Don’t cut public out of politics

Crisis? Which crisis?

Whether it is the logjam over welfare reform or the involvement of members of the IRA in the murder of Kevin McGuigan, Northern Ireland’s political institutions are once again staggering towards the abyss.

Since the 15th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement I have consistently called for a process to review, reform and revitalise that agreement.

With Haas and the Stormont House ‘Agreement’ having done little to halt the decline of the functionality of the Executive, it is time to recognise the failings of both processes.

Each attempt at a deal has been hampered by parties watching their back, afraid of a backlash from their core supporters. This is the danger of deals done behind closed doors then presented at a news conference.

Instead, we need a process that engages the electorate rather than excluding them.

What we need is a civic conversation.

The Republic of Ireland managed to agree to equal marriage after first having discussed it as part of the Irish Convention on the Constitution; an alternative to hot house talks that brought together politicians with ‘ordinary’ citizens. They were live streamed, discussed in the press and at the dinner table. By the time of the referendum on equal marriage, people were ready for the change.

The Scottish referendum is another example which shows that when you ask people what they think, they will engage and can be trusted to do so responsibly and intelligently.

The referendum on the Good Friday Agreement should have been the beginning of civic engagement, not the end. We have lost public buy-in because we have not given the public a say when the biggest decisions need to be made.

While the Good Friday Agreement was passed by referendum, the St Andrews, Hillsborough or Stormont House Agreements have not had such an endorsement.

There has been a democratic deficit.

A formal mechanism for civic conversation is needed; a time-bound process to bring the elected and the electorate together in meaningful dialogue to review, inform and reform where we are now and where we need to get to.

This blog post was published in the Belfast Telegraph on Thursday 3 September

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