Those seeking to impose a post-election agreement in Northern Ireland risk disenfranchising the electorate, reports Brendan O'Neill
'Consensus' by coercion
'I have been trying to work out exactly what went wrong for me. I think that the people of West Belfast chose the general election to make a significant statement to Sinn Fein and the IRA, to say that they want peace and an agreed settlement.'
Dr Joe Hendron of the Social Democratic and Labour Party was not in a good mood when I spoke to him the morning after Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams took his Belfast West seat by almost 8000 votes. Yet Hendron continued to make demands of Sinn Fein as if he was still the MP. 'What we want from Sinn Fein is not just a ceasefire but a total cessation of violence. I just hope and pray that Sinn Fein rejects violence and takes part in the important process of finding an agreed settlement and reaching a consensus.' According to Hendron, 'the 25 000 people who voted for Gerry Adams are saying that they believe he can deliver peace by getting a proper and meaningful IRA ceasefire. There is now a massive responsibility on him and on the republican movement to do it'.
Does Hendron really believe that 25 000 nationalists in West Belfast voted for Gerry Adams (and presumably that 20 000 people elected Martin McGuiness in Mid-Ulster) to register their opposition to the IRA and their support for an agreed settlement? Next he will be telling us that a vote for Sinn Fein is actually a vote for the SDLP. It looks as though Dr Hendron is reading into the minds of the electorate what he himself considers to be the political priority for Northern Ireland - 'reaching a consensus'.
Hendron is not alone. Increasingly, commentators, academics and wannabe politicians in Northern Ireland are ignoring the democratic wishes of the electorate in favour of finding an agreed settlement. According to the Guardian it is high time the people of Northern Ireland stopped voting 'doggedly along traditional sectarian lines as usual', and became 'outward-looking and modern' (9 May 1997). Adversarial politics are seen as relics of the past, and agreement and consensus is the order of the day. But a consensus on what, and between whom?
'What we need as a starting point would be a consensus on certain ways of doing things', says Belfast City Councillor Steve McBride. 'We might have to differ on long-term political outcomes because we have very tribal outlooks on a lot of issues. But we desperately need agreement on democratic methods, on the rejection of violence and on accepting that the people of Northern Ireland must decide their own future and not have anything imposed upon them.'
McBride, a former High Sheriff of Belfast, stood for the cross-community Alliance Party in Belfast South in the general election. He received 13 per cent of the vote, coming fourth behind Unionist and nationalist candidates.
'Democracy is flawed'
He sees the persistent and polarised voting habits of the Northern Irish electorate as a barrier to the key aim of reaching a consensus: 'I would be blunt about it: you can make an argument that what people in Northern Ireland want is civil war because that is what they keep voting for. In order to address the essential political questions we have to show people where they are going wrong. Ultimately we have to generate sufficient will amongst the people in Northern Ireland for consensus and for agreement.'
But what does trying to reach an agreement against the wishes expressed by the electorate have to do with democracy? McBride is unequivocal:
'The problem is that majoritarian democracy is always a flawed concept. Where majoritarianism becomes permanent because of social or communal divisions like in Northern Ireland, then it is simply one section of the community enjoying power over the other and that is a recipe for disaster.'
So the consensus being sought in Northern Ireland is not a consensus among people on how issues should be resolved and how society should be run, but a consensus among the great and the good on what method of government is most suitable in a divided society. According to the likes of Steve McBride the electorate in Northern Ireland has made a pig's ear of determining the political agenda and he and a few of the right kind of people would do a much better job. But surely this is
'It is inherently anti-democratic and inherently wrong', says William Ross, Ulster Unionist MP for Londonderry East. 'All of these minor groups in Northern Ireland now have the opportunity to carve out a position of great power for themselves despite the fact that they are a tiny minority.' Ross was re-elected as MP for Londonderry East with 13 558 votes. He sees little potential for consensus politics. 'All the talk about reaching a consensus sounds very nice but it is all a load of fluff; whenever you try and grasp what these people are getting at, it just dissipates like the morning mist. The plain truth is that there are people who are nationalists on the island of Ireland and there are people who are Unionists who consider themselves to be British. For all the talk of consensus it is very difficult to see how anyone could reconcile those two points of view.'
It is telling that it has been left to die-hard Unionists like William Ross to defend the democratic principles of representation and majority rule, while the new-thinking radicals are busy demanding 'anti-majoritarian mechanisms'. 'I have always supported majoritarian democracy', says Ross. 'The good thing about democracy is that it makes people ask questions, and it asks people which particular way they want to go. Democracy should be about the will of the majority of the population or, as James Molyneaux (former Ulster Unionist leader) used to put it, 'the greater number'.
Of course, it is not surprising that Ross and other Unionists have 'always supported majoritarian democracy'. After all, Northern Ireland is a gerrymandered statelet, founded to ensure a permanent Protestant majority. But whatever we might think of the bigoted politics of a Unionist like Ross, at least he expresses a desire to represent his electorate: 'I was elected to represent the best interests of the people of Londonderry East and to reflect the interests of the majority of the population in Northern Ireland and that is what I intend to do.' However, even Ross' modest aspirations could be scuppered if the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition has its way.
'Both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland are guilty of going for the old, polarised, tribal votes in this general election', says May Blood, founding member of the Women's Coalition. 'We were hoping for a more open forum, more of a coming together for the good of the region and the good of the people, but it has not happened. What Northern Ireland needs now is to move away from the old politics and towards consensus.'
Despite a poor result in the election to all-party talks last year (7731 votes) and a worse one in the May general election (3024 votes), the Women's Coalition is already enforcing the politics of consensus. The NIWC had two delegates 'elected' to the talks under a rigged system which gave equal representation to all parties. 'When we stood in the election to the all-party talks', says Blood, 'we rather naively assumed that once we were elected we would be treated as equals. But when our two women went into the talks they were treated with the most appalling physical and verbal abuse. So we started up a very efficient campaign called the Name, Blame and Shame Campaign. When any of the traditional politicians got out of control or were disrespectful we put their name on a list up on the noticeboard, blamed their political party for their behaviour and we literally shamed them in front of everyone at the all-party talks. It is like what you would do with children, but then that's exactly how they were acting'.
Blood May flow
Surely treating elected representatives like children is an insult to the thousands who elected them? 'But consensus politics is about the political parties having respect for each other', says Blood. 'Some men in Northern Ireland have held power for so long that they think everything they say is right and we were determined to work against that.'
So not only does consensus politics exclude the electorate from having a say, it also seeks to overrule the political parties themselves. The only consensus being reached here is an anti-democratic one among a new unelected elite - and it is being agreed behind the backs of the electorate. It is a consensus on what is and what is not acceptable in Northern Irish politics, on what can and cannot be discussed and, ultimately, on how the country should be run. Northern Irish MPs who want to play a full role in the peace process will have to tone down their politics, watch their language and ignore the wishes of those who elected them. And if they refuse to comply they can expect to be punished like naughty school children.
Northern Ireland certainly needs a new political agenda. The old traditions of Unionism and nationalism are exhausted; the only reason people stick to them is because nobody has put forward a better alternative. The current alternative, the politics of consensus, has made things even worse. It effectively disenfranchises the Northern Irish electorate, and hands authority to a new minority who hold the people and their representatives in contempt.
Reproduced from LM issue 101, June 1997