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A citizens' assembly to break deadlock in North would have 'merit', says Taoiseach

Neither Sinn Féin or the DUP have warmly welcomed calls for a citizens’ assembly.

Leo Varadkar appeared open to calls for a citizens' assembly to resolve the deadlock in the North.
Leo Varadkar appeared open to calls for a citizens' assembly to resolve the deadlock in the North.
Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

CALLS FOR A citizens’ assembly to solve the political deadlock in Northern Ireland have not been warmly welcomed by Sinn Féin and the DUP. 

In the Dáil this week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that he was open to considering the idea of a citizens’ assembly in Northern Ireland as a way of solving the current deadlock between the political parties. 

Varadkar was responding to a question from former Labour leader Joan Burton, who asked  Varadkar whether he might support the party’s call for a citizens’ assembly in the North to solve disputes over issues such as marriage equality and the Irish language. 

Such an assembly, she said “could be useful and would allow citizens’ voices to break the deadlock in Stormont”. 

Varadkar said that a citizens’ assembly in the North would have “merit”. 

“I will certainly give it some consideration with my team but it would not be our call to establish it,” Varadkar said. 

Citizens’ assemblies have become an increasingly popular method for debating complex or divisive issues in recent years – most famously with the assembly on the Eighth Amendment and abortion legislation. 

However, both Sinn Féin and the DUP told TheJournal.ie that a citizens’ assembly should not be seen as a top priority for the North. 

A spokesperson for the DUP said that solving the deadlock in Northern Ireland was the responsibility of “elected representatives”. 

They said that devolving power to another body was not the answer to solving Northern Ireland’s current lack of government. 

A Sinn Féin spokesperson said that the party has “long argued the importance of civic engagement and has continually called for the re-establishment of the Civic Forum as legislated for under the Good Friday Agreement”. 

The civic forum, which was made up of representatives from trade unions, businesses and charities, lapsed in 2005 after the Northern Ireland executive stopped funding it. 

“It is important to recognise that any citizens’ assembly should not be an alternative to the political process or the political institutions,” the spokesperson said. 

However, academics agree that, if designed correctly, a citizens’ assembly could prove useful. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Queen’s University Belfast’s John Garry, who advised the citizens’ assembly on the Eighth Amendment, said that citizens’ assemblies could make a positive contribution to make to the North, which has been without a government for nearly three years. 

“If politicians can agree to delegate recommendation making power to a randomly selected group of citizens, this could play a valuable role – especially if the politicians agree to take seriously whatever recommendations emerge,” he said. 

“Studies suggest that such an approach may be popular among ordinary people,” Garry added. 

A survey by academics in Belfast in 2016 found that 65% of people would support some form of a citizens’ assembly for resolving contentious decisions. 

However, only 17% of the North’s MLAs supported the idea. 

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