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Billy King


Nonviolence News



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

Number 253: September 2017

[Return to the related issue of Nonviolence News]

Democracy in Northern Ireland

In many places in 'western democracies' there is a crisis with politics and its legitimacy, possibly along with a surge in right wing policies. Disenchantment with the political system in the Republic has not taken much of a further right drift but then politics has been fairly conservative anyway even with a populist slant at times. The big financial bust of 2008 has still left a sour taste in the mouth and a lasting effect for many south of the border. But in Northern Ireland the crisis with democracy is deeper and more damaging.

There are two main groupings in Northern Ireland though these days thankfully there are a significant number of 'others' who help to dilute the mix. However the fact of the matter is that the primary division dates from the 17th century Plantation of Ulster. The vast majority of those who are Protestant and whose ancestors probably came as settlers at that time are unionists of some kind. The vast majority of those who are Catholic can trace their ancestors back to the pre-existing Gaelic society in Ireland at the time of the Plantation of Ulster, and they are likely to be nationalist of some description. As the Plantation was engineered by England to take control of the northern part of Ireland by importing people of different religion, ethnicity and language to the natives, it is not surprising that the divisions have continued four centuries later.

The existence of these two ethnic tribes or blocs means that 'democracy', 'rule by the people', the demos, is infinitely more difficult than in a society where there may be various political fault lines but there is no such ethnic division. This division is a historical legacy. It can be overcome but it creates enormous barriers; people and politicians of good will can work to overcome those barriers and develop a system which minimises obstacles to effective and consensual decision-making. But people and politicians who want only their own views to prevail can make a working system almost impossible, or at best something which can derail at any moment, and there may also be simple incompatibilities which lead to breakdown. And politics in Northern Ireland is derailed at the moment.

There is also, of course, the difficulty of what is the democratic unit we are talking about in relation to Northern Ireland. Most Protestants are unionists and adhere to the concept of a United Kingdom and identify strongly as British; however they actually see the six countries of Northern Ireland as the political unit. While republicans may see the whole island of Ireland as the democratic unit, most Catholics are nationalists who are prepared, certainly at the moment, to settle for a fairly run Northern Ireland. This recognition of the existence of Northern Ireland as the unit we are talking about was also signed off in the Good Friday Agreement. Democracy in Northern Ireland, should therefore be the immediate aim, whatever longer term aspirations people may hold, for a united Ireland, a United Kingdom, or something else.

Democracy cannot adequately be described as 'majority rule' in any society because this entails the concept of a majority doing whatever it wants, however adversely that affects others or some of its own supporters. Democracy has to entail the inclusion of the concerns of minorities in decision making, and many 'normal' societies do not set a good example in this regard, unless electoral arithmetic obliges them to do so. We would argue that democracy needs to include the concerns of all in a dynamic way, not simply on occasions taking minority views into account, and in a participative and consultative manner.

So how can politics and democracy be put back on track in Northern Ireland? There are short term solutions and long term solutions. Compromise and collaboration are essential in any of them, and if the issues were easily fixed then movement would have already taken place. But the first point to be made is that 'politics' is not just about political parties; it is about participation in society and decision-making on a much broader level, it is about the involvement of civil society in structures, and it is about recognition by political parties of the role that civil society plays. After all, the fact that Northern Ireland did not 'go over the edge' completely in the Troubles was no thanks to the political parties who failed to make compromises and agreement but rather to a variety of elements in civil society who kept some of the essentials ticking over.

The second point to make is that judgements should be made proceeding from, and applying, general principles regarding human rights, popular participation, equality, non-violence and so on. Agreeing overarching principles will not solve impasses by themselves but they are essential in order to try to do so.

The third point is that thinking should be done for the long term, not just a short-term 'fix'. The Good Friday Agreement was not intended as a short term fix but it left problems in the designated system about decision making, both in making decisions and not facilitating the making of decisions, and in something like 'petitions of concern' which was used not as a one-community protection mechanism but as a simple blocking tool. And a very important part of thinking ahead is the nature of demographic change in the North; within a decade or two 'Catholics' will be in a majority, a voting majority, and it is essential to avoid the majoritarian mistakes of the past.

A fourth point is that there is no gain without pain. That pain should not be unbearable for any side and creativity needs to be used to arrive at solutions which are as much win-win as possible. Moving away from zero sum politics is a difficult act in a largely binary society like Northern Ireland. But it is not impossible and allowing people to retain their own identity, and encouraging a progressive voicing of that identity, is key. It's fine to be a loyalist or a republican or indeed a middle-of-the-roader – the question which needs answered is, "How can my identity be expressed in a way which is helpful to society and threatens no one?" And people may need help with exploring the possibilities on this.

So what does this mean in practice?

There are factors which will assist the evolution of greater democracy in the North and there are mechanisms which will contribute towards democratic decision making beyond what exist – or in some cases does not exist – at the moment. All of these should form part of a journey.

The first factor, ironically is dealing with the past. This has been, and remains, a stumbling block to inclusive political participation and more general inclusion. We have dealt with this issue numerous times before but what is necessary includes sufficient funding for cold case reviews and inquests to take place. No one narrative can be possible but one aim should be that no 'side' (using this term in a broad sense and including the British government) should be left unheard or not have its activities and stands thoroughly examined. Civil society initiatives in dealing with the past should be supported.

The second factor is clearly enunciating what democracy entails. Political parties tend to think they are 'it'. Well, they are in some circumstances but democracy is impossible without a vibrant civil society with the ability to organise, lobby and make its case both to the public at large and to politicians. Without active civil society participation in a wide range of issues and concerns, democracy can be very hollow and narrow. This is where the reintroduction of the Northern Ireland Civic Forum could play a role, not least in encouraging debate on issues as the Citizens' Assembly has been doing in the Republic, even if the latter is citizens chosen at random.

The third is building confidence in each community along with awareness of the other, but enabling appropriate cultural expression to emerge. We have difficulty with both military republican enunciations of culture and military Orange or loyalist enunciations of culture. But there is much more to Irish and British cultures than that and there are endless possibilities for more positive and healthy explorations and expressions of these. Appreciation of the positive aspects of all cultures in Northern Ireland – including relative newcomers – is necessary.

The fourth is a more ambitious community relations vision than represented by Together: Building a United Community (TBUC). To say that this is an adequate vision is myopic. Nothing less than a vision which calls for a united society and building one community should be countenanced. If you reach for the stars you may get to the moon; if you only reach for half way up Slieve Donard, well, you may just end up in the mud somewhere. We are not asking the impossible here as there needs to be achievable, measured steps; but there should be a vision which galvanises and motivates people, and the enunciation of this vision by leaders across the board so that young people are persuaded that there is something to stay for in the North. At the moment, people vote with their feet.

The fifth factor is the inculcation of a human rights culture. We often refer to the changing demographics of Northern Ireland, and the expectation of a Catholic voting majority in the not too distant future. This is one good reason for unionists, who tend to be most reluctant to demand human rights be fully enshrined in law, to back it. But the point is that a human rights culture is for everyone, irrespective of who they are or what the circumstances happen to be. This is a guarantee for the future, so that groups and individuals will be fairly treated and less likely to feel excluded and discriminated against.

The sixth is tweaking the Good Friday Agreement's institutions and mechanisms to meet the need to have effective decision making. While the system of proportional representation used in Northern Ireland Assembly elections gives a reasonable representation in terms of seats for votes cast, that and the voting system is Stormont allow republican and loyalist bastions to be build at either end of the spectrum; they may carve up power between them in order to get some of it, but this system is incapable of making many of the harder decisions without endless lack of debate and sitting on fences, as well as periodic breakdowns and crises, one of which is continuing at the moment.

Some have proposed the removal of mandatory coalition as a solution but that could be risky without the inclusion of other initiatives. The adoption of a consensus voting mechanism at Stormont, such as the Modified Borda Count, would be one way both offer protection for those who need it and decision making for everyone. The introduction of such a mechanism would require a willingness to compromise on the part of political parties, however it can be argued that more effective decision making would reflect well on them.

The new "Galvanising the Peace" document (referred to in the news section of this issue) covers in more detail some of the issues and requirements from a community relations and conflict resolution perspective in the North.

The words 'democracy' and 'Northern Ireland' are not ones which are normally considered to sit together well. Northern Ireland has already made a very significant journey away from the violence and tragedy of the Troubles. It needs to make another journey forward towards democracy, whatever that may entail for constitutional settlements in the future. Democracy is not a once-every-four-or-five years event of voting but an everyday process which requires participation from as many people as possible, and goodwill from all.

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

A second cognitive revolution needed

This autumn has seen great human suffering and environmental destruction caused by draughts, forest fires, and hurricanes of astounding strength. Many Europeans were spell-bound as they followed the developments in the build-up, occurrence and aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Hurricane Harvey caused devastation in Texas, namely through flooding. The estimated cost of the damage is $180 billion. Both Irma and Maria destroyed much of the physical infrastructure on many Caribbean islands. Irma flooded the Florida Keys and much of mainland south Florida where 6.5 million people had to evacuate. Thankfully, because of warnings and preparation the number of people killed in the hurricanes was much less than might have been expected by the 165 mph winds, twenty feet sea surges and days of persistent heavy rain. Yet there can be no doubt that of the tens of millions of people who suffered many will have been seriously traumatised.

While the hurricanes blew, forest fires raged in western Canada and the western United States. The smoke blocked the sunlight for a number of days across a great swath of both countries affecting people as far east as New York City. In Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and parts of northern India an estimated 43 million people were displaced and there were at least 1,288 deaths because of unusually heavy monsoon rains. (New Scientist, 9 September 2017) People in rural areas will not only have lost their homes but their livelihood through the death of livestock. In cases of widespread flooding water-borne diseases such as cholera are a major threat to life. Locally, on the 22nd August, floods devastated parts of Derry, Donegal and Tyrone. Although climatologists inform us that a direct link cannot be made between an extreme weather event and the warming of the planet they do say that a warming planet exasperates them. They warn that they will become more frequent and severe as the Earth continues to warm. (New Scientist, 23 September 2017)

Because of their spectacular nature and the media attention they receive extreme weather events grab the attention of even the most apathetic, self-absorbed, politically disengaged people. The warming of the planet has other devastating consequences that the human senses are not as readily attuned to such as the loss of biodiversity in the seas, forests, savannahs, and on mountain tops. The extinction of micro-organisms, which form between 60 and 90 % of the biomass on Earth and are mainly found in soil is occurring through the warming of the planet as well as the clear-felling of forests and the saturation of soils, lakes and seas with industrially produced chemicals. As every GCSE biology student knows, micro-organisms are essential to life. Their extinction goes unnoticed but to a few specialists in the field. (Extinction of microbes: evidence and potential consequences, Markus Weinbauer & Fereidoun Rassoulzadegan, Endangered Species Research, Vol 3, 205-215, published online 15 August 2007.)

We are so enmeshed in the technosphere we have largely forgotten we are organic beings, that our body, which we think of as self, is an eco-system interdependent with other eco-systems, which in turn are dependent for nurturance and survival on global cycles and processes such as temperature changes weather patterns, decay and growth. The mass realisation of this, and willingness to act accordingly, is critical to restoring the health and long-term viability of the biosphere.

Yuval Noah Harari reminds us in Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, (2014) that three important revolutions have shaped the course of history. There was the Cognitive Revolution, which occurred about 70,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution of about 12,000 years ago, and the Scientific Revolution which commenced 500 years ago. Each of these played a pivotal role in creating the world of today. Does our species have the capacity to ignite a second Cognitive Revolution, one in which we come to see ourselves as bio-beings living in a bio-world fully committed to living in an ecologically sustainable, equitable and nonviolent way? If so all is not lost in preventing the collapse of biosphere. The i, 19 September 2017, reports that:
"research in the journal Nature Geoscience has concluded that pursuing the 1.5 C goal is not an "impossibility", although it will require tougher action than agreed under the 2015 Paris deal."

In regard to biodiversity, Charles Massy, an Australian farmer and self-confessed biophilia who did a PhD on human ecology is reported in The Guardian, 22 September 2017, as saying.

"One of the big ideas I discovered … was … that our natural complex systems will self-organise themselves back to health."

In other words if we resolve to live in an ecologically sustainable way in the present the final apocalypse can be avoided.

There are models of environmental education which could be the catalyst for a second Cognitive Revolution. An Irish initiative is the Cool Planet Experience, supported by among others the Environmental Protection Agency. The aim is to train and support a climate change advocate in each county in Ireland who will raise awareness about climate change with the aim of spurring behavioural change. As part of the educational initiative the Cool Planet Experience will open a visitor interactive experience centre in Powerscourt Estate, County Wicklow in 2018. The revolutions mentioned by Yuval Noah Harari took centuries. A second Cognitive Revolution needs to happen in the present, inclusive of the coming few years, and every one of us has to be a part of it. This requires that we let go of inertia and 'the no hope mentality' and be the good eco-citizens we know we should be.

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