This category refers to communal areas outside of formal democracy, places where citizens engage with each other, such as schools, workplaces and churches. Our indicators include: citizenship education, identity issues in the workplace, politics in personal experience, identity issues in the workplace, workplace discourse including management and trade unions, and the churches: endorsing and challenging orthodoxy. 

As we discussed in the literature review, deliberative democracy challenges a number of psychological short-cuts individuals may use to give meaning to the complex and changing environment in which they find themselves. Schooling in deliberative skills is thus at a premium, and hence citizenship education matters. The citizenship strand of the Northern Ireland core curriculum is, on paper, very good and, indeed, has attracted jealous eyes from international observers. It went live as a statutory requirement in 2007, with schools having been invited to make up to five teachers each available for training sessions. The main focus is at so-called ‘key stage three’, the first three years of post-primary education. The pedagogy is deliberately non-prescriptive (since it aims to teach young people to become citizens, not subjects) and there are four themes: diversity and inclusion, human rights, equality and social justice, and democracy and active participation. The aim in delivery is also to balance the local and the global in terms of examples. The problem, however, as one expert put it, is that the ‘critical edge’, the ‘political bite’, has gone.

‘There was a confusion even at a policy level as to what the concepts meant,’ she said. Northern Ireland’s conventional communalist politics does not recognise the inherently individualist concept of the citizen.

As part of the reform of public administration in Northern Ireland of recent years, the old five education and library area boards have disappeared; they used to be responsible for teachers’ continuing professional development but now no one is. Citizenship is given a low priority by most schools, particularly grammar schools focused on getting their charges into higher education. There has been a tendency for the four themes to be divided schematically into units and the concepts have been diluted—so ‘equality and social justice’ might be taught in terms of helping the poor and participating in volunteering, for example. There is now an ‘awful’ GCSE on the subject, our expert said, which can see untrained teachers teaching to the marks scheme. This means the young people don’t enjoy it:

‘It’s dry and it’s dull.’

Indeed, one educationalist complained that citizenship was being ‘taught like R[eligious] E[ducation]’—by implication in a didactic way. And the RE part of the Northern Ireland syllabus is itself problematic. The product of an agreement among the four main Christian churches, it takes Christianity as axiomatic. Some schools in England and Wales, by contrast, teach a less cramped ‘religion, philosophy and ethics’. And in Scotland (non-denominational) schools pursue ‘religious and moral education’, explicitly based on the Council of Europe approach to foster awareness of religious diversity and intercultural dialogue. Since an ability to engage in deliberative democracy depends on a capacity to step into the shoes of the ‘other’, this latter approach is clearly what is required, rather than one which treats any particular religion as authoritative. 

A figure involved in integrated education said:

‘Children need to have conversations that are controversial and that prepare them for the real world.’

But our education discussion group threw up a slew of barriers to the school acting as a site of socialisation for adults in a deliberative democracy. These included: the segregation of teacher-training, as well as schools, leaving teachers feeling ill-equipped to deal with diversity; the existence, uniquely in Europe, of the ‘11-plus’ examination with the associated social sorting; the fact that education legislation was all organised around the school, rather than the pupil, in a competitive environment driven by ‘parental choice’ (arguably in contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child); the lack of a skills-based curriculum, and the absence of schools councils in which pupils can learn to deliberate in practice; and, finally, the dominance of repeated examinations, squeezing out critical thinking in favour of teaching to the test, with philosophy not even part of the curriculum after age 14.

Nor does non-formal education fill the gap. This can be particularly effective with young people, as associated practical projects can be more engaging and effective than formal classes in citizenship. But the two NGOs which spearheaded young people’s civic involvement in Northern Ireland, Public Achievement and the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust, had to close their doors in recent years due to financial difficulties, despite the high quality of their work and the merit of further public support.

The 60s feminist movement coined the slogan ‘the personal is political’ and an unreflective consideration of the public-private distinction in thinking about the public sphere risks marginalising women. Politics in personal experience is then another indicator and one seasoned campaigner with women’s organisations warned:

‘I have never been as disillusioned with politics in my life.’

She argued that, following the 1990s ceasefires, there had been a shift with ‘ex-paramilitaries taking over positions held by women’. And she said:

‘It’s like payback time now. It’s like saying to women community workers: get back into the kitchen.’

The private space of the home is closed off in the political histories of the Northern Ireland conflict but personal experiences of growing up in a such a turbulent society have begun to leak out into the public domain through the publication of memoirs by ‘ordinary people’—memoirs like Titanic Town by Mary Costello (1998), Belfast Days by Eimear O’Callaghan (2014), or To Call Myself Beloved by Eina McHugh (2012). These are just three examples of a large outpouring of autobiographical writing which documents how the psychic wounds of a divided society have been experienced at the personal level within families. What these accounts share is a vision of how intimate family dysfunctions can be related to public events beyond the front door.    

Political attitudes in Northern Ireland, formed in the household, inevitably drift into the workplace, so the regulation of identity issues in the workplace is another indicator. To a marked degree, this is really a problem of a Christian fundamentalism, predominantly evangelical-Protestant, perceiving itself engaged in a culture war to insist upon ‘traditional’ positions against what is perceived to be modern degeneracy. The bête noire for this constituency has been the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI), responsible for challenging discrimination in employment and in the provision of goods and services, and the cause célèbre a case, involving a Co Antrim bakery called Ashers, which refused to bake a cake for a customer carrying the pro-marriage-equality message he had requested. The plaintiff, supported by the commission, won his claim of discrimination in a Belfast court in May 2015 and an appeal by the bakery was not upheld by the Court of Appeal in October 2016. The commission has been subject to criticism by some politicians and organisations such as the Christian Institute and the Evangelical Alliance for its support of the case and public rallies were held to show support for the company and raise funds for its legal costs. Abortion has also been a neuralgic issue, particularly when there have been debates in the assembly. One trade-union officer representing public-sector employees said some offices had descended into ‘almost open warfare’ on the topic.

As discussed in the literature review, the workplace is a neglected space for deliberation. So workplace discourse, including management and trade unions, is of significance. Following the Fair Employment Act of 1989 and the outcome of tribunal cases, sectarian emblems were removed from workplaces. But, interestingly, that battle having been essentially won in the private sector, the ECNI seeks to promote more positively ‘good and harmonious’ workplaces rather than neutral ones. Employers are mainly anxious simply to recruit the best talent from the most diverse pool and so are supportive of fair employment, yet some clearly still prefer a sanitised ‘neutrality’ in the workplace and to keep their heads below the political parapet. But sectarian politics still causes difficulties in local authorities as significant public employers, from the flags controversy in Belfast City Council to the long-running argument in Newry, Down and Mourne Council about the naming of a municipal play park after a former IRA hunger-striker.

As for trade unions, interestingly membership in Northern Ireland has bucked the trend in Great Britain, being higher in the region in 2015 than 20 years earlier (albeit lower than the pre-crisis peak), according to data from the Labour Force Survey. Thirty-four percent of employees are members, the highest for any UK region except Wales, perhaps as a consequence of the high percentage of the workforce in public employment. Trade unions have always had a concern about those populist forces which would divide workers and destroy solidarity—the public-sector union official said she found racist attitudes towards migrant workers ‘really scary’. Here concern emerges that ‘modern’ employers, including from the US, which embrace LGBT issues, for instance, nevertheless draw the line at endorsing trade unions. Another concern is that while external political exchanges of a decidedly non-deliberative character filter into the workplace, trade-union concerns arising from the workplace do not impinge on the political arena, in terms of appearing in the PfG. The paucity of childcare, for instance, is a huge problem for today’s feminised workforce—as a recently organised ECNI conference on pregnancy and maternity confirmed. And the draft programme reports from the consultation: ‘The particular role of high quality childcare provision in supporting greater gender equality and improving child development in support of long-term improvements in educational equality was ... highlighted.’ But the only commitment to childcare in the programme is where the child or parent is disabled.

When it comes to the churches: endorsing and challenging orthodoxy, the first thing to recognise is their sheer weight in Northern Ireland. Church attendance may well be in decline (McCartney and Glass, 2014) but Northern Ireland is still far from being a secular society. The 2011 census showed that while 17 per cent of the population could be categorised as ‘no religion’ or ‘none stated’ the equivalent figure for England and Wales is 25 per cent and for Scotland 37 per cent. Individuals are thus much more likely to self-identify by their religious affiliation than elsewhere—except perhaps in Poland or Turkey. This is of course significant for the adequacy of deliberative democracy in Northern Ireland, as the sacred texts central to religious discourse are set in a pre-democratic ancient social world of kings and subjects (and outcasts), rather than parliaments and citizens. Against this, almost all religions have passages in their holy texts, or in the writings of their leaders, which promote the belief that all humans are of equal worth. The tension between the two perspectives is played out differently in different faith communities, usually as a debate between traditionalists and modernisers, and in Northern Ireland the scales tip more towards the former group. 

Religiosity does not just tend to divide the public sphere in the region in sectarian terms: it also tends to fragment it on a finer grain, as individuals may identify with their own congregation rather than even the church as a whole. The churches still control (in the Catholic sector de jure, in the state sector de facto) a public education system funded by the general taxpayer, despite the increasing difficulty of thereby accommodating newcomer children with no or other religious affiliations (Wilson, 2016: 122). The conflict between traditional religious beliefs and modernity is now more likely to jar, particularly when the context is not a religious one. Thus, when the former DUP minister Jonathan Bell challenged the first minister and party leader, Arlene Foster, on the Nolan Show, and allowed himself to be filmed prayingin the studio before the interview, this demonstration of his Christian faith was thought by many to be inappropriate. As one leading figure in a minority faith said, Northern Ireland is now too diverse to allow such invocations to be regarded as the norm. 

The churches’ relationship to democracy is a complex one. As one interviewee, a person with Christian beliefs, put it,

‘You have to remember, the churches were not set up to be democratic organisations.’

That does not make them undemocratic but it does make for complexity, with each church and indeed each denomination facing the problem in different ways as they try to deal with their internal tensions and contradictions. For example, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has historically observed democratic norms, such as the annual election of the moderator, but that tradition of electoral openness is not aligned to any particular liberal values. The interface between the private and public arenas in this regard was highlighted by the decision of Second Donegore Presbyterian Church near Templepatrick to require the former minister of justice and Alliance leader, David Ford, to stand down as an elder because of his support for marriage equality in October 2016. As with the wider Anglican community, the Church of Ireland is wracked by arguments, on which the Bible can only be anachronistic, about female priests and sexual orientation. At the same time, the Catholic Church finds itself torn over its role in the public education system in Northern Ireland. On the one hand, in line with Catholic teaching on social justice, it supports education that is comprehensive, and so integrated by social class. On the other hand, it draws the line at integration of schooling by religious origin. And yet there is a commonality here: the resistance, particularly among evangelical Protestants, to LGBT rights and the official Catholic rejection of integrated schooling reflect the detachment of both constituencies from wider European deliberative networks—in which such attitudes would be seen as marginal rather than mainstream. The commonality can also have a more liberal orientation: in a discussion group with people of different faiths participants emphasised how on the big issue of our time, refugees, the churches had provided a moral and practical lead. 

Looking at the interface between the private and public spheres as a whole, clearly porous and blurred, it is evident that some individuals have been able to bring personal, civic-minded attitudes to bear through their own activism with NGOs, including the trade unions, or through professional work with regulatory bodies like the ECNI. It is in this way that most issues to do with gender equality have been put on the public agenda in Northern Ireland. But there is a twofold reaction, of a decidedly non-deliberative kind—from what might be called the elevated ‘subaltern elite’ of male paramilitary figures and from Christian fundamentalists who fear their world is being turned upside down. In that context, the key socialising discourse of citizenship has been dulled by an education system which has not risen to the challenge of creating deliberative citizens.

Next Section: Decisiveness