In praise of Citizens’ Assemblies – Peter Sheridan believes they can provide solutions to some of Northern Ireland’s most intractable problems
Citizens’ assemblies should be widely used to address the problems faced by communities across Northern Ireland, argues Peter Sheridan, the chief executive of Co-operation Ireland. He was interviewed in the latest Forward Together podcast.
“It works in Canada, it works in Iceland: there are examples all around the world.” Speaking before the murder of Lyra McKee, Peter continues: “You pick an area and pick a problem, you randomly select a group of people from the electoral register and depending on the size of the problem it could be 30, 40, 50, 60 people. So it could be an area the size of Creggan on the west bank of the Foyle. You identify a particular problem. So let's take as an example that may be in an area, how do we stop young people joining paramilitaries? And you bring in expert opinion – who might say well, for example, in Colombia here's how they went about stopping young people joining groups.”
Having heard from experts, the random assembly of residents would then deliberate on how to address the problem. The sessions would be facilitated, supported and reported. “That could be over a period of two weekends, two days each weekend, where that group of 50 would really engage in the conversation and they'd be remunerated for being present.”
Peter adds: “I don't think there are any problems that are off limits that the public could not have a view on.... Actually some of the best thinking and ideas come from people who live in the community.” In many cases, he explains, the process will involve statutory agencies saying what they are doing – and the results may be strongly critical of those same agencies. “But they shouldn't see it as a threat. This is meant to help and support them to improve the way of life for people in particular communities.”
One of Peter’s frequent comments is that the discussion about rights should be reversed. He explains: “One of the frustrations that I have is that our political system here is such that even when they're in a shared executive they all champion their own side's rights.... I would want to know from the DUP - what is it you're going to do that protects the Catholic, nationalist, republican traditions, cultures and identity? And then Sinn Fein, what is it you're able to do that protects the Protestant, unionist, loyalist traditions, their culture and their identity? [We need to] get people wanting to protect their neighbours’ rights.
“I've always had the view that one of the weaknesses of the Good Friday Agreement was that we managed to get all of the political parties in Northern Ireland to concede to the British government of Tony Blair. We managed to get them all to concede to the Irish government of Bertie Ahern. And we managed to get them all to concede to the American government of Bill Clinton. But what they didn't do was concede to each other.”
He adds: “I want to know what you're going to do to protect the other community. And literally that's where you change the conversation to.”
But Peter, a former senior RUC officer, also argues that the history of The Troubles should not be ignored, yet needs to be handled with enormous care to avoid re-traumatising victims and survivors. He says that he had conversations with Martin McGuinness and others in which he said that each had to accept they had different stories and understanding of the past. Each has to accept the other has their own version of what happened and why. “I think once you can get people to think in that way, then you have the possibility of being able to look to the future. Because the way we are doing it now is that we're going back over 40 years trying to decide who's right and who's wrong in every instance. And we will still not agree.”
Peter adds that any referendum on a united Ireland has to learn from the mistakes of the Brexit referendum. “The first thing I think we have to do is to not do what we're doing at the minute, which is saying we have to have a border poll. No, to me it's a bit like what people did in Brexit. Let's have a border poll to say yes or no. And then we'll decide. We have not had the conversation to say what might this means for the Irish flag, for the Irish national anthem, all of the other arrangements in terms of policing, environment, health, education. You can’t make a quick decision on something as complex as that.”
Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.