This term describes formal democracy, where legitimate decisions are taken, as in parliamentary assemblies. Its health depends on the range of views interacting. Our indicators include: the legal status of the citizen, the voting system, the spectrum of political opinion, possibilities of forming new political parties, input legitimacy versus output legitimacy, blocking and enabling, independent voices and private members bills, quality of discourse, the problems of ‘groupthink’ and whether local government is closer to the people.

While much of the literature on deliberative democracy focuses on the role of the citizen,the people of the United Kingdom are not in fact citizens but subjects within a constitutional monarchy. A subject is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘someone under the dominion of a monarch’. Since the monarch exercises so little control over the everyday workings of government, this underpinning constitutional reality is often forgotten. In addition, the way in which the unwritten British constitution has evolved has blurred the line between subject and citizen, and indeed until the UK finally exits from the EU the associated binding treaties describe the population as citizens of that union—which means that the people of the UK are both subjects and citizens. 

At times, however, the underlying monarchical authority becomes more visible. When a government wishes to bypass Parliament, it can do so by invoking the royal prerogative—in simple terms, by getting the queen to sign off a piece of legislation without it going through parliamentary scrutiny. As we noted in the introduction, the prime minister, May, attempted to use this mechanism to allow the Brexit referendum vote to be actioned without the approval of Parliament. It has also been used very frequently in relation to Northern Ireland. In 2000, as part of the horse-trading between the Blair government and SF, a number of IRA prisoners had their release dates brought forward by use of the royal prerogative of mercy (RPM) but the full scale of its use was only revealed during the ‘on the runs’ controversy in 2014. In response to a parliamentary question, the then secretary of state, Theresa Villiers, revealed that the RPM had been used 347 times in Northern Ireland cases between 1979 and 1986, at a time when ‘the UK government would have been responsible for all policing and criminal justice issues in Northern Ireland’. In a further extraordinary admission, she explained that all the files from 1987 to 1998 had gone missing. 

Under its devolved powers, as set out in section 23(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland Assembly has limited power to employ the royal prerogative. In a bizarre move, it was used in 2016 to allow the OFMDFM to recruit a communications director without the post being publicly advertised. To bypass the assembly and the civil service commissioners they drafted a special piece of legislation, the Civil Service Commissioners (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2016, which did not have to go before the assembly’s examiner of statutory rules, the watchdog which examines secondary legislation. (The irony of Irish republicans using the British royal prerogative was not lost on many.)

Turning to more conventional democratic arrangements, electoral systems do have pertinent effects on electoral outcomes and the political opportunity structure and so the voting system compared with alternatives is one indicator. Yet there has been scarcely any debate about the adoption of the single transferable vote (STV) for assembly elections, a path-dependent result of its inclusion in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act under which Northern Ireland as a polity came into being. In fact, there was a substantial debate within government in the run-up to the 1974 power-sharing executive, with the secretary to the executive preferring a version of the much more common additional-member system, as did the then taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald (Wilson, 2010: 102-5). In a divided society STV gives parties the incentive to tout merely for core audiences—especially where, as in Northern Ireland, there is a high ‘district magnitude’ (seats per constituency). AMS, by contrast, encourages those standing for constituency election to reach out to a more diverse audience to secure the necessary majority.

An obvious metric when it comes to the assembly is the volume and significance of legislation it passes. In volume terms, Northern Ireland more or less matches Scotland. In the first, 1999-2002, phase of devolution, legislation was largely copying Westminster bills and so marking little distinction from direct rule. Since 2007, it has been significantly more attuned to regional concerns. But legislative ambition has remained modest, in a context of public expenditure reduced by Conservative austerity in contrast to the facilitative spending envelope of the ‘New Labour’ years. An expert assembly analyst said:

‘I don’t think you could point to a single piece of executive-initiated legislation that has had a demonstrably significant effect on the population of Northern Ireland.’

Moreover, the legislative ‘buck’ was passed back to Westminster on welfare ‘reform’ (see below) and the most significant piece of assembly legislation, reforming its own structures, depended on a private member’s initiative (also below).

How much the assembly encapsulates deliberative democracy relates to the breadth of the spectrum of political opinion. This has been widened in Northern Ireland by two offshoots of parties operating on an all-Ireland basis—the Greens and the People Before Profit Alliance. Northern Ireland previously had—apart from the brief efflorescence of the Women’s Coalition around and after the Belfast agreement—parties whose affiliations were defined by the conflict: even the Alliance Party, while part of the European liberal family, had a raison d’être to many of its members as a sectarian ‘bridge-builder’. If Alliance injects yellow into the conventional Northern Ireland orange/green political dichotomy, the Green Party and People Before Profit made this a rainbow by adding two minority currents present elsewhere in Europe—deeper green and bright red. Before the 2016 assembly election the respected columnist Fionnuala O Connor argued that this meant no one on the left of the spectrum could any longer claim they had no one to vote for in Northern Ireland, and the two parties duly emerged with two seats each, as against the single seat occupied before the poll by the Green Party leader.

One way of widening the political spectrum and rejigging the political kaleidoscope is via a new political formation. So the ease or difficulty of forming new parties is a relevant consideration. The requirements of the Electoral Commission (a UK wide body) under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 are hardly onerous: new parties must submit a constitution, their officers, a financial scheme and a £150 payment to register. Northern Ireland did see one significant internal attempt to break the political mould in recent years, with the launch in June 2013 of ‘NI21’ by two MLAs who had left the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Around 400 people attended the event in the suitably contemporary Mac in Belfast and NI21 was pitched as ‘a modern, inclusive party for the 21st century’. But it was to crash and burn amid acrimony, including contested allegations of sexual impropriety and confusion over its designation as ‘unionist’ or ‘other’. One former insider said:

‘We had a great launch. We were saying relevant, interesting things,’ There had been ‘excitement’ about the party’s ideas for a well-functioning assembly, with the capacity to take on more powers’.

But he said, ruefully:

‘It was a car crash from virtually the start to the finish.’


How the assembly is performing can be viewed in terms of whether citizens feel that it gives them a say or whether what it does (such as passing legislation) is seen in a positive light—that is to say in terms of input legitimacy versus output legitimacy. On the input side, turnout in elections has fallen since the 1998 agreement, when 70 per cent (of those registered to do so) voted in the first assembly contest, to 55 per cent in 2016. This though is almost identical to the turnout in 2016 for the Scottish Parliament, which was 56 per cent. Indeed turnouts for all the Holyrood elections previously had been lower than for those to its Stormont counterpart. The assembly does attempt to engage citizens, such as through visits by school and community groups, but it does not fully exploit the potential of new technology—and Stormont, constructed in the 1930s as a symbol of unionist power and authority, is a much less geographically accessible building than its bespoke city-centre counterparts in Edinburgh and Cardiff, new-built after devolution. As one interviewee put it,

‘It’s a big building on top of a big hill.’

And its polling data are not encouraging. The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey has repeatedly asked respondents whether the assembly is ‘giving ordinary people more say in how Northern Ireland is governed’. In the 2001 and 2007 iterations, the jury was still out, with a roughly even division between those saying ‘more say’ and those saying ‘making no difference’. But during the second period of devolution the gap has widened, with in 2016 66 per cent choosing the ‘no difference’ option, against only 17 per cent ‘more say’—and indeed 10 per cent opting for ‘less say’ (Wilson, 2016: 149). It is a similar story on the ‘output’ side. Here the NILT question asks respondents what they think the assembly has achieved. Those agreeing it has achieved ‘a lot’ have paradoxically fallen as the assembly’s period of time in which to do so has lengthened, while those believing it has achieved ‘nothing at all’ have tended to rise. By 2015, only 11 per cent volunteered ‘a lot’ in response to this question, whereas 48 per cent offered ‘a little’ and 31 per ‘nothing at all’ (a further 9 per cent said they didn’t know) (ibid: 148).

The dynamics of the assembly are affected by procedural and structural aspects, and hence an important indicator becomes blocking and enabling: petitions of concern (PoC) and committee processes. If 30 MLAs sign a PoC in response to an assembly motion, this triggers the requirement that the motion enjoy for its successful passage not just the support of a majority of the 108 MLAs but also ‘cross-community support’, understood as concurrent majorities of ‘unionist’ and ‘nationalist’ members. This procedure, which originally stemmed from Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) concerns that the assembly emerging from the 1998 talks could trample on minority rights, as with the Stormont ancien régime, has perversely been much more frequently adopted by the DUP, straightforwardly as a party veto—the DUP being the only party strong enough to muster the threshold number of signatures unaided. Indeed, it has been used not only to defend individual DUP figures from censure but against minority rights, as the party has repeatedly prevented the assembly passing a motion in favour of marriage equality by this means. The ‘Fresh Start’ agreement between the DUP and SF in November 2015 stipulated that the executive would present a protocol on usage of the PoC to the speaker of the assembly by the end of that year but this has still to materialise. It remained to be seen at time of writing whether the reduction of assembly seats from six to five per constituency in the March 2017 assembly election would reduce resort to the PoC, the threshold remaining at 30 MLAs. Having said that, proceedings in the assembly itself appear to have become more deliberative over time. In particular, William Hay (DUP) and Mitchel McLaughlin (SF) are credited with having played civilising roles, in terms of assembly debates, in their periods as speaker. As to the assembly committees, while there remain majorities in each for the executive parties, there is more cross-party and intercommunal co-working there than might be apparent in the assembly plenaries.

The Belfast agreement assumed that Northern Ireland politics would be aligned in perpetuity along the ethno-nationalist faultline, leading to the concern as to whether the two sectarian blocs would marginalise independent voices and private members’ motions. The system of designation required for the ‘cross-community support’ test to be applied in turn demands that MLAs affirm on election their ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’ bloc affiliation, the residuum being deemed ‘other’. The latter category has grown over time, with now eight Alliance Party members being accompanied by two Greens and two members of People Before Profit. But when it comes to the key decisions, arising from a PoC, only the votes of the soi-disant ‘unionists’ and ‘nationalists’ count—the ‘others’ may be free to take part in such deliberations with other representatives but they are not equal when they do so. Within the main parties themselves, because they function as ‘ethnic tribunes’, the notion of individual freedom of conscience to dissent goes unrecognised and party whips unchallenged.

Only since the 2016 assembly election has there been a recognised opposition at Stormont. The provision in the agreement for executive formation by the d’Hondt proportionality rule, while in principle allowing parties to decline seats to which they were entitled, in effect made for grand-coalition government of the main parties. The risk therefore arose of cross-party groupthink, as distinct from a consensus arrived at between different positions after due deliberation, and this has been apparent in the unquestioning support among the five major parties for a reduction in corporation tax as the main lever of economic policy, despite the normative and analytical divergence evident in the wider international policy community on this proposition (Wilson, 2016: 20-21). In this context, the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 arose from a private member’s bill by the former independent unionist MLA John McCallister. While it did provide for an official opposition, as McCallister had sought, it has only led to modest additional financial resources for the relevant parties—enough to pay for one additional researcher each for the UUP and the SDLP. The parties are able to set the agenda for ten supply days per annum, out of some 33 weeks of twice-weekly sessions.

The discussion of deliberative versus agonistic conceptions of democracy casts light on a related indicator—the quality of discourse: polarised or consensual? Deliberative democracy, it has been stressed, does not require that conflict be in any way abjured—on the contrary, it is the lifeblood of deliberative argument. What is required, however, is a fundamental break with motivated cognition—which in a Northern Ireland context takes the form of adopting a political perspective because of one’s religion of origin, affirming that (as a ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’ perspective accordingly) and then resisting alternative perspectives on the same basis. A sine qua non of deliberative democracy is that one’s position is not predetermined and is indeed open to change on the balance of argument. The South African social psychologist Brandon Hamber, who has lived and worked for many years in Northern Ireland, once expressed his bafflement at the local usage ‘religious and political persuasion’. But ‘persuasion’ doesn’t come into it, he pointed out. 

Nowhere is this more concerning than over ‘Brexit’. As the referendum campaign progressed, it became apparent that ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ positions in Northern Ireland were hardening along sectarian lines, though with a small but significant ‘cosmopolitan’ constituency tilting the vote towards ‘remain’, albeit with a smaller majority than in Scotland (Wilson, 2016: 156-66). Objectively, as an economically weak region which has depended heavily on EU largesse and which has a border with an EU member state which can only be rendered to an unknown degree ‘hard’ by Brexit, all the risks to Northern Ireland of a ‘leave’ vote were on the downside. Yet the DUP position, fervently pro-leave, was clearly motivated by an ‘über-British’ nationalism unmindful of the evidence.

Local government in Northern Ireland has been reformed, reducing the single tier of 26 district councils introduced in 1973 to 11 successors which went live in 2014. By our local government: closer to the people? benchmark, unfortunately this leaves the region with a more centralised ‘local’ government—in terms of citizens per representative—than any state in Europe (Wilson, 2016: 151). This has been compounded by the decision by the DUP minister for communities in November 2016 to withhold from the new authorities powers which were to be delegated over local regeneration, retained at Stormont in defiance of the widely accepted principle of ‘subsidiarity’—that those who deliberate about an issue should be those best placed to address it, in terms of the knowledge they can bring to bear. A leading figure in local government complained that this decision had reflected the desire to retain control over patronage, with the accruing political advantage associated with project photo-opportunities. He also pointed to the underlying sectarian tug-of-war between unionists defining regeneration in economic terms and nationalists prioritising social need.

Nor have the chambers of local government often been paragons of deliberation: one study of three (former) council areas showed indeed that eruptions of sectarian passion in the town hall could undo enduring efforts by NGOs to build reconciliation on the ground (Hamber and Kelly, 2005). Belfast City Council was a textbook example with the controversy over the flying of the Union flag above City Hall which exploded in December 2012, fuelling sectarian tensions across the city (Nolan et al, 2014). 

Yet there is also a less public Belfast story, of the Shared City Partnership, which seems rather to model a version of deliberative democracy. This partnership has evolved from its inception in 2004 as the Good Relations Steering Panel, to the Good Relations Partnership. The Shared City Partnership is the latest iteration, launched in April 2016. Essentially, issues which have the potential to be contentious in the debating chamber are first aired in the partnership, which includes one representative each from the five main political parties—there as equals—alongside representatives of the faith, statutory, business, trade-union, community and voluntary sectors. Potential approaches are sent forward to the next tier of the council, the strategic policy and resources committee, and ultimately to the monthly meeting of the full council. At times the partnership reaches out more broadly into the public sphere: in June 2016 a Shared City Forum was convened at the Girdwood Community Hub—on the site of an old British army barracks at the heart of sectarian tensions in north Belfast—to discuss how the work of the partnership and the council’s ‘good relations’ agenda could be used to promote urban renewal while also addressing intercommunal division. Perhaps inevitably, the civil-society representatives on the partnership can be seen as a ‘selectoctracy’—in Belfast parlance, ‘the usual suspects’—but until these consultative structures are bedded in it is difficult to design electoral methods which are workable. 

How open government is to the citizen is important for the transparency of Stormont to the public sphere. The assembly and most committees meet in public (after, in the first period of devolution, Liz Fawcett effectively highlighted how often committees were meeting in private). But this is not apparent in terms of the work of the executive, within that the talks between the two executive parties, or within that the part played by special advisers. The executive has often failed to answer questions from committees and MLAs for months—in some cases years. When the new departments were established after the May 2016 election, material from the discontinued Department for Employment and Learning was simply deleted; the Flags Protocol introduced by the direct-rule administration alongside the A Shared Future policy on good relations in 2005 has similarly disappeared. Externally, the executive has on occasions failed to turn up to United Nations committee hearings, or even to send a paper, to address concluding observations on the UK which have implications for Northern Ireland. There has been a similar failure to meet Council of Europe requirements, such as on compliance with the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (because of the DUP’s resistance to Irish). 

In December 2016, the executive, as part of the UK-wide action plan of the Open Government Partnership, did make a general commitment that openness would be the default option for public-sector data. This followed pressure from the Open Government Network in the region. Two demands were highly germane to the concern about clientelism which peppers this paper: a register of lobbyists (as in the Republic of Ireland) and openness on public contracting. But there was no progress on the first and the second only elicited from the executive an ‘ambition … to establish whether it is practical’ to implement the international Open Contracting Data Standard.

In terms of the empowered space, the gender balance of MLAs, MEPs and councillors is obviously significant. The additional-member electoral system in Scotland and Wales allows parties to prioritise female candidates, to begin to redress the conventional male domination of the political arena. With AMS, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales have had consistently better records in female representation than the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has rather matched the poor performance of Dáil Eireann, both parliaments being based on STV (Wilson, 2016: 134). The assembly secretariat is working on the idea of a gender-sensitive parliament, arising from prior work by the assembly executive and review committee.

The overall picture which emerges is of a parliamentary system with significant design flaws in its structures (such as in regard to gender-power imbalances) and significant failings in how the relevant actors have behaved (such as in abuse of the PoC), individually and severally. It is not a system which commands public legitimacy, whether in input or output terms. There are some signs of more deliberative-democratic life, such as in the assembly committees or the recent opposition arrangements, but in the round this appears a rickety set of arrangements.

Next Section: Accountability