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What's new

Nonviolence News February 2017

Children and Conflict poster series

Editorials: Northern Ireland political swamp, Holding the nerve

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: Through the prism of narratives

Readings in Nonviolence: Refugee stories by Máiréad Collins

Billy King: Rites Again





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

Issue 135: December 2005

Also in this editorial:

The price of peace

We hope and pray that the four peace activists currently held as hostages in Iraq will be released unharmed. For example, the British hostage, Norman Kember, actively opposed the war in Iraq and does not support the USA's and UK's policies in Iraq, so those who hold him and the others should have no cause to hold or harm them. But in that kind of situation it can be the case that 'anyone' will do as a hostage or a target ' just as paramilitaries in Northern Ireland often targeted those who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and resultantly at times killed 'their own'.

The four men held - Tom Fox, James Loney, Harmeet Sooden and Norman Kember - are associated with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) which, ironically given the current situation, has been involved in Iraq since 2002 and has, among other things, worked to document ill-treatment of detainees. The slogan on the CPT website asks the question 'What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?' But this is not just a question for Christians, and an organisation like Peace Brigades International works in other risky situations, providing nonviolent accompaniment to those at risk of attack.

Sometimes those who support nonviolent and peaceful solutions to violent conflicts are accused of being na‹ve and not taking risks. At times there is truth in this but there are also those who are fearless in their defence of justice. The four people being held fit this description and it is to be hoped that their courage will be rewarded with release. It was courage and not foolhardiness which took them to Iraq, the opposite of the policies of the governments of the USA and UK of which two or them are citizens (the other two are Canadian).

Peace does not require that everyone takes such risks but it does require that some do. There are many different roles which concerned people can play in violent situations and conflict-torn countries, or in support from outside the situation, and a wide variety of organisations are trying to develop such responses. There are always risks in such situations of being the person in the wrong place at the wrong time; being taken hostage means that there is still hope that those holding them will release them, realising that their aim is to work for justice and that they are not involved in the war being fought by the UK and USA and in fact are there to ameliorate the effects of that war.

Running away
The current policies of the British government, backed by the Irish government, regarding 'On the Runs' or fugitives from justice, and people not yet charged with Troubles-related crimes, are not the wisest possible, for a number of reasons. But in the reality of peace processes, some trade offs are necessary between 'peace' and 'justice'; the crunch point is where you draw the line. In the current proposals, those facing charges in the North would go before a special judicial tribunal, be sentenced but immediately released on licence; in the Republic, the process would involve a presidential pardon.

What should be the public response to the fact that someone is accused of a Troubles-related crime now as opposed to before 'the agreement?' Yes, the war is over and therefore the states can afford to be lenient in an atmosphere where leniency has already been shown to so many. But those in prison in 1998 still had to wait for a couple of years to be released, and be released on licence, i.e. an ongoing probationary situation which meant that returning to involvement in violence would mean a return to prison. Those in exile may have paid a penalty in having to live away from home, but those not already charged have paid no such penalty.

Not surprisingly, victims groups in the North have reacted angrily to the proposals. What is more disturbing from a civil liberties viewpoint is that those who committed crimes while in the service of the state will also be eligible for the schemes. So soldiers and police who were meant to upholding the law but broke it in the most callous way will be eligible in the same way as those who were involved in violence from a loyalist or republican standpoint; those who served the state will be held no more accountable by that same state than those who opposed it.

One of the problems in the Northern Ireland situation is that, given the nature of the Troubles and killings coming more from non-state than state sources, there cannot be a simple truth and reconciliation process because those involved cannot be compelled to be involved. If we did have such a general process, fully involving all parties and with all baring their souls and their deeds and misdeeds, the process envisaged might well make sense. Action is needed to resolve the situation of 'on the runs' but both Northern and Southern proposals need some modification including release on licence rather than pardon in the Republic, and the exclusion of state servants from the scheme in the North.

- - - - - - -
Larry Speight brings us his monthly column:

A Local Biodiversity Action In Fir Manach (County Fermanagh)

At the end of November the Ulster Wildlife Trust in Conjunction with Fermanagh Local Council lunched the Fermanagh Local Biodiversity Action Plan in the Clinton Centre in Enniskillen. This is a three-year project to help conserve, preserve and enhance the biodiversity of the county. The keynote speaker was Professor Chris Baines, a noted environmentalist and broadcaster. Baines, speaking with passion and humour, explained biodiversity in holistic terms. He said that it is about:

  • Working with nonhuman nature rather than against it
  • Making use of local labour, skills and resources
  • Having a sense of place
  • Consuming less
  • Politics: persuading and prioritizing

The promotion of biodiversity is a win-win situation for people and eco-systems, locally and globally. This is illustrated by the fact that buying local food not only benefits local farmers but leads to a reduction in the distance food travels, and thus a saving in the emission of gasses that cause global warming. The more organic food that is bought, the less harmful chemicals are used on the land, which benefits biodiversity. Organic food also means less mechanization and more labour.

Baines said that the success of local biodiversity action plans, and there are many throughout Ireland and the UK, depends on two things. The first is environmental education, which in a rural county like Fermanagh must include the farming community. The second is marketing the quality of life benefits that arise out of healthy bio-rich eco-systems, as well as local distinctiveness. This inevitably means eco and cultural tourism. The danger in marketing a place, as Baines pointed out, is that people often destroy what they come to see and enjoy.

One of the more interesting questions asked of Baines was how to educate people about environmental issues. He said that trying to get an audience to come to you does not work. That one must go to where people want to be. The problem with this suggestion is that today people want to be supermarkets and shopping malls, which are not public spaces in the town square sense of the word, and one cannot do anything in them other than shop and eat. The last thing the corporations who own these complexes want is someone asking potential customers to buy less and shop with a conscience.

Chris Baines gave an inspiring talk. The one important thing the event lacked was the opportunity for members of the audience to interact with each other, share ideas and pool resources to the end promoting biodiversity and eco-sustainable living.

Consensus decision-making, in small and large groups
by Peter Emerson

Consensus can be achieved, either verbally, and/or votally, or should I say, both verbally and votally.

But first, a few facts.


The 2,500-year-old majority vote is the most inaccurate measure of collective opinion ever invented. One of the most accurate measures, in contrast, is a combined Borda/Condorcet count.

Majority voting is based on closed questions, ‘Option A, yes or no?’ or ‘Option A versus Option B?’ More accurate methodologies use open, or multi-optional questions.

Any use of a majority vote - whether simple, weighted, qualified or consociational – tends to suggest the question is dichotomous. Yet most questions, if asked correctly, are multi-optional. For example, the question should not be, “Hanging, yes or no?” but rather, “How shall we deal with the convicted murderer?” Another question, George Bush’s “Are you with me or against me?” was blatant manipulation – or worse. And closer to home, the stark choice of “NI in a United Kingdom or a united Ireland?” would be better replaced by a more multi-optional approach. (There is perhaps one political question which is two-optional: which side of the road shall we drive on? Yet the only country ever to hold a referendum on this topic actually had three options on the ballot paper!1 ) Some countries do use multi-option voting: Sweden in her parliament, for example, and New Zealand, one of many, in multi-option referendums.

The majority vote is a means by which he – it’s usually a he – by which he who writes the motion thereby dominates the agenda; little wonder, then, that majority voting has been used by Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Duvalier, Pinochet, Khomeini and many other “democratic dictators”, so that they could get their way.

Furthermore, the majority vote and/or a belief in majoritarianism has often been a cause of war. This was true in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, to name but two recent tragedies.

Finally, a majority vote cannot measure consent; it is, of course, the very opposite, a measure of dissent, so many ‘for’, and so many ‘against’.


Consensus can be facilitated by means of open questions and multi-option preference votes. Such, after all, is the basis of conflict resolution work. Whether the problem is between domestic partners or warring nations, mediators invariably rely on open questions, so to identify the options; in the second stage, they collate all of these options and propose others; and finally, they identify that option which receives the highest average preference – and an average, of course, involves not just a majority but, literally, everybody. This last step of identifying the most acceptable option can be done verbally, in a rather protracted process of shuttle diplomacy. Or it can be done votally, via a multi-option preference vote under the rules of a modified Borda count. A number of steps are involved.

a) Allow all (and/or their representatives) to participate, under the guidance of independent consensors.

b) Allow all parties to forward a proposal (as long as it conforms to some agreed norm like the UN Charter on Human Rights); the consensors will collate these proposals into one balanced list of options, with composites if need be, and display this list (on a computer screen).

c) Allow for a full debate; any new ideas arising from the debate, the consensors will add to their list of options… and if any unanimous view suggests that a certain option may be removed, they will comply.

d) If, at the end of the debate, only one option remains, this may be regarded as the verbal consensus (though few outside observers will know the degree of consensus). If, instead, a number of options remain – and if the topic is contentious, there will invariably be quite a few options remaining – the chair should first verify that all parties agree that their particular proposals have been taken on board, either verbatim or in composite, and then ask all to proceed to a vote.

e) The consensors’ final task is to count the vote. If the outcome is an option with a very high average preference score, it may be termed a unanimous viewpoint. If the winning outcome has a smaller score, it may be regarded as the common consensus or at least the best possible compromise.

Consider, for a moment, a five-option debate, with the five options A, B, C, D and E. If everyone gives option B, say, their 1st preference, B will get the highest possible outcome, an average preference score of 1. If everyone gives option A their last or 5th preference, then A will get the worst possible average preference score, in this instance, 5. And if everyone gives option D their 3rd preference, or if 50% give D a 2nd preference and the other 50% give it a 4th preference, then D will get an average preference score of 3, the mean.

The chances, in real life, of everyone, collectively, giving every option the exact mean score of 3, is just about zilch. Something will always be above the mean, and something else below.2 “The Borda count always gives a definite result.”3 If, in such a five-option example, the winning option gains an average preference score greater than 1.5, then, as above, we may talk of unanimity. If the winning score is about 2, the outcome can be said to represent the common consensus. If, again, it is nearer 2.5, then it’s the best possible compromise. And if it is only 2.9, then it’s very close to the mean, and so must be everything else, in which case the debate should be resumed.

No matter what the result, however, any use of this voting procedure will ensure that all concerned know the exact degree of consensus. And transparency, after all, is a vital part of consensus, democracy, and mutual understanding.

1 Defining Democracy, p 11.
2 In some instances, not everyone will wish to submit a full ballot, in other words, not everyone will want to express a preference on all five options. In which case, the modified Borda count (or preferendum, as it used to be called) should be used, so to cater for such instances of partial voting.
3 International Political Science Review, Vol 23, No 4, p 358.

Peter Emerson
The de Borda Institute

- - - - - -
Glossary of voting
All the definitions shown in this glossary are taken from Defining Democracy, ISBN 0 9506028 8 4, which was published by THE DE BORDA INSTITUTE in 2002.

NB Items marked § are described elsewhere in this glossary. Proper names are emboldened.

Absolute majority see majority.

AMS, (additional a partially proportional electoral system based on one vote and two counts, the first under FPP§,
member system) the second, PR-list§; see also MMP.

Approval voting a voting mechanism which can be used in decision-making and/or in a (non-PR election). The voter votes for as many options/candidates as he/she wishes; each ‘approval’ has the same value, and the option/candidate with the most ‘approvals’ wins.

AV, (alternative a voting mechanism which can be used in decision-making and/or in a (non-PR) election. It is a
vote, otherwise form of preference voting where the voters vote 1, 2, 3... for their first/second/third... preferences; if in
known as single the count no option/candidate gets 50% + 1 first preferences, the least popular option /candidate is
transferable vote) eliminated and its votes are transferred according to its voters’ second preferences. The process continues until an option/candidate gets or exceeds 50% + 1. See also PR-STV.

Binary where every decision is based on a two-option, for-or-against choice, or a series of such
decision-making majority votes§.

Block vote a (non-PR) electoral system where the party which wins the majority§ or plurality§ vote thus wins all the seats. (The term “block vote” is also used to describe the vote of, for example, a trade union delegate, whose single vote may represent perhaps thousands of members whose views are not necessarily unanimous.)

Borda The Borda count or points system is a voting mechanism which can be used in decision-making and/or in a (non-PR) election, though it is more suitable in the former mode; (for its application to PR§ electoral systems, see QBS).
Where there is a choice of n-options or candidates, the voter gives n points to their most preferred option/candidate, n-1 to their next favourite, n-2 to their third choice, and so on, as he/she wishes; the winner is the option/candidate with the most points. See also modified Borda count.

Citizens' a mechanism whereby a minimum number of citizens can demand a referendum§ on a topic
initiative of their own choosing.

majority a coming together of some parliamentary parties to form a government which then commands a simple majority§ in that parliament;
all-party a power-sharing government involving all the main parliamentary parties.

Condorcet A Condorcet count or pairings vote is a voting mechanism which can be used in decision-making and/or in a (non-PR) election. The voter casts his/her preference on all options/candidates; in the count, pairs are examined separately and, in let us say a three-option contest, if option/candidate A is more popular than B and if A is more popular than C then A shall be the Condorcet winner. See also paradox.

Consensor In consensus§ decision-making, the chair or facilitator is assisted by a team of impartial consensors who recommend which voting mechanisms if any are to be used, and which options are to be included on any relevant ballot paper.

Consensus (see also level of)
verbal an agreement, usually taken after lengthy discussions and after all concerned have agreed to a compromise;
votal an agreement, usually taken when all concerned (a) accept the principle of compromise and (b) find that compromise via a multi-option (Borda§) vote.

Con- a form of government where decisions are taken by simultaneous majorities§ from both or
sociationalism all communities: from both unionist and nationalist (Northern Ireland), from both Czech and Slovak (Czechoslovakia), and so on.

Constituency A non-PR electoral system is used in a single-seat constituency, a geographical area represented by just one elected representative. In a multi-member constituency, a PR§ electoral system is used to elect two or more representatives. The word ‘constituency’ may also be used in a non-geographical sense, to describe a particular group of people who, inter alia, relate to one or more representative.

Cycle see paradox of voting.

Democracy… in theory, rule by the people, demos;
…consensual rule by as many representatives, of all political parties and none, as is feasible;
…consociational rule by an 'inter-ethnic' and/or 'cross-community' majority coalition§;
…majoritarian rule by a group which has the support of a majority§ of elected representatives.

d'Hondt see divisors.

Divisor system a rule of thumb for allocating seats according to party strengths; (see also quotas). Every party’s vote total is divided by a prescribed set of divisors to give a series of descending scores. Seats are awarded to the parties with the highest resulting scores.

Different sets of divisors give marginally different results, with d’Hondt favouring the larger parties:

d’Hondt 1 2 3 4 .......
St. Laguë 1 3 5 7 .......
modified St. Laguë 1.4 3 5 7 .......

Droop see quota.

Electorate all those eligible to vote.

FPP, (first-past- a (non-PR) electoral system where the voter casts one 'x' only. If there are only two candidates, the candidate the-post) with the majority§ of the votes is the winner; that is called a majority vote§. With three or more (a plurality§ of) candidates, the candidate with the most votes wins; in some instances, the winner does not receive an absolute majority of the votes but only the largest minority, a plurality. FPP elections with three or more candidates may also be called plurality votes§.

Franchise, the the right to vote in public elections.

Gerrymander the 'art' of fiddling constituency boundaries so that your own party benefits.

Hare see quota.

Level of When using a Borda§ or modified Borda count§, the level of consensus for a particular
consensus option is a measure of either the average preference or the average number of points which the electorate gives to that option.
The level of consensus for a particular option is calculated by dividing the total number of points cast for that option by the maximum total that it could have received; this figure is then expressed as a percentage. See also consensus.

Majoritarianism the belief in and/or practice of majority rule.

Majority (see also coalition)
…absolute 50% or more,
…consociational see consociationalism,
…qualified this is used in the EU, where different countries have different numbers of votes and where the result depends on a certain weighting,
…relative/simple may be only the biggest minority,
…weighted 2/3rds or some such other ratio greater than 1/2.

Majority vote see FPP.

Matrix vote a PR§ electoral system by which an electorate can elect a fixed number of persons to the same number of what may be very different positions. It is ideally suited for a power-sharing administration in which the parliament or assembly wishes to elect a cabinet or an executive consisting of a fixed number of ministerial posts. The matrix vote is based on a QBS§ count.

MMP (multiple- a PR§ electoral system based on two votes and two counts, the first under
member FPP§, the second, PR-list§; see also AMS.

Modified Borda a voting mechanism which can be used in decision-making or in a (non- PR) election.
count or It differs from the Borda points system§ in that it allows for partial voting, as follows:
modified points if someone casts preferences for all n options/candidates, points are awarded as in a
system Borda points system: n, n-1, n-2 etc.; if, however, the voter votes for only m options/candidates, points awarded will be m, m-1, m-2, etc..

Modified St. Laguë see divisors.

Multi-member see constituency.

Pairings see Condorcet.

Paradox of the situation which can occur in binary§ or Condorcet§ voting when there are

Voting (also more than two voters with more than two opinions and in which, for example, A is found to
known as a cycle) be more popular than B, B more popular than C, and C more popular than A. This can be written as:
A > B, B > C and C > A or
A > B > C > A > ...

Partial vote see modified Borda count.

Plebiscite is usually a referendum§ on the topic of national sovereignty.

Plurality the largest minority.

Plurality voting a voting mechanism in which the voter casts an ‘x’ only. It can be used in decision-making and/or in a (non-PR) election. In the latter instance, it is like FPP§ whenever there are three or more candidates.

Points system see Borda.

PR (proportional An electoral system which tries to ensure party candidates (and sometimes
representation) independents) are elected in proportion to the number of votes gained. PR electoral systems are used in multi-member constituencies§.

Preferendum A modified Borda count§ or modified points system of voting.

PR-list In PR-list elections, each party “lists” its candidates in its own order of priority. Seats are awarded to parties on the basis of a divisor or quota system and, if party X wins n seats, then either the most popular candidates and/or the first n names from the top of the list are deemed elected.

PR-list, closed an electoral system in which the voters vote for one party only.

PR-list, open in the three main types of open PR-list electoral systems, the electorate chooses:
i) either one party or one candidate of that party,
ii) one or more candidates of one party only,
iii) one or more candidates of one or more parties.

Profile a voters’ profile is the particular set of first and subsequent preferences which those voters expressed, or would have expressed, when or if they had voted.

PR-STV an electoral system based on AV§, although the quota§, instead of being set at approximately 50% + 1, is smaller:
approx. 33% + 1 when there are two candidates,
approx. 25% + 1 when there are three candidates,
approx. 20% + 1 when there are four candidates, and so on.
Transfers take place, not only from candidates eliminated, but also from those elected with a surplus over and above the quota. PR-STV constituencies§ usually have from 3 to 6 elected representatives.

QBS (Quota a PR§ electoral system which is based on a modified Borda count§. The electorate
Borda System) votes by casting preferences; any candidate gaining the quota§ is elected; otherwise, any pair of candidates getting the quota is 'elected', the seat going to the one with the higher Borda§ score; and if seats are still to be filled, a triplet of candidates getting the quota will be deemed 'elected', with the seat going to the one with the highest Borda score.

Qualified majority see majority.

Quota a specified number of votes which, if attained, ensures the election of the candidate concerned (see PR-STV); the most common quotas are the Hare (which is defined as the valid vote§ divided by the number of seats), and the Droop (which divides the valid vote by the number of seats plus one). (See also divisor systems.)

Referendum usually a two-option majority§ but sometimes a multi-option plurality§ or two-round§ vote by which the electorate may ‘decide’ a matter of policy.

St. Laguë see divisors.

Serial voting a decision-making voting mechanism in which options are placed in order, from, let us say, cheap to expensive, or left-wing to right-wing; a majority vote§ is taken between the two extremes and the loser is eliminated; a second vote is taken between the winner and its new extreme opposite; and the process continues until there is just one option remaining. In theory, and if people don’t change their minds between votes, the outcome will be the Condorcet§ winner.

Sincere voting In any voting procedure, a voter is said to vote sincerely when s/he votes for those options/candidates she considers to be the best, without taking any tactical§ considerations into account.

Single-peaked A voter's preferences are said to be single-peaked if, when the options are laid out on, say,
preferences a left-right axis, his/her second and subsequent preferences lie in descending order to one side and/or the other of the first preference.

STV (single another name for AV, (alternative vote).
transferable vote)

Suffrage see franchise.

Tactical voting In any voting procedure, a voter is said to vote tactically (as opposed to sincerely§) when, instead of voting for his/her preferred option or candidate, he chooses the option or candidate that may result in what he judges, in the given circumstances, to be his best possible outcome.

Threshold The threshold of an electoral system is the minimum percentage of votes required for a candidate to be elected; this is usually the logical consequence of the specific mathematics of the electoral system concerned, but there can also be a laid-down minimum of, say, 5%, as in Germany.

Top-up A top-up is the second part of an election count, applicable to some electoral systems like AMS§, in which votes are counted in a different way and/or in a bigger constituency, to ensure a greater degree of overall proportionality.

Turnout the number of people who, literally, turn out to vote; it is normally expressed as a percentage of the total electorate§.

Two-round a voting mechanism which can be used in decision-making and/or in a (non-PR) election. The
voting first round is a plurality vote§, and the second round is a majority vote§ between the two leading options/candidates from the first round. In some instances, there may be three candidates in the second round, as can happen in presidential elections in France.

Two-tier consists of two parts, with one election (which may be PR§) in small constituencies, and a
electoral system second election or top-up§ (which must be PR) in larger regional or national constituencies.

Valid vote the number of voters deemed to have handed in a proper, valid vote; this figure equals the turnout§ minus the invalid vote.

Win-win A win-win decision is one in which (nearly) everybody wins something but (almost) no-body wins everything. In other words, everyone settles on a compromise. It is the opposite of a zero-sum decision§.

Zero-sum A zero-sum decision places voters in a win-or-lose situation: some win everything they
decision want, and others lose everything.

- This glossary will also appear on the de Borda Institute website at www.deborda.org

Copyright INNATE 2014