Katy Hayward

Katy Hayward


As our first guest author in the Pivotal Platform series, Professor Katy Hayward describes the fragile state of democracy at home and abroad that accompanies the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. She argues for a re–engagement with the fundamental principles of democracy, and commends the role of Pivotal and others in the provision of information, understanding and analysis.

What makes the restored Northern Ireland Assembly unusual is not just its nationalist First Minister or its first LGBT minister. It is not only the all–female line–up in The Executive Office nor the single party taking on the role of Opposition. Nor is it the fact it comes on foot of an unconventional one party/one government talks process, and at the end of a straggly string of emergency legislation that had tacked it all together.

This Stormont is quite different from those that have come – and gone – before because it is no longer the only legislature in Europe to be sitting in clearly unhealthy democratic conditions. Twenty–five years ago, we knew democracy was vulnerable because we had experienced the repulsive horror of what went in its place. Today, our awareness of the breakable nature of democracy is shared by others, near and far. 

An era of fragile democracy 

Thus it is that the ‘global year of democracy’ (over 65 elections for over 2 billion voters) is viewed with widespread apprehension. Burgeoning authoritarianism is evident east and west. Populist parties coast near the top of opinion polls in more than half of EU member–states. European Parliament elections this June are expected to result in arrythmia in the democratic heart of the EU. That such debility will be welcomed by some member–state governments compounds the likely precarity of European democracy in the near–term.  

In the British-Irish Agreement of April 1998, the two governments stated their ‘total commitment to the principles of democracy’. Today, there is good cause to remind both of what they have committed to; indeed, such a reminder has been issued to them already. Academic studies indicate that over half the electorate are dissatisfied with the quality of democracy in the UK. We know well where such discontent can lead. 

Concern ‘about the backsliding of democratic institutions in Europe’ caused the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to adopt, in September last year, a recommendation to its 46 member states. It urged them to ‘conduct governmental action in accordance with the fundamentals of good democratic governance’, as set out in twelve principles of democracy, restated for the present day. 

The first principle is that democratic participation ‘should be effective and inclusive, including regular, free and fair elections … in conjunction with meaningful engagement by government and public institutions with those whom they serve’.

The second principle is the respect for human rights. These should ‘protect everyone and [] embody the values of fairness, dignity, equality and respect… in accordance with European and international standards’.

The third principle is respect for the rule of law, ‘thus providing everyone with legal certainty, including foreseeable law, in which everyone is treated in a dignified, equal, rational and proportional manner’.

The fourth is the observance of the ‘highest standards of public ethics and integrity.  

The fifth principle is accountability: ‘mechanisms should be in place to ensure that government, public institutions and public officials take responsibility for their actions and decisions and can be held to account.’

The sixth is to ensure openness and transparency, ‘by making the decision–making processes of government… publicly available and accessible’.

The seventh principle is the practice of ‘efficient, effective and sound administration throughout government and public institutions’.

The eighth principle is for leadership, capability and capacity in government and public institutions.

The ninth principle is responsiveness: ‘Government, public institutions and public officials should be responsive to the legitimate expectations and needs of those whom they serve’. 

The tenth principle is sound financial and economic management ‘throughout government… and by all public officials, in order to ensure…the implementation of policies that promote the well–being and prosperity of everyone’.

The eleventh principle is to maximise the sustainability of decisions taken by government, taking into account ‘their potential impact on future generations’.

Finally, the twelfth principle is openness to change and innovation among government, public institutions and public officials, ‘taking into account evolving expectations and realities and by engaging widely with others to draw on good practice and enhance knowledge’.

It is unnecessary for us to mark Northern Ireland’s scorecard here. The fact that we have topped the global charts twice over in terms of the length of time endured without a government speaks for itself. Beyond that, Pivotal’s work has highlighted many of the omissions and failures to date when it comes to upholding democratic principles here. But let’s look forward: how do we get to uphold those democratic principles, as we must?

New charade, new reproach? 

A (well–) functioning Stormont is key, but there are many institutions of democracy, and they all play their part – from the judiciary to the university. Independent research is a vital pillar in a healthy democracy. Northern Ireland needs a think tank, as Pivotal is ‘showing by doing’. Its briefing on The Return of Stormont carries the apt sub–title: ‘Time for Real Change’. It proceeds to set out the whys and wherefores of such change, in process and practice for NI governance. Such clear, informed analysis is vital. 

Pivotal’s work, together with that of others (based here and abroad), in bringing evidence and knowledge to bear on the requirements of good government in Northern Ireland equip us with the tools for accountability, openness and transparency, sound and effective administration and with necessary enlightenment to identify the needs of our democracy and how to address them. 

While threats to democracy may spread from disillusion, complacency and incivility, they become particularly dangerous when we no longer know how to find what is true or how to agree upon it. We are too close to being at that point already. We are habitually socialised in siloes and only rarely peer over the walls of our echo chambers. Our sense of collective cause is shaped more by fiery indignation or offence–taking than by civic rights and duties. 

Amid swirling conditions of confusion, the provision of information, understanding and analysis are fundamental to democratic governance. Pivotal, indeed. 

Katy Hayward MRIA FAcSS is Professor of Political Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast. She currently holds an IWM/ERSTE Stiftung Europe’s Futures fellowship.

Related blogs

Carer’s Allowance is condemning tens of thousands to poverty and despair

Carer’s Allowance is condemning tens of thousands to poverty and despair

Over the last 15 months, the Carer Poverty Commission has been examining the scale and drivers of poverty among those caring for sick or disabled family members and friends in Northern Ireland. We found that 28% of local carers are living below the poverty line, which is significantly higher than the non–carer population here (17%) and reflective of the immense extra costs and insurmountable barriers to employment that so many carers deal with day–to–day.

Read more
Reclaiming the Common Good

Reclaiming the Common Good

In Northern Ireland we have made an art form of dividing people into them and us, but as the country has changed it has become clear that we no longer have just two communities. We have at least four: nationalist, unionist, the so–called middle ground who would not designate as either, and the growing diverse community of people who were not born on the island of Ireland and who did not grow up steeped in the history and culture of orange and green.

Read more
Taking Boys Seriously: tackling compounded educational disadvantage

Taking Boys Seriously: tackling compounded educational disadvantage

Our education system in Northern Ireland is at a critical juncture. Following significant resources invested in two expert reviews – A Fair Start (2021) and Investing in a Better Future (2023) – actions are now required to bring about more equitable opportunities and outcomes, especially for the most disadvantaged learners.

Read more

This site uses cookies for general analytics but not for advertising purposes. View our privacy & cookie policy to find out more. If you continue without changing your settings, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on our website. However, you can change your cookie settings at any time.