Citizenship and Participation

Posted on Friday, 6 October 2023
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embracing multicultural Ireland
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One Monday this week, 2nd October 2023, 3,039 people from 131 countries became Irish citizens after making the declaration of fidelity to the Irish Nation and loyalty to the State. 

Ensuring that every citizen is involved in making the decisions that affect them and their communities is a key element of real democracy. True involvement requires participation that goes beyond voting (representative democracy). By definition, such a deliberative democracy approach requires a leaving aside of power differentials and making a specific effort to ensure that the voices and views of people who are seldom heard and taken into account.

People want to be more involved and to participate in debates concerning policies, particularly those that directly affect them. The extensive use of social media as a forum for discussion and debate indicates a capacity to question the best use of State resources to develop a just and fair society. It is crucially important for our democracy that people feel engaged in this process and all voices are heard in a constructive way. It is imperative that groups with power, recognise, engage with, and develop partnerships with people to co-create services and policy.


A forum for dialogue on civil society issues

The need for a new forum and structure for discussion of issues on which people disagree is becoming more obvious as political and mass communication systems develop. A civil society forum and the formulation of a new social contract against exclusion has the potential to re-engage people with the democratic process. Our highly centralised government, both in terms of decision-making and financially, means that citizens are represented more by professional politicians than by their local constituency representatives. Communities become frustrated when they feel they have no voice or input into the decisions that affect their community. While there have been some structural improvements, such as an enhanced committee structure, the introduction of Public Participation Networks (PPNs), better success rates for Bills led by the opposition and a budgetary oversight process, much remains to be done before Ireland has a genuinely participative decision-making structure.


Participation in Local Government - Public Participation Networks (PPNs)

In 2014, the Local Government Act was amended to introduce Public Participation Networks (PPNs) in every local authority in the country. The PPN recognises the contribution of volunteer-led organisations to local economic, social and environmental capital. It facilitates input by these organisations into local government policy. By the end of 2021, over 18,121 community and voluntary, social inclusion and environmental organisations were members of a PPN. More than 1,013 PPN representatives were elected to over 397 committees on issues such as strategic policy, local community development, joint policing and so on.

Local authorities and PPNs work together collaboratively to support communities and build the capacity of member organisations to engage meaningfully on issues of policy that concern them. PPNs have a significant role in the development and education of their member groups, sharing information, promoting best practice and facilitating networking. Local authorities also have a vital role to play in facilitating participation through open consultative processes and active engagement. Building real engagement at local level is a developmental process that requires intensive work, patience and investment.


National Social Dialogue

A robust social dialogue process is urgently required to deal with the many multi-faceted and integrated challenges that Ireland faces. These challenges will not be resolved overnight, but real progress can be made through a social dialogue process where current and future challenges can be addressed in a positive manner, and where all stakeholders are included in the decision-making process.

The Community and Voluntary Pillar provides a mechanism for social dialogue that should be engaged with by Government across the range of policy issues in which the Pillar’s members are deeply involved. All aspects of governance should be characterised by transparency and accountability. Social dialogue contributes to this. We believe governance along these lines can and should be developed in Ireland.

If Government is serious about our long-term wellbeing, about securing our public finances in a changed world, de-carbonising the economy, transforming our energy sector and preparing for digital and technological transformation then it needs a structure that would engage all sectors at a national level. Reforming governance and widening participation must remain a key goal. An increased recognition of the need to include all stakeholders in the decision-making process is needed. A deliberative decision-making process, involving all stakeholders and founded on reasoned, evidence-based debate is required. To secure a new Social Contract, participation by various sectors of society is essential. One component of real participation is recognition that everyone should have the right to participate in shaping the society in which they live and the decisions that impact on them. In the 21st century this involves more than voting in elections and referenda. Ireland needs real, regular and structured deliberative democracy to ensure that all interest groups and all sectors of society can contribute to the discussion and the decision-making on the kind of society Ireland wishes to build. 


Promote Deliberative Democracy

There is a renewed appreciation of the importance of participation. The OECD Framework for Measuring Well-Being and Progress as well as a Well-Being Framework for Ireland both consider civil engagement as a key indicator. In the OECD measure, Stakeholder Engagement “reflects how different stakeholders can participate in the development of new laws and regulatory standards….. 17 countries have listed examples of their policies and Ireland is not one of them” so much more work needs to be done.

The publication in February 2023 of “A Guide for Inclusive Community Engagement in Local Planning and Decision Making” aims to “enhance the capacity of Local Community Development Committees (LCDCs) to engage marginalised groups in Local Economic and Community Planning (LECP) processes” will hopefully see those seldom heard having a say in local decision making.

The democratic process would also benefit from the development of a new social contract against exclusion and in favour of a just society. This contract would include a forum for dialogue on civil society issues. Short-term initiatives such as the Presidents Ethics Initiative, the Constitutional Convention and Citizens Assembly are welcome but need to be main streamed and reach all sections of Irish Society.

Social Justice Ireland welcomed the appointment of the National Economic and Social Council (NESC), whose role is to advise the Taoiseach on strategic policy issues relating to sustainable economic, social and environmental development. The annual National Economic Dialogue is also a useful model to share the perspectives of civil society, Government and the various sectors of society on key budgetary issues. However, a single event is inadequate and does not allow for a broader discussion on the interplay between economic and social issues.

2022 saw the first National Civic Forum take place which Social Justice Ireland has long called for. The key will be ensuring its relevance and that it connects to the growing debate at European level around civil society issues. There are many issues such a forum could address including the meaning of citizenship in the 21st Century, the shape of the social model Ireland wishes to develop; how to move towards a low carbon sustainable future and so on. 

Policy Proposals 

  • Adequately resource the Public Participation Network (PPN) structures for participation at Local Authority level and ensure capacity building is an integral part of the process.

  • Promote deliberative democracy and a process of inclusive social dialogue to ensure there is real and effective monitoring and impact assessment of policy development and implementation using an evidence-based approach at local and national level.

  • Resource an initiative to identify how a real participative civil society debate could be developed and maintained.