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DD Papers
Making Democracy Work: participation and politics in Northern Ireland

Robin Wilson
director, Democratic Dialogue


Finding a political niche

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 regulation.

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.

Developing partnerships

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.

Participating in policy

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.

The politics 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 destiny."

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 be easy.


  • 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, 1995, p16
  • 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


Commissioned by NICVA February 1998

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