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produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
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The ‘Editorial essay’ in this issue is on democracy and nonviolence. However it seems apposite to also look in more detail at ramifications and possibilities represented by opinion polls in relation to the border and Irish unification. In relation to this the first point is that nothing is certain, and even if things seem to be proceeding in a particular direction, new factors can intervene and a direction can be reversed, or indeed proceed even faster in the same direction. So the fact of having an arithmetic majority of Catholics over Protestants in the North very soon, and a voting majority soon thereafter, has implications but no predestined result. While the economics of a united Ireland for the North might look to militate against this option, who can tell when things have changed so much in terms of perceived realities in a couple of years?
The worst possible solution, arguably, is where a so-called ‘united Ireland’ comes about through a vote of 50% + 1 for unification after a divisive campaign. This is a recipe for disaster much worse than the current vacuum and status quo. It does not matter in this context whether the primary democratic unit is seen as being ‘Northern Ireland’ or ‘Ireland’, it is setting up a situation of possibly having an extremely reluctant, recalcitrant, unionist minority in what is not a new Ireland but a reverse of the previous Northern Ireland sectarian situation.
While there are divergences between different polls in relation to possible voting in Northern Ireland on the border, and how close a vote on removing the border would be, it is clear that things have changed very significantly with Brexit see e.g. https://sluggerotoole.com The fact that the Irish government has made an agreement with the EU that all of a uniting Ireland would automatically be part of the EU may be significant in the longer term both politically and economically. The additional fact that most Brexit Tories in Britain would happily ditch Northern Ireland to get the Brexit they want is also telling, whatever about British government promises while dependent on the DUP at Westminster.
The most important issue, considering the long term future of Northern Ireland, is to try to build a just and united society. While there are many in the North who reject tribalism, and many more who through coming in from elsewhere have no stake in it, tribalism has still to be overcome. We are still a long way from mutual respect and understanding. ‘Getting one over’ on the ‘other’ side merely exacerbates the conflict, and a lack of understanding leads to policies which are, and seen to be, sectarian or unchallenging of sectarianism.
It is clear that the Republic is now more socially liberal than Northern Ireland in terms of legislation, the actual situation in the North may not always reflect public opinion. If the British economy takes a major downturn following Brexit, and it has already had a major effect in terms of a decrease in inward investment in Northern Ireland, the significance of the major UK contribution to Northern Ireland’s finances will also decline. If there was an agreement for interim and phased reduced funding from the UK for a period of, say, ten years following Irish unification while the economy in the North had a chance to advance, many more reluctant voters might shift to unification.
The future for Northern Ireland within the UK is not known absolutely because the lack of an assembly at Stormont and the effects of Brexit make for various imponderables, apart from other unforeseen factors. We do, however, have some reality to make a judgement upon in relation to Northern Ireland in the UK but little or nothing on the possibility of Northern Ireland joining the Republic. So what would Irish unification involve? There needs to be a discussion and dialogue about this involving not just all parts and parties of Northern Ireland but the Republic too. Everyone needs to be able to judge on as many facts as possible, and as many reliable projections as possible. We need a process which would have time to deal rationally with the hopes and fears of everyone, to engage with everyone. Unionists may not want to engage in this process currently although some more forward thinking ones may; if things developed further then time should still be allowed for all to engage.
We would say that the first point is to forget about simple majorities. Democracy is not about a majority doing what it wants, and particularly not in a situation like Northern Ireland. Democracy should be about arriving at the best consensus agreement possible though this is extremely difficult in a divided society. This would certainly mean it was not a question of simply switching an Irish tricolour for the Union flag – and indeed the possibility of a new flag should be flagged.
There should be a process of seeing what unionists, and northern nationalists, would want in a new Ireland; can people retain British citizenship, if they want, how will they be able to express themselves politically and culturally, what guarantees will they have, how will political representation change (will there still be a Stormont or regional assembly of some kind?). Imaginative suggestions are needed in order to be both fair and inclusive. At this stage there might be no ‘definites’ but there might be certain minimums stipulated. The fact of being in the EU might help in terms of human rights guarantees.
What will happen in terms of economics is very uncertain. Of course there would be a cost for people in the Republic in the short term but whether, and how, there could be economic synergy remains to be seen though there should be some thought and planning on this now. The economic implications of a united Ireland after the event of Brexit is a serious complicating factor and this also needs factored in to any calculations. But we need to see more analysis of how an all-island economy could develop. Northern Ireland, ironically, has almost full employment but it is still an economic basket case with low pay and its deficit in state payments over taxes raised being in the upper twenty percent region.
There would be other hard questions. What happens to Irish neutrality, or what there still is of it? Would the new state be a member of the British Commonwealth? How would the staunchest loyalists be enticed to join in and not reject, flee or resort to violence? How could power be reconfigured in Ireland to make it less Dublin-centralist (an issue which does not just apply to the North)?
The discussion needed is one potential big melting pot of realities, desires, projections, and understandings. It would need goodwill. And it would need time. But having some of that conversation now is important to be able to make decisions based on expected realities, and to avoid unionists and loyalists feeling they are being swallowed whole. Northern nationalists came into a state of which they had no wish to be part. How could it be different in a new Ireland for unionists and loyalists? Unionists may object that such thinking and planning is forwarding what is for them the evil day; the alternative is to risk what might be for them a much more evil day.
The fact of even needing to write this editorial is symbolic of a change. A few years ago, although demographic Catholic/Protestant equality was projected, things seemed stable and Northern Catholics reasonably satisfied with how things were even if they retained an emotional all-Ireland connection. That is not now so much the case with the DUP having overplayed its hand and Brexit having thrown a spanner in the UK works. Backing Brexit was a catastrophic miscalculation by the DUP in terms of preserving the border. Nevertheless, as stated at the start of this piece, it cannot be assumed that everything will go one direction. We simply do not know how things will work out. As yet we are a considerable distance from voting on, or indeed much further away from voting for, a united Ireland.
What we do know is that we need to work for an equitable solution which guarantees the freedoms and rights of all. And we also need a country where ethnic and political identity is not the most important issue for the state – it may of course remain important for the individual but set in a broader context. The Republic has now approached achieving this (although certainly not for Travellers and not for asylum seekers with the inequitable direct provision system). For Northern Ireland it applies whether there is a united Ireland coming down the road or there remain two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland for years and years to come.
Whatever is the result, Northern Ireland is in a vastly different place in relation to both the rest of Ireland and to Britain a century on from when it was founded by partition in 1921. At that stage the North was the economic powerhouse of the island and there was very little industry south of the border. The prophecy of ‘Home Rule’ becoming ‘Rome Rule’ was perhaps realised by partition rather than any kind of Irish independence per se but the Republic is now a fairly pluralist and typical European state. Arguably no country has changed more in a couple of generations than the Republic. Whether and how the whole island will change further in the next decades is now being worked out but it needs as many helping hands as possible.
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Migrants and structural violence
When people in Europe speak of the ‘refugee crisis’ or the ‘migrant crisis’ they are likely to be thinking mainly in European terms, the crisis of thousands arriving with a few countries bearing the brunt of the burden. It is an important issue and one which demands an adequate response – and Ireland certainly is not providing or contributing greatly to that. But what about the crisis for the refugees? What caused them to flee hundreds or thousands of miles and risk their lives very directly for a dream of safety and economic security? Are they not entitled to personal security and economic well being?
The concept of structural violence is not a new one though it can be also labelled in other ways, as social and economic injustice, for example. The concept is a very useful one, however, because violence takes many forms and the structures that exist, internationally and nationally, can be very violent. Structural violence can be what condemns some people to a meagre existence while working very hard (and this is the case with those at the bottom of the economic ladder in western economies as well as in poorer countries). It can be the threat of physical violence through ethnic, national and resource disputes which destabilise whole regions. It can also be the exclusion of the poor from the homes of the rich. The military intervention by rich countries, for their own benefit but supposedly for ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’ et cetera ad infinitum, is also another aspect of both structural and very direct physical violence, and this has exacerbated problems.
In relation to Fortress Europe. It does not matter whether EU politicians can find justifications for refusing to admit migrants and seek to justify an exclusionary policy on the grounds of public order and well being. Refusing to admit poor people, whether into the EU or the USA, is a part of structural violence, there is no other possible way of describing it. If there was no violence and structural violence involved then migrants would not be coming in their thousands.
Of course the argument of the rich is a self-serving one. If there was a more equitable distribution of wealth, opportunity, and peaceful well being then there would be no ‘migrant crisis’. The situation requires far more than bunging a few Euro to Turkey for them to hold people. And on a worldwide scale, the EU comparatively takes very little in the way of refugee numbers anyway compared to other, poorer countries.
We need a different world and until there is a more just and peaceful one then migration is bound to be ‘a problem’ – first and foremost for those who are torn from their homeland and forced or compelled to seek a better future elsewhere while risking life and limb. Whereas there are always those who seek a better life or challenges elsewhere than their home, the vast majority of people are happy to remain where they are if they are able. We just have to consider the painful Irish experience of emigration to realise this.
In general terms migrants contribute more to their new host countries than they cost. For a start most are likely to be paying taxes as soon as they work rather than requiring education. But migrants also bring new skills, ideas and cultures which are welcome. We are certainly not saying there are no costs or adjustments needed, by host countries or newcomers, but in general the situation is a win-win one.
Obviously when there are huge and sudden outflows and inflows there are bigger issues to be considered, and a situation like Syrian refugees due to the war there, or the Rohingya from Myanmar who also had to flee for their lives, require specific and targeted responses from individual countries and the international community collectively.
But in the longer term working for the economic and peaceful wellbeing of all is the answer to avoiding problematic migration patterns. Attacking migrants, literally or figuratively, is pointless and counterproductive since it is tackling the symptom rather than the cause. The state’s treatment of asylum seekers and other migrants is inadequate; in the case of the Republic the direct provision system is shameful, and the UK seems to treat all immigrants as unwelcome and a cash cow.
We need a different, more cooperative, more just world. In an era when global warming risks further division between rich and poor – the rich being able to afford evasive measures to some extent, the poor not at all – there are great dangers ahead. It is also the rich world which has primarily caused the ecological crisis. Even if it is done out of self interest rather than a quest for global justice, we need major initiatives to tackle these issues. Not to do so is to wreak further violence on the heads of people who have already had a raw deal in life. Not to do so is also to cause major problems for what is the rich world currently.
Blaming others – which is what ‘new’ right wing nationalist movements in Europe are doing – may give some self satisfaction and imagined justification. It does nothing to solve the problems. If we look at our own role, or in some instances lack of an active role, in the issues then we may get somewhere, and realise what we can do and what we should do.
The existing threats to the wellbeing of people are massive. Not dealing with the real issues at hand may make them so great as to be almost insurmountable.
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This editorial essay is the fifth in a short series looking at feminism, ecology, human rights, religion and secularism, democracy, and radicalism in general, and their relationship to nonviolence.
On the surface it seems simple – democracy is ‘rule by the people’ (from the original Greek), as opposed to autocracy, theocracy or any other kind of ‘ocracy’. In the modern and western sense it is usually defined as including the free election of representatives to form a government, and it also usually contains the concept of ‘majority rule’. However this is still such a wide concept that it could be considered to be the start of some kind of definition but needing to be closely examined and qualified, as this essay will attempt to do.
The first warning comes from what ‘democracy’ meant to the ancient Greeks. It meant rule by ‘free men’ with slaves and women excluded (and there were no political parties). The concept from the beginning thus had exclusions and limitations. While universal suffrage (voting) in freely held elections is now assumed in ‘western democracies’ there are still other exclusions which can be exercised in terms of voting registration, in terms of the actual powers of a government, and in terms of systems which favour existing parties and penalise those without significant financial resources. But there are many other aspects of democracy than voting.
This essay attempts a general exploration of the concept of democracy but also tries to relate nonviolence to it in terms of the significance of the latter for democratic and human values, and largely in relation to the island of Ireland with some international references for comparison. There are such widely different practices that, again, generalisations are often in order.
It is clear that there are problems with democracy in different parts of the world, some would say a crisis, although diagnosis and remedies vary greatly. In places authoritarian and populist politicians push against some supposed ground rules and create an atmosphere which could lead to danger for democracy itself. In Ireland, democracy in the Republic faces some disenchantment but, in a centre-right environment, no great change from heretofore. In the North the ‘great divide’ is being bridged by some but not as yet by most and in relation to the political arena, people still tend to vote by ethnic identity, so as yet there is no change either.
In terms of where we are at this stage with democracy, it is clear that we need to move well beyond a simple ‘majority rule’ definition of democracy. It is not that the largest party or option should not have considerable say but that riding roughshod over others should be considered unacceptable. The goal should be as consensual an agreement as possible; this may be impossible in many circumstances but it is still a worthwhile goal.
As mentioned, the concept began in ancient Greece, in their city states which were small. Today most democracies are countries with many millions of voters; most are republics while some are constitutional or nominal monarchies (e.g. UK, Netherlands). Advances in democracy have almost always had to be strived for. The development of parliamentary democracy was slow though in the UK (which included Ireland from 1801) there was a gradual increase in who could vote in elections and this was a running theme throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, with finally all adults – in this case women - gaining the right to vote in 1928 while in the Irish Free State universal suffrage came in with the state. Small scale democracy is still possible at a local level.
Who are ‘the people’?
Who the people are in a ‘democracy’, and how they decide anything, if they do, is the big question. Even in a parliamentary type system, do ‘the people’ get to decide on major issues through referendums? Or through a general election? And with what kind of voting system? Is decision making entrusted to parliament or the government (and there can be a big divide over which of these, as with 2018 decision making on Brexit in the UK)? How easy is it for people who band together to get an issue taken up and options examined?
And what is considered a sufficient majority to determine a policy? There is nothing sacrosanct about 50% + 1, in fact a simple majority of this sort is a very bad example of democracy if the ‘winner gets to take all’. The UK vote on Brexit in 2016 was 52% in favour of leaving and 48% opposed. If it was you or me trying to decide where we go for our holidays, the seaside or the mountains, and we felt we were 52% inclined to go to the seaside and 48% to the mountains, we would not say “I will go to the seaside and I will always go to the seaside – I will never go to the mountains again”. What you might say in this instance could be: “I will go to the seaside this year; I will review the situation next year and I might head to the mountains then.” There would be a prioritisation but no absolute exclusion. And yet when it came to 52% of people in the UK voting for Brexit it was taken by most as ‘the people have spoken’ – well, yes they had, but in a very fragmented way, and in a very simplistic ‘yes/no’ referendum where implications were poorly explored.
Weighted majority systems are when some higher threshold is required than 50% + 1 for a particular course of action to be followed (e.g. 60%). So greater support is needed for a particular course of action but if the choice is simplistic (‘yes/no’ on a complicated issue) then the response may still not in any sense reflect anything like a consensual ‘will of the people’. There are a variety of multi-optional processes available.
Consensus versus partisanship?
A background aspect of democracy is whether the aim is to establish a consensus on ways forward or a partisan approach. Political parties, by their nature, tend to be partisan. However parliaments which are relatively even in terms of the balance between parties, or where there are a large number of parties, may establish coalitions, and coalitions are by their nature a compromise although not a consensus.
There is a dilemma for those who believe in nonviolence since both strong views may be held and the desire to establish a consensus on a matter. Some nonviolent activists, particularly anarchists, may dismiss the possibility of parliamentary change in any meaningful direction. Others may feel working in the civil society sector outside of party politics is most effective and that “If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it”.
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” Winston Churchill is reputed to have said. ‘Populism’ is sometimes defined as appealing to ‘the people’ as opposed to a perceived corrupt elite (whether the elite is particularly corrupt or not) but such populism can try to ride on negative emotions such as nationalism and xenophobia with reactionary or unscrupulous politicians trying to use such forces to get power. And appealing to such forces may or may not have a different result to appealing to any ‘elite’ but the result is unlikely to be any more satisfactory. Donald Trump is a classic example of someone coming to power on a ‘populist’ surge, appealing to just those forces of nationalism, xenophobia, and economic disenchantment by ‘ordinary’ people but who in power is doing the bidding of the economic elite in relation to reducing taxation and cutting services.
The truth of Winston Churchill’s adage depends to some extent on what and how the ‘average voter’ is consulted. If they are appealed to negatively then the result may also be negative. If they are engaged positively, as with the Citizens’ Assembly (*1) meetings and process in the Republic, then there can be solid engagement with the issues, with constructive discussion and the possibility of moving issues on. Ordinary citizens are capable of getting to grips with thorny issues. A comparison can be made with the jury system: in general people rise to the occasion and give it their best. But they can only give their best when facilitated to do so. Incidentally, the Citizens’ Assembly supported multi-option voting in referendums.
What is the democratic unit?
Democracy is considerably affected by what is the democratic unit or units, and what can be decided. In Switzerland, cantons have considerable power and a system using referendums makes individuals citizens relatively powerful. The Swiss system was designed to cater for the different cultures within the country and avoid domination of one by another. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, was set up as the largest unit that would deliver a Protestant and unionist majority in perpetuity and had no checks and balances, with the added difficulty that while Northern Ireland became the primary perceived democratic unit for most Protestants, most Catholics at the time of the formation of the state, and since, either did not accept the boundaries as democratic or looked to the island of Ireland as the democratic unit. If there is no agreement on what the democratic unit is then it is difficult to sustain any form of democratic system.
In the USA, which is geographically and numerically a very large country, much power rests with individual states and there is the question of what power the federal state exercises and when it could and should overrule state power. The Republic of Ireland is relatively centralised in terms of its power structure and even though small this can make the exercise of power in Dublin seem distant for many people despite having a certain amount of politics exercised with localism (local issues) and clientelism (public representatives engaged in getting services for citizens which are actually their right).
Where does power rest?
The question of who actually wields power in any country is an interesting one. In an authoritarian state like China it is clear that President Xi Jinping, backed by the Communist Party and its structures, wields enormous power. In such a situation where there is an extremely small and powerless civil society, often ruthlessly attacked by the state, the political leadership holds very considerable sway. However even President Xi has to pay some attention to the public and what the public want, not in the sense that he has to pick up on everything but on the basis that a discontented public is dangerous for the state. Bread and circuses (the basics of life plus diversionary entertainments) are necessary from the state’s point of view.
In most democratic states the actual power of a government is more constrained, by a variety of factors. While the state may regulate the economic sector it is rare for the state to totally control it. Many important decisions are made in economic board rooms rather than in the government. The business sector also has the money to lobby strongly for the policies it wants. The relationship between the government executive (cabinet) and parliament also varies greatly, not least in how secure the government party or parties are in a majority in parliament. Where there is a majority coalition or minority government, or a government without a secure majority, this can act as a constraining factor, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Internal divisions, as in the British Conservative Party on Brexit, can hamper decision making.
While outside of traditional thinking about democracy, a strong civil society is essential to have a fully functioning democracy. This is composed of a wide variety of community and voluntary organisations of all sorts (including sporting and recreational activities) which may have a special interest or concern which they are promoting. These concerns may be to do with self interest, the well being of a locality or area, or a concern for a particular group or society as a whole. Such organisations hold government to account in relation to their particular interest. If necessary they may mobilise to campaign strongly on an issue; if government does not respond in some way it can show itself to be out of touch which can affect its support and endanger its votes come the next elections. A participative or deliberative democracy (*2) is not a question of voting every number of years and the legislature doing its work; it is a question rather of eternal vigilance to see what the legislature is up to, and holding it to account.
There is a difference between systems which favour public decision making on major issues through a referendum, and systems which entrust such decision making to the parliamentary system, the latter being a belief in ‘representative democracy’ (although it is possible to mix the two). The latter justifies itself by proclaiming it avoids the dangers of populist decision making on controversial issues but it can be countered that this simply means decisions can be taken by the political elite instead.
The accessibility of the party political system varies greatly as well. In a country like Ireland it is not too difficult, in the Republic at least, for an individual to stand for election to a local council or even the Dáil with only local backing. When voters are not too enamoured with party politics, independents can thrive and even be involved in a coalition government. However in a society like the USA which has a convoluted and antique political system, but is also a much larger society, ‘breaking in’ to national politics at any level is much more difficult and may require very considerable financial resources to be even attempted.
The involvement of women in politics has been a long term issue in Ireland with relatively few involved in the legislatures or local councils. The Republic eventually introduced a quota system for candidates for the Dáil which applied in the 2016 elections. This increased the number of women elected from 15% to 22% (*3) – still a low level of representation but considered relatively successful and the quota requirement may be extended to local elections. Women are often the backbone of civil society organisations of various kinds and these contribute enormously to both societal wellbeing and democracy; this is not an excuse for under-representation in parliaments such as the Dáil or Northern Ireland Assembly, however.
Militarism and democracy
It might be thought that democracies, in a broad sense, might be less inclined to engage in warfare as a matter of policy than more autocratic forms of government. This is not necessarily so. Two countries most inclined to go to war are the USA and the UK. It might however be felt that the USA’s warmaking is due to its neo-imperialist mindset (in its own thinking seeing itself as the “world’s policeman” when the actuality is very different), and the UK where many older people seem to have not quite got over the loss of the British empire and the supposed kudos that went with that. It may be that in democracies the ruling political forces feel they have to prove themselves ‘strong’ on international issues and this results in more warfare by states which have large, modern armies.
This is not to imply that non-democracies are better in any other way; China is involved in repressing Tibet and its Muslim western provinces, and expanding militarily in the South China Sea. Russia, which is a rather autocratic democracy, took Crimea from the Ukraine illegally by force (admittedly with a majority supporting incorporation but also with minorities who were ignored in the process) and has also been involved in warfare in eastern Ukraine in support of separatist ethnic Russians.
Nonviolence exists primarily in the space for civil society. While peace and nonviolent activists may well attempt to influence politicians on particular matters – and the effectiveness of this depends largely on the strength of mobilisation on a particular issue – there is the question of how open a system is to citizen influence. Opinion polls show Irish neutrality to be popular with the people of the Republic but the political parties (with the possible honourable exception of Sinn Féin, the Green Party and some independents) continue to permit its erosion and cosy up to the USA through US military use of Shannon Airport as well as accepting advances in European militarism.
This is where nonviolent campaigning and nonviolent direct action has come in. Various people and groups have entered the non-public space of Shannon Airport, and in a couple of cases also actively disarmed a US war plane (*4), in protest at ongoing Irish government facilitation of the USA’s armed forces and military policies, and in support of searching planes to ensure weapons are not being carried (which is not meant to be the case). In accepting the consequences of their action, such activists are contributing to democracy. They have successfully exposed the hypocrisy of the Irish state on the matter. But with politicians afraid to stand up to the mighty USA (and the still mighty dollar) there has been no successful resolution of the matter from a peace point of view.
In the late 1970s there was successful mobilisation against the proposal for a nuclear power station in Ireland, and more recently against water charges. These are two examples of effective mobilisation. Other campaigns for changes which required a referendum on the constitution have also mobilised and won, such as the one introducing equal marriage rights for same sex couples, the first such popular vote in the world.
A healthy civil society, and the space to exercise its role, is an essential part of democracy. The idea that ‘party politics’ is the only place to pursue social and political change is somewhat naive; of course party politics may be where change finally happens or is facilitated but it is rarely where it starts or builds momentum. (*5)
Public opinion is often key to change though, as indicated above in relation to Shannon and Irish neutrality, it is not necessarily enough Party politics can also be extremely constraining since ‘party lines’ may militate against the very dynamism that someone wishes to espouse. There is an element of party politics which eschews leadership, “I must follow them for I am their leader”, and is risk averse in terms of change; this is obviously rejected by radicals and nonviolent activists.
Nonviolent activists are likely to be ardent democrats, in terms of supporting active citizen decision making. But that does not mean that they will automatically accept the decision taken as being ‘right’. This is the nub of democracy; struggling to get a position established, lamenting when it isn’t, but vowing to work on for change another day. Nonviolent activists are also willing, if necessary, to break unjust laws as part of challenging for change. Their main involvement is likely to be in educating and campaigning on issues of concern. You can be a democrat but not support the decision a society or state takes.
However nonviolence is a safeguard for democracy, and for justice. You might say that nonviolence is the strong, or militant, wing of civil society. Tackling uncomfortable or difficult issues and supporting the upholding of democracy itself are important tasks which a nonviolent approach is particularly suited for; the overthrow of dictator President Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 is one textbook example.
Those who are in for the long haul in terms of social and political change do not give up easily. Education and conscientisation may be what are required to get a movement building before taking to mobilisation and lobbying. While success can come quickly, the reality is that in relation to most issues we are talking about decades rather than even years for the possibility of success. Different nonviolent activists will choose different paths and different emphases for their work.
Northern Ireland and democracy
There are especial difficulties in relation to democracy in Northern Ireland since the state was set up on the basis of establishing a permanent majority for a particular political viewpoint (with the presence of a substantial minority who were always that, a minority). More recently while the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 established Northern Ireland by agreement (of a referendum in the North and the Republic) as the democratic unit for making a decision on the future, the institutions set up by that agreement have only worked intermittently and are currently in abeyance, The Good Friday Agreement moved beyond thinking of democracy within the North as being majority rule, attempting to institutionalise a power-sharing, consociational, arrangement – if it can be called power ‘sharing’ as opposed to power ‘carving’ – and other guarantees. Because it has failed to move voting and politics out of its ethnic silos, the system has only been intermittently workable.
However when it comes to Northern Ireland being linked constitutionally with either the UK or the rest of the island of Ireland, any decision could theoretically be taken on the basis of “50% + 1”. There needs to be a more sophisticated understanding of democracy than that; it is not that people should not have a choice but that the choice itself should be a multi-option process (not just a vote) so we are not again reduced to simple ‘either/or’ politics.
All voting systems have a bias, even if that bias is towards equivalence between percentage of votes cast and the percentage of parliamentary (or other) seats obtained. In the UK David Cameron and the Conservative Party refused the Liberal Democrats the opportunity of introducing a more proportional system in 2011, offering the ‘alternative vote’ as an option by referendum (another version of ‘50% + 1’), which was rejected by popular vote. The thinking is that ‘first past the post’ delivers a stable government by giving the majority party a good parliamentary majority; this has proved laughably inaccurate in recent British politics.
The ‘PR-STV’ (Proportional Representation by the Single Transferable Vote) system in operation in Ireland, North and Republic, for both Assembly and Dáil elections, gives a reasonable although not exact correlation between votes and seats. A more complete correlation can be obtained by a list system which tops up constituency seats with non-geographically elected seats. The Unionist Party had got rid of PR for elections to the old Stormont parliament after partition; Fianna Fáil tried to do the same in the Republic but failed because it was defeated in a couple of constitutional referendums on the issue. Both parties were acting to their advantage as the largest party in the system, which the ‘first past the post’ electoral system favours.
However in a divided society such as Northern Ireland, and the enforced power-sharing arrangement in operation, it is possible with PR-STV for parties to appeal to the stauncher tendencies on their side and still get into power without any incentive to make decisions together. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin came to power, and to be the largest party on their own side, through relative intransigence. There is no particular incentive for either party to appeal to voters outside their own camp because they have been doing quite nicely, electorally speaking, without doing so.
However there is another option in decision making which does favour those who can appeal not just to their own supporters but to others as well. This is the Modified Borda Count (MBC). (*6): “The modified Borda count (MBC) is a preference voting procedure by which is identified that option which gains the highest average preference score. It may also be regarded as a points system, in which the winner is the outcome with the most points. The procedure involves three stages: the debate, the vote and the analysis of that vote.” What it amounts to is that those voting, to maximise their vote in a multi-choice referendum or decision-making exercise, have to vote for every option on the ballot in their order of choice. What this means is that political parties certainly want their option or options to be first choice, but if they can’t be someone’s first choice then being second, third, fourth or whatever may still help to get their option chosen. This system also gives a more nuanced choice for voters, and greater opportunities for consensus or agreement.
The Quota Borda System (QBS) is for electing individuals: “QBS is an electoral system for use whenever an electorate is electing more than one person. In a general election, it should be used in multi-member constituencies of about 5 seats, if need be with a regional/national top-up. QBS consists of a quota element, added to an MBC. In a 5-seater constituency, a quota is one sixth of the valid vote, plus 1.”
In terms of decision making, the Modified Borda Count has a built in anti-bias orientation which, if used at Stormont, for example, could mean other guarantees of fair treatment (e.g. Petitions of Concern) could be dispensed with. It can be used for popular voting on issues or it can be used in parliaments, assemblies or councils. In the related shape of a matrix vote (which combines MBC and QBS) it can also be used in an assembly, parliament or other body to elect a government (cabinet) or committee covering both who should be in it and what positions they should occupy. Political parties, however, are likely to resist the implementation of consensual voting mechanisms at any level as it can constrain their power.
Democracy is far from simple. To function properly it needs a certain amount of goodwill on all sides and it definitely needs a strong civil society to hold government to account. Democracy is not a given as there are all sorts of dangers, not just from populism but also from public disenchantment with politics, and how politicians perform their task, resulting in disengagement from the whole political process, Apathy and disenchantment can be dangerous because they can lead to bad government and autocracy.
Resting on democratic laurels is a recipe for disaster. Innovative methods for engaging citizens with politics in a broad sense are essential; this may not involve ‘party politics’ but initiatives within civil society.
Nonviolent activists, meanwhile, will continue to contribute strongly to democratic debate in their own way, and to act as a safeguard and standard bearer for democracy. This is more often than not outside of the parliamentary sphere but their work may be fed in to that level of the democratic system.
(*3) https://www.degruyter.com and http://blogs.lse.ac.uk
(*4) See e.g. https://www.youtube.com and http://www.shannonwatch.org
(*5) See e.g. Bill Moyer’s ‘Movement Action Plan’, http://www.historyisaweapon.com and a short version at http://www.innatenonviolence.org
(*6) http://www.deborda.org which is the de Borda Institute website should have most of what you might want to know about consensual voting; a short guide from St Columb’s Park House.
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
“Just having a basic knowledge of names is vital. We have heard from schools where not a single child knew what a wren was. That is not the children’s fault; nature plays less of a part in more and more people’s lives.”
- Robert Macfarlane, author of The Lost Words, “i”, 18 June 2018
Technology has improved the lives of people across the world in a myriad of ways unimaginable 30 years ago. Communication systems have enhanced business profitability, the effectiveness of public services, enabled family and friends to keep in contact and allowed divergent groups of people to better understand each other.
A serious downside, with possible catastrophic consequences, is that these same technological developments appear to have further distanced us from nonhuman nature. Evidence of this is that a high percentage of school children don’t know where their food comes from and it is likely most adults can’t name the source of the various materials that have gone into the manufacture of the technology their lives are immersed in. A sign of how much our society has lost a sense of connection with nonhuman nature is that the latest edition of the 10,000 word Oxford Junior Dictionary has dropped approximately 50 words associated with the natural world. Words such as chestnut, conker and clover, kingfisher, lark, magpie and otter. These have been replaced by words and phrases associated with our fast evolving technological world.
If dropping nature-related words from the dictionary reflects the disinterest in nonhuman nature by wider society then we have cause to be worried. The reason is that we know through words. With the loss of words comes the loss of knowledge, awareness and relationships. As the world-renowned science writer S.J. Gould said “we will not fight to save what we do not love”. (1991) We can’t love, and therefore protect, what we can’t name and in all likelihood not know exists. If words that name and describe nonhuman nature are lost to children they will grow up with a diminished view of the natural world than they would otherwise have and be deprived of the awe, joy and wellbeing that comes from knowing it in its full richness and diversity.
As the biosphere morphs into a form unfavourable to life as a result of climate change, the loss of biodiversity and a host of other environmental woes it is all the more important that we develop a respectful and loving relationship with it. One way we can do this, in particular with regard to the ecosystem in which we live, is by becoming citizen scientists.
Primary schools across the UK and Ireland strive to be awarded and thereafter maintain the highly regarded Green Flag through eco-awareness and action. In the course of this the schools do an excellent job in teaching their pupils to know and love the flora and fauna in their local area as well as understand the impact our lifestyle has on the entire biosphere. The pupils observe, measure, record and report; plant, harvest, construct, craft, draw, discuss, write, and sing about the wonderful world of nature they are part of. Guided and supported by their teachers they can correctly be called citizen scientists. The enthusiasm and interest engendered in the pupils for the natural world is contagious and something they bring home with them. The challenge is for the older generations to become actively engaged with nonhuman nature through becoming citizen scientists.
The citizen scientist is a worldwide phenomenon creating knowledge in a range of disciplines which directly benefit us and the biosphere. Lucy Bryan a science teacher at James Madison University writing in this summer’s edition of ‘Earth Island Journal’ notes that:
“An increasing number of studies have confirmed that citizen scientists can collect data that falls within acceptable ranges of accuracy and reliability in a variety of contexts, from monitoring shark populations … to calculating above-ground biomass in forests. That said citizen scientists … are more likely to misidentify cryptic and rare species than experts.”
A guard against the latter is citizen scientists log their data with science-based organisations who can check its reliability and miss-identification of species is minimized through photographs of the subject. There are innumerable ways readers can undertake voluntary scientific work. In County Fermanagh, Ulster Wildlife with the support of the Fermanagh Red Squirrel Group and interested people, are presently monitoring red squirrel and pine martin populations in selected sites across the county. Between the 17 May and the 30 June 2018 the Great Britain Bee Count, set up by Friends of the Earth, received data from 18,000 people who noted and in some cases photographed bees they came across in their gardens and on walks. Readers might be surprised to learn that there are 270 bee species in the UK and Ireland.
If not monitoring one’s ecosystem on behalf of a group, observations in Northern Ireland can be sent to the Centre for Environmental Data and Recording in County Down. This can be done through http://www.nmni.com/cedar The public can phone them for advice on recording data as well as to be put in contact with local conservation groups. Their number is: 028 9042 8428.
Being a citizen scientist not only provides valuable information to conservation groups but is a way for almost everyone to be an active eco-citizen playing a part, within their self-determined capacity, to help protect our wondrous biosphere for the benefit of all including future generations. The work citizen scientists do becomes a legacy. It is empowering, fun, educational and can be done by almost everyone.