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January 9 2018 5:21 PM
Stormont's unresolved political crisis has led to growing calls for a Citizens' Assembly in Northern Ireland to address controversial issues such as abortion and marriage equality.
The Building Change Trust, an endowment-based Trust set up by the National Lottery to promote and support change in the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in the region, said there is an urgent need for new mechanisms to directly engage the public in decision-making.
Paul Braithwaite, Building Change Trust's programme leader, suggested that after years of growing public frustration with Northern Ireland's political performance, a Citizens' Assembly offers "a means of steering public engagement to a constructive end, for the common good."
A Citizens' Assembly is a body formed from members of the public, randomly selected, as in other forms of sortition.
The purpose is to employ a cross-section of the public to study the options available to the state on certain questions and to propose answers to these questions.
In the Republic of Ireland a Citizens' Assembly was established in 2016 to consider several political questions including abortion, fixed term parliaments, referendums, population ageing, and climate change.
It produces reports to be considered by the Oireachtas, the Irish Parliament.
In December a special committee set up to discuss Irish abortion laws voted in favour of changing the constitutional clause, which effectively criminalises abortion, after studying a report by the Citizens' Assembly.
Mr Braithwaite said a Citizens' Assembly in Northern Ireland could not only deal with controversial issues like abortion and marriage equality, but other social issues such as educational disadvantage and hospital waiting lists.
"Politics in Northern Ireland is often something which turns people off.
"With identity politics the central plank that shapes our ideology and repeated political scandals resulting in diminishing trust in the institutions, there is a need to reengage ordinary people in shaping the decisions that affect our day-to-day lives," said Mr Braithwaite.
He added: "Whilst it is essential that we get a government back up and running again as soon as possible, unless public trust is rebuilt, the institutions' long-term stability will continue to be fragile.
"We need new mechanisms that can directly engage the public in decision-making, to complement our existing electoral and political processes.
"In response to this and with an urgency made greater by the absence of government, the idea of a Citizens' Assembly has come to the fore."
Mr Braithwaite said that by engaging with political parties and the voluntary/community sector, a Citizens' Assembly could be convened and funded independently in 2018.
"With a fair political wind the Northern Ireland Assembly may be back in business by then.
"But whether it is sitting or not, unresolved issues will remain; issues that a Citizens' Assembly could play a vital, complementary role to that of elected representatives.
"After years of growing public frustration with Northern Ireland's political performance - a frustration often expressed in verbal attacks on elected representatives, in spite of their essential role in a democratic society - it offers a means of steering public engagement to a constructive end, for the common good," he added.