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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Number 214: November 2013

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Seanad: The people have spoken ...or have they?

The turnout in the referendum to abolish the Seanad in the Republic was low, just under 40%, but of those that voted a slight majority opposed the move. And it was also clear, from the general debate and the result, that if the Seanad was to be retained then people very much favoured reform. As to what that should entail, well, it is back to the drawing board. The people have spoken, sort of, and Enda Kenny’s probably not very well thought out proposals got a drubbing. So it looks like a good day for democracy in the Republic but with a long, long way to go.

However we are mystified as to why the complex issue of democratic representation at the highest level, or the next to highest level, should be decided on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote. If asked the simple question ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ then it is reasonable to expect a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, but even in this case the respondent can be uncertain, prefer a herbal tea, water, want to wait for a while, or not want one but feel culturally awkward about saying so. If asked the question about what governmental structures you would like, can you honestly and realistically represent your views with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to a question which is not necessarily the one you want to be asked?

There are much more sophisticated mechanisms around in asking people’s views on a variety of options. On the issue of the Seanad, it could have been that the proposal which received most support in such a consultation with the people would have been that the Seanad should be retained, with certain kinds of reforms which would have been specified (e.g. less party control, more democratic election, smaller number of senators etc). But we cannot say precisely. And that is part of the problem. Reducing complex political matters like this, or complex political and moral matters like abortion, to a binary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is a ridiculous over-simplification.

We would also argue that a more sophisticated decision-making system would encourage democratic debate and involvement, as well as voting. If we know the option that we prefer is going to be included in the exercise we are much more likely to participate than if the options given are ones on which we may at best be lukewarm about. There is a problem about party political democracy in Ireland which needs addressed (we define democracy in a much wider way to include many aspects of civil society action). In the Republic the crisis came partly from the failure of the structures in place to curb the boom or prevent or deal with the bust. In the North, the current system has failed to provide purposeful government, being unable to decide on important issues.

There was also more than a whiff of a power grab about the move to abolish the Seanad; a power grab by Fine Gael today, the longer term beneficiaries being whatever party or parties, and their leaders, happened to be in power. Would Dáil committees, picking up the slack from the abolition of the Seanad, have exercised the same restraint as the Seanad? Would the same variety of voices been raised in objection to, or analysing, particular proposals? Unlikely. It is no wonder that some prominent peace activists came out in favour of a ‘no’ vote, thinking of the lack of restraint on the government if the elite moved to a more pro-NATO militarist position.

Such a voting mechanism as the Modified Borda Count (MDC, see ) is the way to go in deciding on such issues, whether at a larger group or national level. All the options are listed in a way which is acceptable to those who would support a particular position - otherwise the wording can be given in such a way that turns people against a particular item. To maximise the power of an individual’s vote they vote on all the options in order of choice. The result is a much more sophisticated – and clear – indication of where people stand on a matter. Sinn Féin defended their campaign for a ‘yes’ vote on the basis that they took that stand following the failure of their campaign for Seanad reform. A voting mechanism like the Modified Borda Count would have allowed those taking the position of Sinn Féin (either as part supporters or those simply agreeing with the same position) to clearly indicate the order of their preferences.

Of course the result may be more complex in terms of what it represents, and what needs to be done, but it avoids the over-simplicity and sometimes crass stupidity of a yes/no dichotomy. Even if it was the ‘yes’ campaign to abolishing the Seanad that came in at 51.7% and the ‘no’ campaign at 48.3% (the situation reversed to the actual vote), could that have been understood as a democratic mandate to end the Seanad? Certainly not, it would be crass majoritarianism to assume so (the idea that an arithmetic majority of any size can do what it wants).

If democracy is to become stronger and be meaningful in the 21st century it needs to evolve. Current definitions of democracy are woefully inadequate, allowing, for example, the government to pander to US interests on Shannon airport against the wishes of the Irish people (see opinion poll on – this was also covered in NN 213). Introducing a more sophisticated mechanism for referendums is one easy way for democracy and democratic debate to be advanced – it is not the only thing needed, but it is necessary, and North of the border as well (not that referendums have the same position North of the border). And, while that is happening, a similar system could be introduced for elections, both for constituencies and for electing positions within parliaments.

We are still living with nineteenth century definitions of democracy. The world has moved on. Our definitions of democracy need to evolve and so too do our electoral and governmental systems. Such systems are only one aspect of democracy – we would emphasise especially a vibrant civil society – but they are important, and the arena of ‘democracy’ that most people tend to look think about first.

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Will We Learn To Care In Time?

“She couldn’t go out in Paris without spending money like water. It was the only way she knew of filling the emptiness of her life, the only way in which she could achieve, not happiness, perhaps, but, at least a sort of drugged, besotted state of contentment.”

One would be forgiven for thinking that this was written sometime in the last 50 years. In was in fact penned 86 years ago by the French novelist Francois Maurice. (‘Therese’, 1927, p.166) This was before the emergence in affluent societies of a new demographic, young people without family responsibilities but with disposable income, before the manufacture of consumer goods designed for an exceedingly short life-span, and before consumer advertising based on psychological research. (‘The Hidden Persuaders’, Vance Packard, 1957)

Shopping as a means of escape from problems, a dull existence, as entertainment or to acquire tags of identity has a long pedigree. Archaeological research shows that the desire for objects, in particular those that designate one’s place in the social hierarchy or express existential meaning can be traced to the Upper Palaeolithic period. The 2013 archaeological dig at Drumclay crannog in County Fermanagh revealed that for 1,000 years, from the 6th to the 16th century, people took time out from hunting and farming in a challenging environment to craft beautiful objects and beautify everyday utilities. (BBC News, Northern Ireland, 8th March 2013.) We also know that many ancient civilizations collapsed through the degradation of their local environment in the effort to build and maintain monuments, infrastructure and extravagant life-styles. (‘Collapse’, Jared Diamond, 2005)

Given the history it would seem that the desire to have, without regard to the carrying and healing capacity of the biosphere is part of our DNA. If so, human extinction by our own hand is a real possibility. (‘Climate Matters’, John Broome, 2012, p.178) As things stand there is no where on Earth that has not been affected in a profoundly negative way by our avarice and ignorance. Correl reefs are dying, glaciers are melting, the oceans have become acidified, primary forests are felled and burnt, flora and fauna are becoming extinct at an alarming rate, fertile soil is buried under concrete and tarmac, and the amount of greenhouse gasses we pump into the atmosphere show no sign of decline. Severe weather conditions have become the norm. As I write huge fires raging in the Blue Mountains in Australia have encroached on the western suburbs of Sydney. The city is covered by a blanket of smoke and ash is raining down. (‘The Guardian’, Oliver Laughland, 26th October 2013)

In spite of our awareness of the damage our consumer culture is having on the ability of the planet to sustain life we act as if we do not care about suffering, destruction and extinction. Evidence for this lies in that governments and the global economic system are wholly committed to the use of fossil fuels and the consumer culture. (‘The Guardian’, Climate Change, p 21, 21st September 2013) Governments through the taxation system, and corporations by way of paying employees less than a living wage while paying managers more than one could meaningfully spend in a life-time, penalise the poor and reward the rich. If education means knowledge it won’t save us.

We may, however, save ourselves and other life-forms by caring. Although it is evident that we have a capacity to be enormously destructive, callous and unjust, history shows that we can change in positive and radical ways. Change begins in the mind. It is the result of conceptualization, followed by dedicated practice, out of which cultural norms take root. As reported in ‘New Scientist’, 5th October 2013, archaeologists have reason to believe that:

“The human mindset began to change before the economy changed.”... That “‘conceptual domestication’ of certain – largely herd – animals was already part of people’s thinking long before they began to drive and corral actual animals.” (p.39)

In other words we can create what we conceive within the realm of what is scientifically possible. This means environmental sustainability, well-being and economic and social justice for all can be achieved. The question is, will we learn to care enough before our planet is rendered inhospitable for human and other life-forms.

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