Making Democracy Work: participation and politics in
director, Democratic Dialogue
Finding a political
It has become a truism to say
that politics has become disconnected from real people, that we inhabit
an 'anti-political age' in which mass parties no longer conduct social
change. Perhaps nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland, where the fault
lines of division have in the past rendered the parties prisoners of the
conflict rather than authors of an alternative political project.
Yet it has also become increasingly
evident that governance—the business of government, at all levels—does
matter. There is growing evidence that regions which are economically
successful are socially cohesive, and that their political viability depends
on an active culture of civic life.
One of the worrying features
of discussion of the political future of Northern Ireland in recent years
has been the failure to connect propositions for new institutions—within
the region, between north and south or whatever—with what is actually
happening within the civic world and how governance currently takes place.
This has paralleled an implicit assumption that politics can and must
only take place within formal political institutions—for which the sign
on the steps of Parliament Buildings at Stormont, saying 'no unauthorised
persons beyond this point', might be thought rather appropriate.
So what contribution can the
voluntary sector make to the governance debate? If the voluntary sector
is about anything, it is social inclusion and equality of opportunity,
a vision of a society in which all citizens enjoy the same life chances.
A clear niche thus emerges for the voluntary sector, as a sponsor of wider
political change in which markets are the subject of conscious social
The voluntary sector aims to
generate what David Held calls "a politics of empowerment—a politics
which creates the possibility of a free and equal citizenry". This
involves a recognition both that large swathes of the population are excluded
from the exercise of such autonomy and that a cohesive society can not
be achieved where along any axis—sectarian, class, gender or whatever—equal
autonomy is not enjoyed.
But what social model can the
voluntary sector advance? Paul Hirst points out that those who believe
in markets are convinced how things should be run: the firm provides the
model. Equally, those who believe in 'old Labour' politics think they
know too: the model is the nationalised industry or welfare bureaucracy.
Both have obvious limits, to
which the voluntary association provides some answers: decision-making
is social, not market-driven, and bottom-up, not hierarchical. Hirst argues
that this requires a different conception of democracy—not as majority
rule but "effective governance based upon an adequate flow of information
from governed to governors, and the co-ordination of policy through ongoing
consultation with those affected by it".
Charles Sabel has been studying
this phenomenon, which he sees as a global trend. He describes it as "a
shift from familiar points of representative democracy towards a consultative,
participatory democracy when it works—and to some form of sham consultation
when it doesn't." This he links to "the end of hierarchy as
a principle of economic organisation" in a more complex, competitive
economy and to "the breakdown of the central state and the centralised
provision of public services".
The traditional model of a
parliamentary democracy deciding policy, translated into programmes hierarchically
administered, Prof Sabel argues, has come up against the increasing volatility
of individual circumstance and the increasing complexity of social problems.
It is therefore increasingly inapplicable to approach policy in a one-size-fits-all
manner, centrally determined.
The result of this is what
he calls a 'mania for partnerships', as societies everywhere increasingly
face claims of a 'democratic deficit'. Northern Ireland has of course
a spectacular deficit in this regard, arising from the abuse of power
by local government pre-1968 and the failure of unionism at Stormont to
break with a monopolistic conception of power. Yet direct rule, introduced
as a result in 1972, might be best described—in a perversion of the old
civil-rights demand—as 'One Man, No Vote'.
Much of the government of the
region now takes place by 'non-departmental public body'—quango. Partnerships
thus offer a means to inject some real popular participation into these
unaccountable and inflexible structures, thereby demystifying politics
and enhancing confidence as well as bringing recognition of the concomitant
responsibilities. Prof Sabel also sees partnerships as perhaps injecting
a 'problem-solving' approach into a sectarian political culture, where
the stuff of politics elsewhere—trade-offs—is stymied because nothing
is deemed to be tradeable.
NICVA has helpfully identified
some of the key ingredients of partnerships in Northern Ireland as:
- building trust, confidence
and understanding between the different sectors ;
- developing a shared vision,
common objectives and agreed goals;
- developing flexible structures
to facilitate feedback and to foster participation;
- cultivating effective leadership
skills, especially in coalition-building;
- decentralising the decision-making
of state agencies; and
- developing effective links
back to policy-making.
The fifth of these points—the
nature of statutory agencies—merits underscoring. What will ensure partnership
is perceived as a sham by community representatives is if their counterparts
across the table say they can do no other than execute policy delivered
down to them from their departmental superiors. Partnerships, in other
words, can not be bolted on to an unreformed, hierarchical state apparatus
without bringing major stresses.
A big issue when the EU Special
Support Programme expires at the end of the decade is whether the district
partnerships will have a future. Their voluntary sector members can make
a strong case for saying these partnerships should have a continuing role
in elaborating local strategies, orchestrating and facilitating, using
the networks they comprise to secure a more co-ordinated developmental
effort. This would allow a real voice to be returned to the local level,
without the fears of abuse associated with councils themselves being allocated
more executive responsibilities.
Partnerships do provide something
of a model which the voluntary sector can advocate as alternatives to
privatisation or statism—cheekily, one might call them social-ism. But
one needs to recognise, as Ulrich Beck argues, that the old radical politics
of battles over equality between classes and other social groups, revolving
around access to state power, is increasingly being replaced by a new
politics of providing security for individuals in a 'risk society'.
In this new world, "Politics
is no longer the only or even the central place where decisions are made
on the arrangement of the political future." Beck's concern is to
see how the 'sub-politics' of social movements, citizens' initiatives
and so on can influence the conventional political world. (It should be
stressed that by this Beck does not mean inferior politics.)
Without supplanting formal
democratic structures—rather, assisting them—there is considerable scope
for experiment in direct involvement of citizens in democratic participation.
Elizabeth Meehan has pointed to the growing interest in consensus conferences,
citizens' juries and deliberative polls as mechanisms for involvement
of 'ordinary' citizens in debate about social concerns. This is another
fruitful avenue for the voluntary sector to explore.
The Strategy for Support
of the Voluntary Sector was an important signal of recognition. And
its review, hastened by the Labour government, is welcome.
Yet recognition is by no means
acceptance of the right of the voluntary sector, and its constituent parts,
to a critical engagement with government. Here an underdeveloped idea
is Gabriel Scally's proposal, in his submission to the Opsahl Commission,
of 'policy fora'. Dr Scally argued that the domination of politics in
Northern Ireland by the 'troubles' had created a deficit within the political
process itself—a poverty of debate about social policy—which had in turn
deterred talented citizens from joining the parties and driven them instead
to find a role within the voluntary sector or public service.
Scally thus recommended that
a series of policy fora should be established to cover the main social
policy questions, involving a wide range of talents, with the power to
commission research and reports, to invite submissions, and to publish
and publicise proceedings and conclusions. The onus would be on government
or the relevant agency to provide reasoned responses to such fora, where
their conclusions were not accepted.
The only specific initiative
which subsequently emerged, in line with this proposal, is the regional
forum on domestic violence announced by government in 1995, including
representation from voluntary organisations like Women's Aid. It is surely
a potential seam of progress worthy of further development, allowing the
voluntary sector to challenge for the capacity to set the agenda—as Women's
Aid has largely done—in social policy terms.
But the more recent announcement
of a Voluntary Sector Forum to create a more general structured dialogue
with government is a welcome development. The fact that this is set within
the ambit of Labour's plans, originating pre-election, for a 'compact'
with the voluntary sector may make this more than a talking shop.
Recognition has again been
the principal aim of NICVA vis-à-vis wider interventions—recognition
as a 'social partner' alongside business and so on. But a broader strategic
ambition would be to seek to ensure that social policy is no longer perceived
as subordinate or even antagonistic to economic policy.
There are two ways to make
progress in this regard. If there is a new political dispensation, a revamped
Northern Ireland Economic Council, including voluntary sector representation,
could orchestrate a social partnership arrangement for Northern Ireland,
with a new political administration, in the manner of the National Economic
and Social Council in the republic in the 80s.
In the absence of a political
settlement, a new Northern Ireland Economic and Social Forum—again similar
to that in the republic—could usefully be established. Under continued
direct rule, this would enable the voluntary sector, in particular, to
press its priorities on spending and its ideas on programme delivery in
an informed, strategic fashion—far superior to the back-of-an-envelope
consultation called the Comprehensive Spending Review or the manner in
which Welfare to Work has been introduced.
The small size of Northern
Ireland and the personal relationships which already exist between key
social actors mean that, either way, such a body could have a very real
impact, rather than representing just another layer of governance.
Of course, there is no need
for the voluntary sector to restrict its horizons to Ireland, north or
south. Even before we get to the wider Europe there will be the impact
of new parliaments/assemblies in Scotland and Wales, opening up new interfaces
from which lessons in participatory democracy can be drawn. Hopefully,
new representative structures with which the voluntary sector in Northern
Ireland can directly engage will not be long in following.
of civic principles
Charles Leadbeater and Geoff
Mulgan have set out two styles of politic leadership for the new millennium.
In the years to come, they say, "Political leaders will be distinguished
by their approach to national history and identity. At one extreme will
be those who see identity as malleable and necessarily changing to cope
with shifting circumstances. These politicians will have a radical and
critical attitude towards history ... At the other extreme are politicians
who regard history and identity as closed and fixed. As a result they
believe the point of politics is to live out a society's sense of historic
This they describe as a contrast
between a politics of 'civic principles'—of open debate, pluralism, equality
of opportunity and tolerance—and a politics of 'belonging'—of tradition,
blood, loyalty and history. Mary Robinson, Vaclav Havel and to an extent
Tony Blair are embodiments of the first. Some Northern Ireland politicians—those
committed to waging, or resisting, 'the struggle'—embody the second.
This highlights, finally, the
'big p' political challenge facing the voluntary sector in Northern Ireland
as it looks to the millennium. While the voluntary sector in a way fosters
its own benign politics of 'belonging'—of solidarity in communities—it
represents the principal fount of 'civic principles' for a rational, radical
politics appropriate to modern times. This may be its biggest challenge.
What can we say such a politics
would look like? First, since it is not top-down, it would be a politics
embracing networking and clustering at local (including cross-border)
level, not simply supplicant demands made to politicians for assistance.
Secondly, since it is complementary to representative democracy, it would
be resistant to any suggestion that all post-settlement politics should
be hoovered up into a new—albeit more pluralist—party monopoly. Thirdly,
since it is about building consensus rather than rehearsing adversarial
positions, the emphasis would be on negotiation and co-operation. And,
fourthly, since it is about problem-solving, it would be open to innovation
and constant revision—finding out what works best and adapting accordingly.
Perhaps the biggest single
concern for the voluntary sector here, and yet also the basis of its most
informed contribution, is the massive differentials in access to political
participation. Education for the exercise of citizenship—within the school
and youth-service curricula, and as part of lifelong learning arrangements
for adults—must be a core concern, if some citizens are not to remain
far more equal than others.
As to formal political arenas—whether
these be a local forum, a regional assembly or a north-south institution—the
watchwords of a politics of civic principles would be access, not exclusion;
maximum participation, not majority rule; deliberation, not confrontation.
The long-term goal would be a realignment of the parties in Northern Ireland
from ethnic towards civic lines.
In conclusion, five practical
items emerge on a voluntary sector agenda for participatory democracy:
- advocating extension of
the partnership principle in programme delivery;
- encouragement of direct
citizen involvement through such devices as citizens' juries;
- pressing for policy fora
to address the raft of major social policy issues;
- seeking to secure a broader
social partnership policy framework; and
- sponsoring an overarching
politics of 'civic principles', as an alternative to 'blood and belonging'.
It goes without saying, of
course, that the voluntary sector must make sure its own participatory
house is in order if it is successfully to make claims for a wider stake
in building a new society in Northern Ireland. Involvement of what has
been called the 'inactive poor' is a major challenge for everyone, not
just government, to face. Recognising the difficulties the voluntary sector
has to cope with in this regard may be a sanguinary corrective against
the easy politics of demand and opposition.
To these, participation is
a much more productive alternative. Not least of its significance is that
it can offer a unique fast track for women, bypassing the barriers of
the male-dominated political arena. No less important is its potential
to bring politics to the interpersonal world of the local and the immediate.
But no one ever said it would
- David Held, 'Inequalities
of power, problems of democracy', in David Miliband ed, Reinventing
the Left, Polity, Cambridge, 1994, pp 47-9
- Paul Hirst, Associative
Democracy: New Forms of Economic and Social Governance, Polity,
Cambridge, 1994, p35
- Charles Sabel,
'Partnership as Democratic Experiment', Democratic Dialogue/NICVA/University
of Ulster lecture, Belfast, June 1997
- Northern Ireland
Council for Voluntary Action, Partners for Progress: The Voluntary
and Community Sector's Contribution to Partnership-building, Belfast,
- Ulrich Beck, Risk
Society: Towards a New Modernity, Sage, London, 1992, esp pp 233-4
- Elizabeth Meehan,
'Democracy unbound', Reconstituting Politics, Democratic Dialogue
report 3, March, 1996, pp 23-40
- Andy Pollak ed,
A Citizens' Inquiry: The Opsahl Report on Northern Ireland, Lilliput,
Dublin, 1993, pp 319-20
- Tackling Domestic
Violence: A Policy for Northern Ireland, DHSS/NIO, Belfast, 1995
- Rory O'Donnell,
'Modernisation and social partnership', in New Thinking for New Times,
DD report 1, Belfast, 1995, pp 24-33
- Paul Teague &
Robin Wilson, 'Towards an inclusive society', in Social Exclusion,
Social Inclusion, DD report 2, Belfast, 1995, pp 87-88
- Charles Leadbeater
& Geoff Mulgan, 'Lean democracy and the leadership vacuum', Demos
Quarterly, no 3, 1994, pp 24-5
by NICVA February 1998