23 January 2019

Now is the perfect time for a Citizens’ Assembly

The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland has a long track record of supporting innovative community initiatives. Since 1979, the Foundation has awarded over £100 million in grants to community groups – and to this day, maintains its original vision of independence and community focus, whilst a socially just NI lies at the heart of its vision for communities.

Along with Building Change Trust, we recently provided funding for the Citizens’ Assembly delivered by Involve. This is the first time the Citizens’ Assembly has met and it proved to be a breath of fresh air, following the stagnation of the Stormont Executive which went into shutdown exactly two years ago.

Despite the fact that laws can still be passed at Westminster – it’s not the same. Two years of inaction, delays on decisions required to meet civic needs and a paucity of forward momentum for communities, has left people in a rather strange limbo. They are having to embrace a new normal of guesswork and unanswered questions around the future of many issues.

And the democratic deficit continues. Elections are postponed for the foreseeable future, and with public trust in politics and government at an all time low, deep public engagement has never been more necessary. Citizens’ Assemblies have been used around the world to complement the role of elected representatives in breaking deadlock around difficult issues.

The NI Citizens’ Assembly comprised of 80 people from a variety of backgrounds, explored one of those issues, a key conundrum facing many societies – that of the reform of social care for older people.

With an ageing population and rise in the incidence of chronic health conditions, the need for social care by many in our community continues on an upwards trajectory, regardless of the situation amongst NI’s political players.

27 recommendations were agreed by members of the Citizens’ Assembly, covering a number of themes including person-centred care, care provision and systems and structures for the funding and delivery of care.

These recommendations include better support for carers, an end to compulsory zero hour contracts for care workers, and support for older people to be better integrated into society.

We believe this form of democracy in the hands of ordinary people, is more vital than ever as a means to keep democracy alive and well in NI. And it has provided a sense that all is not lost, that people don’t have to wait to have conversations or to press for change, or to hold off on debating what that change might look like.

With a Citizens’ Assembly comes a little hope, a little light and the promise that bit by bit, citizens can take action, can claim back some of the democracy lost to the machinations of age old politics. With public trust in politics and government at an all time low, deep public engagement has never been more necessary.

And it doesn’t end there. This citizens’ assembly initiative is intended to not only provide vital public input on a critical issue, but also to test the value of the approach as one which could be used by government and politicians in future.

It is hoped that this pilot – a model of deliberative engagement may be adopted by the Northern Ireland Executive, the Northern Ireland Assembly and/or the Northern Ireland Office, to address further contested issues.

The people of NI surely deserve better than the status quo and whilst the Citizens’ Assembly currently has no legislative or statutory decision-making powers, it has now made concrete recommendations for future decision makers to help bring our social care system into the 21st century.

This ability for people to have a say in how their communities are impacted by the policies and decisions of those with power, goes to the core of the Community Foundation’s vision of a socially just Northern Ireland.

It is our hope that this people power will help push the boundaries of the current stalemate so that when we do have an Assembly up and running, Northern Ireland isn’t completely playing catch-up and will help ensure a healthier future for our social care system.

For more information, go to www.citizensassemblyni.org or follow on Twitter: @CA4NI  More information on Involve can be found at www.involve.org.uk/about/about-involve or on Twitter @InvolveUK


Andrew McCracken

Chief Executive, Community Foundation for Northern Ireland