This includes the media, civil society and citizens. Our indicators include: the number of voluntary organisations, their independence from government, citizen involvement in decision-making, media pluralism, social media and the public performance of culture.

At the heart of the public sphere, as earlier discussed, are non-governmental organisations, so the number of civil-society organisations (CSOs) is an important indicator. The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland estimates that, as of November 2016, there were 5,259 registered charities in the region, a figure broadly in line with the overall UK picture. The Charity Commission for England and Wales estimated that, as of December 2016, there were 167,109 registered charities—that is, approximately one charity for every 346 people, compared to one charity for 352 in Northern Ireland. What makes these statistics unreliable is that they are only for those bodies that have officially registered as charities. The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland estimates that when unregistered bodies are included the total more than doubles to between 11,000 and 17,500. This makes for a high level of citizen engagement: the 5,259 registered charities between them involve 34,147 trustee positions, held by 30,280 individuals. Research by Volunteer Now has shown that less than a quarter of board members are under 44 but there is a slight majority of women.

In quantitative terms then, NGOs are a large presence, but in terms of their impact, their degree of independence from government is crucial—indeed the pejorative term ‘GONGO’ has been coined to describe those so in the pocket of officialdom as to be categorisable as ‘government-organised’. The research commissioned by the Building Change Trust on the independence of the voluntary sector (Ketola and Hughes, 2016) found that only 22 per cent of respondents to a survey of the sector believed government respected its independence. The authors put this down to the wider UK trend in government to move away from thinking of civil-society organisations as ends in themselves, worthy of core funding to pursue those ends untrammelled, towards an instrumental view in which they are mere means of government programme delivery, competing for contracts against each other and against the private sector. Such an increasing alignment with government objectives, in constant pursuit of viability, can only be at the expense of the alignment of increasingly large voluntary organisations with the needs of their users and their ability to act as a democratic vehicle for their members. One voluntary-sector participant in our discussion group on ‘Is government delivering?’ said:

‘Some people think we are the government.’

A senior figure from the sector said this was why he had long advocated a white paper on voluntary action, to point away from ‘this transactional thing that centres around money’ to asking the question:

‘What’s the value of voluntary action out there to society?’

Ketola and Hughes (2016: 28) call for civil-society organisations (CSOs)to rediscover their mission as campaigning ‘social movements’. The head of an important NGO in Derry said:

‘We seem to have lost the ability to lead on the difficult conversations.’

This ‘leave it to the politicians’ attitude had to be replaced by an emphasis on advocacy, he said. That raises the wider question as to the diversity of opinion among CSOs and their involvement in social dialogue/protest. That brings us back to the issue raised in the survey of the literature—of how protest has changed from the (top-down) ‘mobilisation’ by the centralised organisations of the past to the networked ‘autonomy’ of the movements of today. This explains the apparent surprise that one of the biggest demonstration of recent years in Belfast was that in support of marriage equality in June 2015. Organised by the Rainbow Project, Amnesty International and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), the demonstration attracted a previously invisible constituency of (mainly) young people who wished to show support for cosmopolitan values in opposition to the ‘thou shalt not’ attitudes within the assembly. Interestingly, the ICTU organised its first ever all-Ireland LGBT conference in November 2016. At the same time, one LGBT campaigner stressed the continuing invisibility of gays and lesbians in the public sphere in Northern Ireland and the huge difficulties individuals faced in gaining access to sensitive services and care, and support in self-identifying.


Citizen engagement in the public sphere is facilitated by non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs). The latest relevant statistics were released by the then Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) in March 2015. At that point there were 103 NDPBs: 66 executive bodies, 13 advisory, 13 health and social care bodies / special agencies, six tribunals, one public corporation and four others. The number of lay people involved in their administration was 1,160, with some serving on more than one body out of a total of 1,372 appointments. Considerable power is vested in such organisations: 89 per cent of the public estate, for example, is owned by ‘arms-length’ bodies. It is concerning therefore that those appointed are so unrepresentative of the community they serve—a point made by successive commissioners for public appointments. In January 2014 the then commissioner, John Keanie, issued a hard-hitting report, Under-representation and Lack of Diversity in Public Appointments in Northern Ireland. He said virtually no progress had been made on equality and diversity in public appointments since the Good Friday agreement. As a result,

‘our public boards are missing out on skills, knowledge and perspectives that exist throughout the community. This is not conducive to optimal performance by our boards, is potentially unfair to many people who wish to serve and feel excluded, and helps to generate a largely undeserved bad reputation for public appointments.’

Progress remains limited. The most recent figures show a gender balance on boards of 62 per cent male to 38 per cent female, and when the remuneration rises to over £10,000 per annum male privilege is even more marked: above this level the ratio for chairpersons is 75/25. Only 1 per cent of appointments are of people who have declared a disability, and fewer than 2 per cent are from ethnic minority backgrounds. The current commissioner, Judena Leslie, who took up post in September 2015, committed herself to tackling the problem and in March 2016 the Northern Ireland Executive agreed ambitious targets for the appointment of women to public bodies. It was announced that by 2017-18 there should be gender equality for appointments made in-year; and by the end of 2020-21 there should be gender equality for all appointees in post, reflected both in board membership and in chairs.

Clearly the media are a part of the public sphere in their own right but they also have a unique role in terms of the wider networks they do, or do not, establish and reinforce. Media pluralism then becomes of major significance to deliberative democracy, in principle presenting impartially the range of perspectives in play and helping viewers/listeners and readers to adjudicate objectively between them. In September 2013, the European Commission awarded a grant to the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom to launch the Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM), to be published every two years. Northern Ireland is not treated as a separate entity by the MPM, but situated in the intersection of the Venn diagram that links Irish and British media it is able to access media from two countries that both receive broadly favourable assessments. The UK is judged to have a liberal regulatory framework but concern is expressed about the high concentration of ownership in television, newspapers, and internet service provision (ISP). Combined revenue of the top four players in the television market (BSkyB, BBC, ITV and Channel 4) represents 74 per cent of the £12.3 billion television market. The top four in the newspaper market (News UK, Associated Newspapers, Trinity Mirror and the FT Group) have revenues worth 71 per cent of the £3.7 billion annual total. The ISP market is dominated by another four big players (BT, Virgin, BSkyB and TalkTalk), which jointly command 92 per cent of the total market revenues of £3.7 billion. Ireland is a special case because of the dominance of the media from another country (Britain), due to the geographical, cultural and linguistic closeness of the two states. When looking at media output that is specifically Irish the main problem identified is social exclusiveness, because

‘minority groups are manifestly under-represented in the mainstream media’.

This problem was also described by our interviewees in relation to Northern Ireland. An experienced journalist said BBC NI did not offer the breadth of perspective to address adequately the Irish-identifying population within the region, including in its coverage of news and current affairs in the republic, or the ‘underbelly’ of life in Northern Ireland: paramilitarism, sectarianism and racism, gender inequalities and so on. Another seasoned journalist involved in an online publication complained of how TV generally tended to stereotype working-class communities and marginalise women’s voices. A third bemoaned how journalism was no longer seen as a craft acquired by journalists to give voice to the communities from which they came, a change related to the atrophy of the business model on which a vibrant media ecology had been based. 

That business model is very much under question. Print media have been in steady, and it seems irreversible, decline. A symbolic moment was reached in 2016 when the historic Belfast Telegraph building in Royal Avenue was sold to an hotel chain. The paper is moving its production to Newry and in an attempt to cut losses has cut back to a single morning edition (it used to run six daily). In 2002 the audited circulation for the Belfast Telegraph was 109,511; by 2016 it had plummeted to 42,912. The same problem affects the other two daily papers, the Irish News and the News Letter, both suffering year-on-year declines of approximately 5 per cent. All three papers have developed online platforms, as have newspapers everywhere, but here as elsewhere they have been unable to develop a business model to make these online papers profitable. One interesting experiment has been the emergence of an online investigative website, The Detail, which receives philanthropic assistance as a public good. 

The conventional media of course no longer monopolise the public sphere and so ‘social media’—an increasingly ironic misnomer for an online world essentially controlled by two private Californian corporations which deny they are even media organisations, with the consequent editorial responsibilities—come into focus. One active blogger said that the trouble with the BBC’s interpretation of impartiality as ‘balance’ was that it did not convey the spectrum of opinion or its range:

‘Everything becomes a binary position.’

The analogue nature of that spectrum was more evident on social media, he said. But here the non-deliberative nature of unregulated exchanges has become all too evident. A senior BBC NI figure made the case for ‘slow news’ and nuance and he said:

‘Twitter is a place where tribes coalesce and shout at each other.’ 

That obviously happens, but it doesn’t happen all the time. A study of social media and the part they play in relation to parades and protests shows, for example, that social media can also be considered as a ‘safe space’ for commenting on emotive and polemic issues and creating

‘opportunities to hear alternative views and positions on these issues that may have not been available in an “offline” context’.

In support of that position, a PhD student researching this area told us of many examples of social media facilitating lively and informed discussion, and of the virtual friendships that resulted. Given the diversity of experiences no generalisation about social media is safe—save that at one end of the spectrum it creates enclaves for the expression of toxic hatreds, while at the other end of that very long spectrum it can offer the opportunity for minority voices to be heard and new forms of social solidarity to be created. 

Northern Ireland has become notorious for the unique colonisation of its streets for many months of the year by (overwhelmingly Protestant) communal parading. But the public performance of culture—as elsewhere it would be understood, as street festivals, markets and so on—is an important aspect of the public sphere. One senior figure in the Police Service of Northern Ireland suggested a paradox here—that the high degree of regulation in the public space, introduced to deal with cultural contestation on issues such as flags and parades, had led to a trust in a collective ability to observe the rules, and this allowed diversity to be tolerated in a relaxed way. He pointed, for instance, to the highly successful annual Mela in Botanic Gardens, Belfast, on the August bank-holiday weekend. This draws a very large and obviously mainly ‘indigenous’ attendance of tens of thousands over the day, exposed to cultural expressions, from food to music, from around the world. It always passes without incident in a buoyant atmosphere—the main police presence being to staff the PSNI stall. It is only one example of a growing trend towards non-sectarian, non-threatening public performance. The Parades Commission reports that in 2016 there were 2,424 parades which it calls ‘Protestant/unionist/loyalist’ and 176 ‘Catholic/nationalist/republican’ but 1,962 parades were neither orange nor green. This third category is very diverse groups and includes charity fun-runs, community-arts parades, bicycle rallies and vintage-car rallies—all at one time or another taking over the streets.  

These small examples may seem remote from the idea of deliberation or policy-making within the committee room, but to experience democracy means to experience the existence of the ‘other’ in myriad different ways. The indicator the arts: reflecting or leading points towards how this happens in practical terms. Most artistic genres, including the novel and the visual arts, encourage a re-evaluation of the self through an ‘in the shoes’ experience of the other. And without an appreciation of the perspective of the other, as distinct from one’s own, any deliberation is unlikely to succeed. But as to whether, in Northern Ireland, particularly under devolution, the arts have been given the freedom and the support to expand those understandings, the lesson to date seems painfully clear. The cutting of the budget of the Arts Council from £14 million to £10.5 million—even though historically the arts were comparatively underfunded in Northern Ireland—sent a clear signal from Stormont as to the political value attached to the arts. The reconfiguration of departments in May 2016 meant there was no longer even a minister with ‘culture’ or ‘arts’ in their title. And the relevant devolved ministers have shown a preference for communalist expressions in allocating funding. For example, the Sinn Féin (SF) minister for culture, arts and leisure took funding from the Arts Council budget and reallocated it to the west Belfast Féile an Phobail. In a matching example, when the DUP took control of the (successor) Department of Communities. the budget for (mainly Protestant) marching bands was allowed to over-run while the withdrawal of Irish-language bursaries was justified by the need to create ‘efficiencies’

This philistinism seems to be driven by fear of artistic expression giving voice to individuals from stigmatised groups and making challenging statements which give rise to new forms of agency. For instance, recently Prime Cut theatre company took a play about gender transition to a school in west Belfast; during the subsequent discussion, it emerged that two teenage pupils were undergoing just such a transition—otherwise a taboo topic in Northern Ireland. A former occupant of a key position in one of the region’s major artistic institutions said:

‘Basically, politicians don’t feel threatened by sport. They feel threatened by the arts.’

The community-arts discussion group convened for this research painted by contrast a picture of an ecology of practitioners, including dissenting voices, enabled by an arm’s length body like the Arts Council and insulated thereby from political interference. The length of that arm matters. The concern we heard expressed was that the cuts to the Arts Council budget could mean ever-closer direction from government and a closing down of dissenting voices. 

The antipathy at Stormont comes despite well-rehearsed arguments about the economic multiplier of arts expenditure and much evidence specifically of the regenerative effect of the arts on the public sphere in Northern Ireland. Derry/Londonderry’s year as UK City of Culture in 2013 was universally seen as a success (Nolan, 2014: 121-24), including such hugely symbolic moments as the cheering of the band of the PSNI when it entered Guildhall Square—a far cry from how such a mainly-Catholic audience would have reacted to a similar manifestation of the old, Protestant-dominated, Royal Ulster Constabulary. In Belfast, meanwhile, the Cathedral Quarter, like a less touristic version of Dublin’s Temple Bar, has evolved into the city’s cultural hub, drawing vast crowds every year to the annual Culture Night in September. Again, it is worth remarking that during the ‘troubles’ it would have been inconceivable to have organised an event on this scale, with the public effectively taking over a large area of the city, because of the public order implications as the RUC would have seen them—yet at the 2016 Culture Night the few individual police officers mingling with the crowd were noticeable only for their scarcity. The spatial organisation of the event is also worth noting. While there were events in the gay quarter and the Irish-language quarter, and other areas were designated for particular communities of interest, the boundaries between all these areas were completely fluid, with people moving in and out of the different spaces, experiencing the diverse forms of cultural expression on offer. The same sense of freedom and individual self-expression can be found at the annual Hallowe’en festival in Derry/Londonderry. Thirty years ago it was a small civic-firework event; now it is one of the largest such celebrations in Europe. 

Finally, since we are now reaching the halfway stage of the Decade of Centenaries in Ireland, it is worth observing how the deliberation put into the commemoration of these anniversaries has paid off in events which have been much more reflective and inclusive than might otherwise have been so. For example, it was remarkable how the Irish government’s sensitive handling of the Easter 1916 commemoration defused tension. A highly resonant event in terms of popular culture was the unveiling at Glasnevin Cemetery at Easter of a ‘Remembrance Wall’ commemorating in equal terms all those who died in the 1916 rising—including civilians and British soldiers alongside the rebels themselves. A similarly inclusive ethos has characterised the way in which the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland has, on behalf of the Department of Communities, taken a broad view of which historic developments from the 1912-22 period are worth commemorating. Its programme not only includes the seminal battles and historic ruptures of that turbulent period, but also the growth of the labour movement and the achievements of the campaign for women’s suffrage. 

Overall, then, there are many elements of vibrancy in the public sphere in Northern Ireland. Formerly taboo topics have entered public discourse and changed public attitudes—most notably on sexual orientation—and, relatedly, the region has opened up to real cosmopolitanising trends. On the other hand, the overhang of the ‘troubles’ can be seen in media reportage which does not do full justice to the range of issues and spectrum of voices now in play. And the wellsprings of autonomous civic action have been to an extent blocked or channelled in ‘safe’ directions by an austere and demanding framework for receipt of public funds.

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