The Citizens' Assembly keeps moving - and now into Northern Ireland...

We are excited by the phenomenon of Citizens Assembly's popping up all over the world, as a way of re-engaging everyday citizens with a political process that might express their interests (see our previous mentions). 

The Republic of Ireland (through its own organisation) has already conducted two of them. Now, entirely separately, the process will emerge - assisted by the democratic consultancy Involve - in Northern Ireland (as reported by Slugger O'Toole).

The video below, from leader of the process Paul Braithwaite (director of the Building Change Trust), introduces the ambition - but the fuller plan for a Northern Irish Citizens' Assembly is laid out here

Each Citizens' Assembly has its specific context - and for Northern Ireland, the situation is that the territory's elected and devolved government has suspended its power-sharing agreement. In this framework, the ambitions of this particular CA are worth noting (from the site's Frequently Asked Questions):

What role could a citizens’ assembly play in Northern Ireland?
There are many issues in Northern Ireland which could be deemed difficult or contested both now and in the future, around which government and elected representatives have not yet been able to agree widely acceptable solutions. This predates the current suspension of the institutions and has resulted in a growing level of dissatisfaction amongst the public.

Is this intended to bring devolution back?
No – it would be neither appropriate nor practical for this project to set itself the task of finding a resolution to the ongoing political impasse. This task must continue to rest primarily with elected representative and political parties, albeit a greater element of public engagement would be welcome in the Trust’s view.

The Trust would be resourcing this Citizens’ Assembly project even if Stormont was in session – indeed its recommendations may have a greater likelihood of being acted upon in such a context.

The project will take on one single topic – to be identified by the Advisory Group against set criteria. This could be either a social policy issue or a political issue related to the operation of the institutions. If it is the latter this could potentially assist with the resolution of one element of the current political impasse. However it is no substitute for cross-party talks leading to political agreement. Nor has it been promoted as such by the Trust.

Will a citizens’ assembly replace our elected representatives?
No. A citizens’ assembly could help rebuild public trust and complement the role of elected representatives by engaging the public in the process of finding acceptable solutions to one or more issues. This could be helpful both in the current context of the suspension of the institutions and/or in the case of the institutions’ restoration.

Indeed whilst the Trust and others are providing funding towards an independent citizens’ assembly pilot in 2018, this assembly will stand down once its work is complete. Future citizens’ assemblies would be best placed on a statutory footing to consider issues referred by a sitting NI Executive and/or NI Assembly. 

What power does the Citizens’ Assembly have?
The project funded by Building Change Trust is entirely independent of government and has no official status or decision-making power. It is intended to act in an advisory capacity, in a way that complements existing political and institutional processes. Whilst this entails an element of risk whereby the assembly’s recommendations may not be acted upon, through engaging throughout with political representatives, the project aims to minimise the likelihood of this happening.

One key benefit of an independent Citizens’ Assembly – in addition to being free from partisan political influence – is the possibility of testing the effectiveness and relevance of the method at no cost to the taxpayer. As such, politicians and the broader public will be able to assess afterwards whether such a mechanism is worth putting on a statutory footing in future.

It is worth noting that independent Citizens’ Assembly initiatives have been the forerunners of statutory initiatives in other jurisidictions – for example the We The Citizens initiative in the Republic of Ireland in 2011.

More here (thanks to Slugger O' Toole).