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We have had some interesting illustrations of democracy at work, or not, over the last month including the referendum on same sex marriage in the Republic, the UK general election, and the ongoing impasse over welfare reform in the North.
The decision in the Republic to back same sex marriage – marriage equality beyond existing civil partnerships – came by a vote of over 62% - and the state is in the interesting position as the first in the world to introduce same sex marriage by popular vote (all other cases were by simple governmental decision while the constitution in Ireland required a referendum to make the change). The argument was clearly won on the basis of inclusion and equality for gay as well as straight people.
The result in the UK general election cannot be said to be very much a victory for democracy. To win a majority of seats in the House of Commons at Westminster on less than 37% of the people who voted, or under 25% of the electorate as a whole, is certainly not a good example of democracy at work. Such a critical difference between the proportion of votes and the proportion of seats is possible only because of the antique 'first past the post' electoral system which, admittedly, the UK electorate decided to retain in a half-hearted referendum in 2011. There were a lot of turkeys voting for Christmas in this. In Northern Ireland there was, sadly, an exhibition in general of the same old tribal voting patterns. Naomi Long's Alliance vote in east Belfast was up considerably but not by enough to beat a candidate backed by the two main unionist parties and it is interesting that the nationalist/Catholic vote was down – Sinn Féin dropping a percentage point – which may indicate unionists/Protestants are more disenchanted with the political lay of the land than nationalists/Catholics.
But the overall Conservative victory in terms of seats, if not exactly a democratic mandate, is bad news for Northern Ireland, and indeed for Ireland as a whole. For Northern Ireland it means an unsympathetic audience in terms of need – and Northern Ireland is not only heavily dependent on the British purse for welfare and general expenditure, it requires a financial and economic lift which it is unlikely any varying of the corporation tax rate will bring. Cuts in welfare and general expenditure are only now hitting hard in Northern Ireland including the community and voluntary sector being severely hit; the Republic is now able to increase the amount it spends while state budgets in Northern Ireland are now reducing rapidly.
This brings us on to the final point about the failure to agree welfare reform in the North, Sinn Féin and the SDLP blocking the approval of the 'Universal Credit' changes by signing a 'petition of concern' (regularly used by the DUP). If there is no agreement then the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, is likely to take welfare decisions away from Stormont. Sinn Féin says a deal is still doable but whether that is reality or putting a positive spin on their involvement it is hard to say. There are a host of issues here but key points are the Conservative targeting of social benefits of all sorts, and the nature of the political division in Northern Ireland.
Democracy of any sort in Northern Ireland is a difficult and different concept. The nature of the division stems back four hundred years so it is now wonder there are problems, and the 'power carve up' between the DUP and Sinn Féin in the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) does not inspire confidence in the exercise of their decision making powers at the best of times – and this is certainly not the best of times. Sometimes in Northern Ireland there are no easy answers, and sometimes there are no answers at all that the powers that be can envisage.
Dealing past obstacles
The past is always with us, and more so in Ireland than in some other countries. But the reason the past is so much with us is because it impacts on the present, it resonates, resounds, and has a direct effect on day to day life. Take the impact of the Treaty division in 1921 and the resultant pro- and anti- camps in the 'South' which in party political terms became Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil respectively. It would be simplistic to say this division is why the Republic/26 Counties has had relatively conservative policies over the last century, but it is certainly part of the reason. That hegemony is challenged these days partly by Sinn Féin, whose leftish credentials remain to be properly tested. Labour has usually been third apart from pipping Fianna Fáil in the 2011 election by a couple of percent - and on current showing is going to do far worse in the next election as the junior partners in coalition often get judged severely for the government's deeds or non-deeds.
The past in Northern Ireland is of another order of significance, however, with the political and cultural divisions which exist there. The Troubles was certainly not a big war but it was a bitter, long, and deep conflict which made a huge impact on society and different parts of it in different ways. And that is without the already existing divisions which stem directly back to the Plantation of Ulster in the seventeenth century. If the divisions have been with us for four hundred years, or more, what chance do we have to sort things out today?
There is a great chance to sort things out if there is the will, the time, and the resources to do so. By this we are not implying that everyone becomes 'unionists' or 'nationalists' but Northern Ireland becomes a more peaceful society with people living together in greater harmony and cooperation. Societies can move on from traumatic events but in a society like Northern Ireland where the deep division remains, it is unlikely to get sorted by itself simply by the passage of time because the division not only acts as a brake to change, it can also be an accelerator to further divisive acts.
While there are many in civil society who are working to overcome the divisions and barriers of the past, and deal with what has taken place in living memory, moving on also requires political will. It is highly debateable the extent to which this exists in the shape of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), composed as it is of two parties who came to power through taking staunch and opposite sides in the Troubles, the DUP and Sinn Féin. Their support depends on pulling in enough 'opposite' votes.
Nevertheless, some of the measures proposed in the Haass talks, and put into in the Stormont House Agreement (not yet implemented), will help at an official level. Victims and relatives, and those who have suffered more generally, do need support and constructive processes, and research shows that mental health has suffered considerably in the North because of the Troubles. Then at a civil society level, both through interface area action and cross-community cooperation, and through bodies like Healing Through Remembering or WAVE, there are ways to support and help people and communities. Those who have suffered cannot actively forget but through a creative process they can be allowed to deal with the issues and perhaps, just perhaps, to forgive or at least to tolerate and balance things.
Imagination and creativity are key elements in all this. Our 'Readings in Nonviolence' article in this issue deals with one, international, example of multifaceted work in this area, that of arpilleras. This is just one example of a myriad of possibilities but is important for a variety of reasons, not least its practical, hands on, approach and its inclusiveness. All sorts of different approaches and processes are needed, particularly in a society where a grand 'Truth commission' is not appropriate, possible or likely to be successful. When it comes to dealing with the past, let a thousand flowers bloom. But some of those blooming flowers need to be coming from the political top, and that requires imagination and leaps of faith which do not fit well with narrow party allegiances.
Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
A Hippocratic Oath for All
"Words can empower, words can destroy, and words can resurrect."
Christine Aziz, The Olive Readers (2005)
The Hippocratic Oath is a code of ethical behaviour designed to get patients to trust their doctors. It was written by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates (c. 460-377 BCE) at a time when medicine was a freelance activity and there were no professional standards. The Oath specifies what patients can expect from their doctor, namely that their interests will be given the highest priority. Kieron O'Hare in his book "Trust: From Socrates To Spin" (2004) writes that the potency of the Oath:
"Is purely symbolic, but it describes a set of values to which doctors and patients can subscribe, and which are constantly reaffirmed. Doctors who take the Oath will be prepared to set aside their own self-interest for that of the collectivity." (p.60)
Oaths, pledges, prayers, doctrines, declarations, mottos, creeds and anthems are recited on a daily basis the world over. In the United States school children recite The Pledge of Allegiance at the start of their school day and rote learn The American Creed. In schools across the island of Ireland children recite The Lord's Prayer and Radio 4 ends their day of broadcasting with the U.K. national anthem. Regular recitation of codified values, beliefs and commitments helps people internalise them and reinforces their sense of shared identity.
They are socially useful in that they let all concerned know the behaviour that can be expected of those who commit to them. The Hippocratic Oath for instance lets patients know that doctors will not betray their confidences. The Lord's Prayer informs that forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian ethos. The scout motto reminds scouts to always be prepared to assist others, and national anthems affirm national identity while anaesthetising critical thinking on matters such as war. These codes of commitment and belief place the interests of the collective before those of the individual and along with the solemn manner in which they are enounced confer the sense of been sacred.
As social creatures we need coherent sustainable groups. When we don't have them there is mayhem and the vulnerable usually suffer the most. This was clearly the case in mid-May 2015 when group solidarity broke down on a migrant fishing boat travelling from Ranong in Southern Thailand to Indonesia. It is reported that a hundred people were brutally killed in a fight between Burmese and Bangladeshi migrants over scarce supplies of food and water. (The Guardian, 17 May 2015) Our planet can be thought of as a boat circling the sun with a fixed amount of material resources that all life-forms depend on for survival and which have to suffice not for the number of years a government is in power but for unnumbered millennium to come. Codes of conduct based on the common good are designed to help ensure this happens.
The human world of behaviour and technology did not fall out of the sky but was born in our imaginations, they were formed out of words. Likewise an attitude of respect and care towards the biosphere will only take form through words. There are credible grounds for suggesting that society have a Biosphere Care Pledge along the lines of the Hippocratic Oath. Pupils could recite it at the beginning of their day committing themselves to safeguarding and studying the biosphere. The pledge and affirmation would be age appropriate. Key Stage Two pupils might pledge not to litter, waste water, food and energy. Key Stage Three pupils might make an additional pledge to grow food for a family meal, such as strawberries, rhubarb or peas. Faith groups, sports clubs and so forth could make additional pledges such as to keep the banks of a local river clear of litter, plant trees, monitor wildlife or car share. Radio 4 could end their broadcasting day with a recitation of the Biosphere Care Pledge rather than playing God Save the Queen and it could replace or be an addition to The Angelus on RTE 1.
We are formed out of the biosphere, are attached to by an umbilical cord and thus have an interest in safe-guarding it as our one and only source of sustenance and ultimate source of joy and self-realization. The ability to foresee, combined with a strong desire to think well of ourselves and be thought well of by others provides us with the basis of a meaningful life through taking part in the shared enterprise of treating the biosphere as we would like to be treated ourselves. Elizabeth Kolbert in the closing pages of her book "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" (2014) writes:
"It doesn't much matter whether people care or don't care. What matters is that people change the world." (p.266)
A Hippocratic-type oath to protect the biosphere would provide a framework and specific things people pledge to undertake in order to change the world.