through which ideas could spread in the body politic in Northern Ireland seem quite sclerotic. The aggregation of objective, policy-relevant expertise and of the tacit knowledge of significant social interests fails for lack of structural vehicles. That, in turn, reflects a lack of demand in government for independent advice as well as a rising media tendency to privilege populism over expertise. These blockages are causing real social frustration.