The flaxen revolution

I find myself in the unaccustomed, even uncomfortable position of agreeing with Jamie Bryson. This may be because in a democratic system at least some of the people are happy, while an undemocratic system is offensive to everyone except those in power (and in the case of NI, perhaps not even them).

NI is not a democracy, and grafting standard-issue “democratic institutions” on top of the current state of society will not magically make it one – we had those before in Old Stormont and it did not work. There are preconditions for majority rule to succeed as a democratic system – the willingness of voters to hold the elected to account by withholding or changing their vote; the commitment of the elected to act in the interest of those who did not vote for them; the resolve of both electors and elected to submit to the rule of law and uphold it impartially. None of these conditions prevailed in 1922 and few of them prevail today.

All this is well understood. What is less well understood is that the current system is not a route out of the undemocratic rut but merely a different, less violent rut. We must ask ourselves what we are trying to build – is it a society where power changes hands in the polling booth and the strong are accountable to the weak? Or is it merely a society where anyone likely to make trouble is kept placated with the spoils of office? We have achieved the latter, but seem as far away as ever from the former.

The usual argument against majority rule in NI is that the communal parties can’t be trusted with sole power, an argument given force by history. It is clear that whatever comes after must include safeguards against abuse of power at least as strong as the ones we have today. Those who wish to abolish mandatory coalition have proposed several alternatives, none entirely satisfactory. The most common are weighted or dual majorities, which require a majority of the entire Assembly and a minimum percentage of each community in order for a bill to pass (and in some variants, for the Executive to be elected). The problem comes when that minimum percentage is defined. Too low, and it raises the prospect that one particular party could be ganged up on and excluded forever, even if it were the largest single party. Too high, and it looks little different from mandatory coalition. It is not clear if a sweet spot exists, or if such a system would be sufficiently radical to be worth the effort.

The problem in all these proposals is that they treat the symptoms rather than the cause. Sectarian violence, cultural conflict and ethnic nationalism are far from unique problems – most countries have suffered to some degree from the same. What makes the few hard cases such as NI, Bosnia, and Lebanon special is the way these problems have so comprehensively infiltrated the political system. In each case, structures have been created to manage the symptoms of a dysfunctional politics – but the relationship between the system and its participants runs both ways. We soon find that because the structures of state have been shaped to fit the dysfunctional, only the dysfunctional fit into them.

On paper, there is little wrong with the Assembly as it stands. Everyone is represented, everyone gets a turn, nobody is excluded – and business can still continue if the participants are willing to compromise. The problem is prima facie not with the rules, but the players. However, there is little incentive for parties to compromise when the system rewards brinkmanship and extremism, so maybe the problem really is with the rules.

If we look at how Stormont differs from other, more successful systems, we see that the main innovations are motivated by the desire to prevent exclusion of one ethno-national grouping by another. This is understandable, as this is exactly the problem Old Stormont had, and the one that nationalists in particular still rightly fear. But it leaves as an unstated assumption that ethno-national groupings and political parties are more or less the same thing – and this is a peculiarly NI phenomenon. If we compare to the USA, where the treatment of the black minority was incomparably more brutal than anything dreamed up under unionist rule, we do not see a “black party” in permanent conflict with a “white party”. There may be imbalances in the percentages of different ethnic groups in the political parties, but these are as much a reflection of socioeconomic status as they are of identity. Before the Democrat Barack Obama, the most successful black politician in America was the Republican Colin Powell. The progress of black politicians is a bipartisan success story, and it is also in many ways a colour-blind one. Obama’s voting demographic was correlated with ethnic origin, but by nowhere near the degree we have come to expect in North Belfast.

Of course, black Americans do not seek the overthrow of the state. But if the polls are to be believed, neither do most Irish Nationalists. And in any case this in itself cannot be the reason for NI’s special problems, because Lebanon has no significant separatist movement and still suffered an ethno-religious civil war far worse than ours.

The common thread that separates Lebanon, Bosnia and ourselves from the US and other countries that are making progress with their divided past is the primacy of identity politics over practical considerations. Catholic Unionists and Protestant Shinners do exist, but they remain remarkable exceptions. Half-hearted “outreach” attempts are undertaken not in the hope of converting the doubtful, but of soothing those whose consciences are troubled by this obvious lack of progress.

Any attempt to fix NI must address this immovable object. Removing the Border from the competency of the Assembly was supposed to make normal politics possible. It did not. The constitutional question “went away”, but the parties merely found something else to fight over. Identity politics abhors a vacuum – no doubt if Westminster took flags and emblems off the hands of local politicians, they’d find some other reason to despise each other.

Because it’s not about the Border. It’s not about the flag, or a parade, or the Irish language. These things are excuses, rationalisations, bedtime stories we tell ourselves to make our own fears sound less preposterous. Greater problems have been solved over dinner and cigars. We can’t stand to make common cause with each other because in our gut we know we are still sharing a small box with someone, some thing that once hurt us. This is not going to be solved quickly. But we can make a conscious, rational decision to stop picking at the scab and making it worse.

The long term solution is the integration of our divided society. This will take generations, and it would be foolish to prejudge the details of the world that our grandchildren will build without us. The most important, the only important condition is that it is a whole society, where tales of unionists and nationalists are as misty and abstract as those of roundheads and cavaliers, and where children have to search the archives to discover which sides their ancestors were on.

The short term solution is to cut the Gordian knot of mutual suspicion and veto so that we can at least take the first steps. The current Assembly couldn’t even agree to save itself a fortune by merging two teacher training colleges, so there is no hope of it ever addressing an actual problem. Despite their protestations, the communal parties are too comfortable where they are right now, because getting where they are right now did not require them to grow, or learn. When SF and the DUP had a problem working together they fiddled the system so that they could avoid doing anything really difficult, such as voting for the same First Minister.

No, change is not going to come from within the Assembly – at least not with the current balance of parties. The first alternative is for the governments, perhaps again with the help of the Americans, to step in and impose order upon chaos. This seems unlikely, given the increasing signs of crisis fatigue amongst outsiders. And in the long term, this would perpetuate the infantilisation of NI, where the locals can’t be relied upon to sort themselves out and so will require feeding, changing and babysitting indefinitely. The other alternative is change imposed from below, from the electorate. But with turnout approaching 50% and new political parties failing to make headway, the only outlet remaining would appear to be the street.

And here I find myself agreeing with Bryson again, although for different reasons. Street politics comes in a variety of forms – sometimes joyful, sometimes angry, sometimes from the margins of society and sometimes pouring from every door and window. Sometimes the only way to fix a stagnant, failing system is with the collective will of millions. Sometimes all we need to do great things is the courage that comes from knowing that we are not alone. Sometimes society needs a little bit of revolution. A joyous, multi-coloured revolution.

A flaxen revolution?

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