Beyond Voting

This report, commissioned by the Building Change Trust and published in 2017, attempts to analyse the political culture of Northern Ireland through the lens of deliberative democracy. Deliberative democracy differs from traditional models of democracy in that it foregrounds discussion between citizens and their representatives at all levels, seeking better outcomes through mutual exchange, rather than mere aggregation of voter preferences and negotiation between interest groups.

This study is based on the application of a particular model designed to assess the quality of democracy in any society. It was developed by Simon Burrall for Involve, the UK's leading agency on citizen engagement and deliberative democracy. The framework employs seven categories:

  1. The public space includes the media, civil society and citizens. Its health is related to the range of views and narratives visible and affecting each other.
  2. The empowered space is where legitimate collective decisions are taken, such as in parliamentary assemblies. Its health also depends on the range of views interacting.
  3. The transmission of views and narratives between the public space and empowered space is important for ensuring that the latter responds to citizens. It is working well when the full range of views is transmitted and has impact on decisions taken.
  4. The health of the fourth component, the accountability of the empowered space to the public space, is determined by the extent to which those with power are answerable for the decisions they take.
  5. The private space is made up of political conversations at home and in communal arenas such as the workplace or places of worship. Its health depends on the extent to which they inform, and are informed by, the public and empowered spaces.
  6. The system’s health also depends on its decisiveness: for example, can it make the decisions that affect people’s lives or are they in reality being imposed from the outside?
  7. The public examination of the qualities of the system itself requires the system to have mechanisms to evaluate the health of the components of the system. The longer term health of the system depends on this.

To apply these categories to Northern Ireland we devised our own indicator framework for each of the categories to make them amenable to empirical data-collection. As we go through the seven categories we will indicate the particular indicators we have used, and present the data relevant to each category, including the insights offered by our interviewees and discussion groups.

The authors

Paul Nolan and Robin Wilson are both independent researchers. They have worked together on the successive iterations of the Peace Monitoring Report published by the Community Relations Council. This has entailed developing a suite of quantitative and qualitative indicators across four dimensions (security, equality, the sense of safety and political progress). In late 2015 they were commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to execute a research project on the Civic Forum.

In the last two years Paul Nolan has been lead researcher on two large-scale research projects which relied upon qualitative research methods. The first of these, conducted from the Institute of Conflict Transformation at Queen’s University Belfast, was an investigation of the loyalist flag protest. The second, which explored options for resolving the flags issue, was conducted from within the Institute of Irish Studies at QUB. His PhD was on the connections between social movements and the peace process.

Robin Wilson has conducted numerous research projects in the recent past—for example as a partner (with Paul Hainsworth) in a project commissioned by the European Network Against Racism analysing the appeal of far-right parties in Europe, published in 2012. His PhD (Wilson, 2010) was on the essaying of power-sharing in Northern Ireland and other divided societies.

Paul Nolan was formerly director of education in the School of Education at QUB, in which capacity he published widely in education and conflict in Northern Ireland. Previously, he was director of the Workers’ Educational Association in the region.

From 1999 to 2009, Robin Wilson co-led the Northern Ireland team in a major UK-wide research programme co-ordinated by the Constitution Unit at University College London, monitoring the outworking of devolution. With his co-leader, Prof Rick Wilford, he was responsible for a democratic audit of Northern Ireland (Wilford et al, 2007). He was till 2006 director of the Belfast-based think tank Democratic Dialogue


This report was commissioned by the Building Change Trust and the authors would like to thank the trust and Paul Braithwaite in particular for both the freedom and the support we received during its preparation. Thanks too are due to Simon Burall of Involve for his intellectual groundwork for this project. We are also deeply grateful to all those who gave their time voluntarily to explore the issues in individual interviews and discussion groups. A large debt of gratitude is also due to the steering group which proved a very useful sounding board. It must be emphasised though that none of those mentioned are responsible for the opinions contained in this report or for any mistakes, which are of course those of the authors alone.