In February 2023, the Women’s Policy Group launched the ‘Where’s Our Democracy?’ campaign, which is a campaign focused on improving the quality of democracy in Northern Ireland by restoring the spirit of the Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement and achieving stable, functioning government in the long term. Currently, Northern Ireland does not have a stable, functioning government. Rather, the people of Northern Ireland have been stuck in a perpetual cycle of political collapse and are frequently without democratic representation, due to political decisions that they have no control over.
In 1998, 71% of people in Northern Ireland voted in favour of the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement and expressed their support for the establishment of a devolved power-sharing government in Stormont. 2023 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Agreement, and yet, 25 years on, many of the commitments made in the Agreement are outstanding. For example:
- Bill of Rights
- NI Civic Forum
- The right of women to full and equal political participation
- The protection and vindication of human rights for all
- A democratically elected Assembly capable of exercising executive and legislative authority
The ‘Where’s Our Democracy?’ campaign is calling for the urgent re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive and long-term stability for our democratic institutions, in the spirit of the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement. This includes ensuring that the people of Northern Ireland have stable democratic representation and government institutions that actively work to uphold the principles and values of democracy. This includes upholding and strengthening human rights and equality protections for all people.
This campaign was established in February 2023, approximately a year after the most recent government collapse, following disagreements over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The DUP called for a renegotiation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which came in the form of the Windsor Framework in March 2023. However, despite addressing several issues relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Windsor Framework will pass through the Houses of Parliament without the DUP’s support, as the Framework was not enough to convince them to go back into government. This means that the people of Northern Ireland will remain without democratic representation, with no indication of when the Executive might be re-established.
As the Windsor Framework is soon to become law and take effect in Northern Ireland, it is worth analysing the Framework for potential impacts on our society. To date, there has been much analysis of the promises and pitfalls of the Framework, including the issue of the Stormont Brake. The Stormont Brake was seemingly included in the Framework as a way to reassure the Northern Ireland parties that they will still have a say over whether new or updated EU laws will apply in Northern Ireland. In contrast to the existing ‘petition of concern’ mechanism; to use it, 30 MLAs must demonstrate that the law change in question will have a serious and lasting impact on the community they represent, and that they are working in good faith towards the maintenance of the devolved institutions. Additionally, the Stormont Brake cannot be used as a veto. Rather, where concerns are raised by 30 MLAs, this mechanism refers the issue to the British government who must then decide on the validity of the issue and negotiate with Brussels to find a resolution.
From the perspective of the ‘Where’s Our Democracy?’ campaign, this is reassuring as it means the Stormont Brake cannot be used frivolously and cause constant delay and frustration within our government institutions. It also means that parties have a meaningful way to signal and address serious issues that may arise out of the democratic deficit we will experience now that the UK has left the EU. This reassurance, however, does not mean that the institutions will be restored, nor indeed do we know how stable the institutions will be if and when they are restored.
For this reason, the ‘Where’s Our Democracy?’ campaign extends beyond simply calling for the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive. Even if the Assembly is restored, we must maintain pressure on our elected officials to ensure that the institutions are reformed to ensure stability and meaningful accountability for citizens.
The Women’s Policy Group have established a working sub-group to co-ordinate the campaign and held an online launch event on 27th February 2023. As part of this launch, the Women’s Policy Group published a ‘Where’s Our Democracy?’ Charter which aims to gather signatures of those who agree with the key aims of the campaign and our vision for improving the state of democracy in Northern Ireland.
The ‘Where’s Our Democracy?’ Charter can be accessed on the WRDA website.
If you agree with the objectives of our campaign, you can sign the ‘Where’s Our Democracy?’ Charter.