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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Issue 172: September 2009

Democratic definitions and deficits

“You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, "Why not?"

- George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950), "Back to Methuselah" (1921), part 1, act 1.

Some people are surprised at the low percentage of people who vote in some, Western, elections. The question is then asked whether people simply do not value democracy. The answer is, largely, that people do not see the value of voting (and governments only have so much power, particularly in relation to economics and large corporations). Some political activists see other important things to be doing. The bigger question, hidden in plain sight, is “what is democracy?” and how important or unimportant are the right to vote and other democratic rights.

The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland introduced safeguards in terms of voting within the Northern Ireland Assembly on contentious issues, to ensure cross-community support, as well as using the d’Hondt system for electing/selecting ministers and posts. This fact notwithstanding, in neither Northern Ireland nor the Republic has the definition of democracy, as such, advanced much beyond the nineteenth and early twentieth century take on it; it is still fairly much ‘majority rule’ with a tokenistic mention of minority rights. Proportional representation (PR-STV) may exist for most elections, North and South; this does give a fairer distribution of seats than the appalling system used in the UK for parliamentary elections (‘first past the post’) but PR is certainly not perfect. In the twenty-first century this is inadequate; we need to move on in both democratic theory and practice if we are to be true to democratic ideals and to really involving people in a meaningful way (e.g. participation in elections is declining).

At the moment politicians can ignore the will of the people and the only check on them is the following election (aside from referenda in the Republic – see below). Some people would say ‘we elect the government to govern – let them get on with it’, and also ‘the government have to be prepared to take tough decisions which popular opinion might not go with’. The first of these views represents an antiquated view of democracy; ‘they’ govern, ‘we’ are governed. The second is certainly true – but ‘taking tough decisions’ may not mean taking the right decisions. Was Tony Blair’s decision for the UK to go to war in Iraq ‘right’? Certainly not, in a situation where it is quite clear a large proportion of the population actively opposed such a war, the majority were correct, the government was badly wrong. Is the Fianna Fail handling of the banking crisis through NAMA, at the moment, ‘right’? Very debateable.

The Republic has a written constitution which requires a majority of those voting to approve changes, and this means that adults are consulted on some big issues. But the way these issues are framed into simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ options is so simplistic as to be laughable. How can you reduce complex issues such as abortion, or indeed the Lisbon Treaty, to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers? It can be done but it so distorts the issue, and gives such a blunt answer, as to be relatively meaningless as a representative response from the electorate. These referenda are also conducted on the basis of “50% + 1”, which again makes the ‘answer’ a travesty of meaningful consultation and a failure to respect people’s democratic views. And, as we have seen in relation to Nice and Lisbon treaties, if the people give the ‘wrong’ answer then the government simply keeps asking the question again until the people get it ‘right’.

The answer, or partial answer, in this regard is to introduce a consensus voting system, such as the Modified Borda Count (see Peter Emerson’s article in NN 169 and also or preferendum. This gets out all the options and, through a voting system which rewards people making a choice on all options, delivers the answer which has the broadest possible support across society. Not only is it giving a more sophisticated answer, it also delivers a more sophisticated debate – it is not a question of answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but of deciding what you consider to be the best possible options. The same kind of system (Quota Borda System) can be used for electing public representatives at all levels as well.

An objection from some radicals may be that such a system will prevent change because of the difficulty of getting society agreed on the changes needed. While there is an element of truth in this there is simply no other way to go except to take people with us. That is what democracy is about. It also does not prevent us acting in other democratic ways (see further in this editorial). And so far as electing politicians are concerned, Margaret Thatcher simply could not have introduced the radical right-wing changes she implemented from 1979 onwards with such a system in place; she was elected with a minority of the electorate supporting her. With a more consensual voting system in place, the result would have been very different and so, indeed, would have been UK history.

Thus far we have spoken about electoral and decision making politics; equally important are human and civil rights, without which democratic voting mechanisms are very empty and meaningless. The whole structure of civil society, from community, voluntary and pressure groups, which form the bedrock of citizen engagement with society, are an essential part of the democratic jig-saw, a particularly colourful part of the patchwork of democracy. We, in peace, human rights, green, and solidarity groups, will continue to work for what we passionately believe in. None of this would negate our work. Indeed, in relation to a variety of issues like the Lisbon Treaty, it would actually move the debate onwards in a more meaningful way because the government in the Republic could not simply take a simplistic second bite at getting the answer they wanted. In a very meaningful way, pressure groups of various kinds are the conscience of society; people who feel strongly enough on an issue are the essence of democracy. Again, grouping together in such a way does not make us ‘right’, but the ability to do so, and the ability to create a debate on the issues with a view to change, is one of the most fundamental rights of all. Any definitions of democracy must include this whole element.

Within the EU, and a large structure like the EU, there is the larger question of what ‘democracy’ is like and about. What is possible in such a structure? The answer must be that we should expect no less from such a structure than we do from our national structures. Of course there is greater complexity through greater numbers, more widely diverging cultures and viewpoints, but why can the people of the EU not be consulted in the same way on issues? The current centralising, militarising tendencies of the EU could well be checked by such citizen democracy. And it would enable people throughout the countries of the EU to feel that they are being consulted and involved in a real way, thus bringing the EU closer to its citizens – a supposed but totally neglected aim currently. But whether the powers that be within the EU could possibly agree to such citizen democracy would remain to be seen.

A second Lisbon referendum is arriving in the Republic, on 2nd October. There are some who have been persuaded that the additional guarantees to the Republic, on Irish neutrality, tax, and ethical issues, mean they can vote ‘yes’ this time. But the broader questions remain about EU centralism and developing militarism (and common military ‘defence’ under Lisbon), and about the economic neo-liberalism which is at the heart of so much of the EU’s policies in this area. The people of France and the Netherlands previously rejected the EU constitution, an earlier form of the Lisbon Treaty, as did the people of the Republic. To press on with such a project in this situation is the most reprehensible negation of democracy. While the Republic would be lambasted by pro-EU factions for voting ‘no’ a second time, it would certainly be in the service of democracy throughout the EU because it would create a more radical heart-searching about the direction the EU is travelling. The appropriate response is to go back to the drawing board. By voting ‘no’ a second time the Republic would be delivering one small voice for meaningful democracy beyond centralism.

Our definitions of democracy are sadly dated. Our democratic infrastructure is quite threadbare. And yet some people still wonder why people do not engage with ‘politics’ (totally aside from any questions about political corruption which has coloured people’s views); this often ignores the fact that people at grass-roots level, and in voluntary and pressure groups of all kinds, are engaged in politics with a small ‘p’. ‘Party’ politics should not be allowed to think it is the only ‘politics’ in town. It is time to move on. This is the twenty-first century. We need twenty-first century responses to the issues we face today, and twenty-first century definitions, not something lightly dusted off from the nineteenth century. This should apply at every level, from our local council through to the EU and beyond.

- - - - - -

Eco-Awareness Eco-Awareness

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Lost skills and attitudes

As old photographs show Ireland has changed significantly over the past 50 plus years. The Ireland of thatched cottages, donkeys laden with turf and car-free roads have long gone, as are the days when school children would get permission from their teacher to be absent from class in order to pick potatoes. Gone are the days when our apples came from Armagh, our shirts from L/Derry and our Corgi cars were made in England. Many remembering hard times will say those were not the good old days, but the bad old days we are better off without.

It is true that a great deal that characterised Ireland, north and south, during most of the twentieth century is better left in the past. However, as a growing global population confronts a world affected by climate change, collapsing eco-systems marked by massive soil erosion, the death of the seas, the depletion of fresh water from glaciers and aquifers and the catastrophic loss of tropical rainforests, many of the skills that our grandparents would have taken for granted will be lauded and considered essential for survival.

These skills enabled people to live self-sufficient lives rooted in community. Fifty years ago, people who had never been to school could build their own home, thatch a roof, make sturdy furniture, plant crops as well as harvest and process the produce. They could dig wells, generate electricity, tend animals, hunt and fish, mend bicycles, and darn clothes. A trip by car to Dunnes or Tesco to buy a loaf of bread, a TV dinner or a pot of jam was unheard of. Equally unheard of was throwing one bag of food out of every three we buy into the bin. Such are the differences in life today that if a person from 50 years ago who had not experienced the transition in technology and attitudes were to return, they would suffer cultural shock.

One of the things that would surprise them is that although a 12-year old is likely to be computer literate they can’t put a name to birds in their own garden, can’t tell the difference between the harmful and harmless berries growing in the hedgerows and are not likely to have ever seen crops growing in a field. In other words, if the national electricity grid were to collapse they and their parents would not know how to survive. If living in a city they would not be able to do such basic tasks as harvest water to flush the toilet. In fact it is likely that a great many houses in Northern Ireland don’t even have a bucket.

Our friend from the past would observe that although we are technologically literate we don’t know how to mend things when they break or malfunction. In fact, most of us don’t have a clue how the things we use actually work. Our friend is likely to consider our idea of progress an illusion, most especially in not having the skills to meet our daily needs in the event of the eco-collapse we as a society are making little effort to avoid or prepare for.

As a new cycle of formal learning is about to begin each of us should make the effort to learn at least one new skill that will enable us to become more self-sufficient. If we do this we would likely make new friends, be richer, healthier and happier. We could even share our new skills with others, and sharing, as our friend from the past would tell us, is essential for survival.

- - - - - -


At the end of June, 21 human rights workers and journalists were seized by Israeli forces and taken off the Free Gaza boat, Spirit of Humanity, bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza; they were held for around a week. See Among those illegally imprisoned were two people from Ireland, Derek Graham and Mairead Maguire. What follows is a poem written by Mairead Maguire when she was held in prison in Israel -

Must speak!

Written by Mairead Maguire

Nobel Peace Laureate, during her incarceration in Ramle prison, Israel, July 1st, 2009:

As long as

The People of Palestine

Have no liberty, no freedom

Those of us with a voice to speak:

Must speak!

As long as

The Children of Gaza

Live in fear of Israeli

Bombs and occupation

Those of us with a voice to speak:

Must speak!

As long as

Six million Palestinian refugees

Are deportees around the world

Those of us with a voice to speak:

Must speak!

As long as

Millions of God’s Children

Are hungry, imprisoned, and without hope

Those of us with a voice to speak:

Must speak!

Because it is in speaking

We find our liberty, our freedom

And no prison bars can take away

Our peace, our love

Which is the true Spirit of Humanity!

Copyright INNATE 2021