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Randomly-selected Citizens Assembly could help Stormont stalemate, according to research

 Dr John Garry used the issue of flag display as an example of a problem that could be dealt with the help of 'deliberative democracy’
Cathal McGuigan

A NEW parliamentary body made up of randomly selected citizens could help resolve contentious issues at Stormont, research suggests.

Academics at Queen's University have looked at the impact that a Citizens Assembly could make to politics in the north.

Dr John Garry used the issue of flag display as an example of a problem that could be dealt with the help of "deliberative democracy".

His team conducted an experiment in deliberative democracy using a sample of more than 1,000 citizens from across the north.

 

The people were split in different groups, some of which were shown videos containing balanced arguments about the issue and then asked to imagine debating the topic with someone who held an opposing view.

They were then asked to what extent they agreed with three statements – that the Union flag should be always be flown from public buildings, that it should never be flown and that it should be flown only on designated days.

The experiment’s findings suggested that people were more willing to choose the compromise option – that the flag should be flown on designated days – if they had been briefed on the issues and different viewpoints beforehand.

The research also revealed that 65 per cent of the general public surveyed felt that a cross section of ordinary citizens making decisions as part of a Citizens Assembly would be a good way to resolve contentious issues in the north.

Only 17 per cent of assembly members surveyed supported the idea. Both groups felt that if a Citizens Assembly was created, it would work best as a body that makes recommendations to politicians, rather than making the final decision themselves.

Dr Garry said assembly members felt that allowing the Citizens Assembly to make the final decision on important issues "would undermine democracy".

However, he said the findings suggested there was a “big appetite among the general public for bringing ordinary citizens into the decision making process”.

“The public could have regarded the idea of a Citizens Assembly as daft and unworkable. But when it is described as a systematic way of enabling ordinary citizens to become informed and to reflect on difficult issues, the general public are very receptive.

“Overall, I think it shows that the general public don't like stalemate and gridlock in the system and if parties find it very hard to agree on certain important issues, the general public are happy that a sample of informed citizens should decide instead.”

Dr Garry also said that by randomly selecting citizens, the Citizens Assembly would be representative of society as whole. 

“It would contain equal numbers of men and women, and would contain people from low-income backgrounds and ethnic minorities in direct proportion to the numbers of people from low-income backgrounds and ethnic minorities in society. And it would contain the cross section of views that exist right across society”.

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