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Brendan O'Neill asks who is really setting the agenda for the all-party talks in Northern Ireland

Look who's talking

'Maybe it's because we are women that we tend to have a much more positive and pragmatic approach to the all-party talks. We don't sit there posturing over principles that we will never move away from. That means we can truly engage in negotiations in a meaningful way, without having to say we are selling out.'

Monica McWilliams, leader of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, is feeling good about her group's role in the all-party talks that started in October. While republican, nationalist and Unionist parties are criticised for squabbling over age-old differences, McWilliams and her coalition have been praised for taking their responsibilities more seriously. 'We have got until next May to come up with a frame of words that can then be put to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum', she told me. 'There is a lot for us to discuss, but let's face it, it is not the most difficult thing in the world.'

Six months ago May Blood, a founding member of the Women's Coalition, told me how their delegates had been treated 'with the most appalling physical and verbal abuse' when they first entered the all-party talks last year (see '"Consensus" by coercion', LM, June). Now it would appear that the Women's Coalition is playing a leading role. 'I don't want it to sound like we have an exaggerated view of ourselves', says McWilliams, 'but the proposals that we put forward tend to be the ones that everyone else agrees to. We have always been about creating the consensual option which, believe it or not, eventually becomes the acceptable option. It may not be the preferable option that people start out with, because the two sides have many political differences, but we find that when we write papers for the forum they tend to be the ones that win support'.

At the election to the all-party talks in May 1996 the Women's Coalition won a measly 7731 votes, compared with the Ulster Unionist Party's 181 829. At the general election in May this year, the coalition's vote went down to 3024 while the UUP's went up to over 250 000. So how is it that a few women can put forward proposals that mass political parties feel obliged to accept?

'Because the all-party talks is not about first-past-the-post democracy', responds McWilliams. 'That old way of working is not going to help us to agree a set of arrangements. We have got to think about consent and the consensual option. That is why everything agreed at the all-party talks has to go along with the "sufficiency of consensus" mechanism.'

'Sufficiency of consensus' is a triple-lock mechanism which ensures that no submission or proposal makes it past the forum unless it wins the support of the smaller parties as well as the traditional nationalist and Unionist parties. Lord Alderdice, leader of the small but influential Alliance Party, told me how 'sufficiency of consensus' works: 'Firstly, a proposal must win the support of a majority of those representing Unionists and a majority of those representing nationalists; it must also be clear that it has the support of the community in Northern Ireland as a whole; and then it must win the support of the parties participating in the talks.'

Nationalist v Unionist

According to Alderdice this way of working has helped to move Northern Ireland away from the polarised, adversarial politics of the past and towards a new, more consensual form of government: 'Consent, as defined at the talks, requires more than the support of the traditional Unionist parties and the traditional nationalist parties, and that means that other views which are normally marginalised can be brought on board in a very real way.'

This is how McWilliams' 'consensual option' always becomes 'the acceptable option': the talks forum has been designed to elevate consensus and agreement over the adversarial politics which would normally prevail if nationalists and Unionists were left to their own devices. But where does this leave democracy? After all, age-old arguments between nationalists and Unionists may not be to everybody's liking but it looks like that is what the people have voted for. 'That kind of argument will get us nowhere', says Alderdice. 'In the kind of society that we are trying to create we do not want to see a simple nationalist v Unionist see-saw. We are looking for a new society where people will not institutionalise their divisions, but will overcome them.'

The clear implication of Alderdice's argument is that if the people of Northern Ireland, and the political parties they support, continue to stick to their outdated allegiances then the more enlightened parties will have to forge ahead without them, in search of the new consensus-based society. Behind all the politically correct language of consent and agreement, surely this is anti-democratic?

'To give minority groups the same amount of delegates and the same strength of vote at the negotiating process as the larger parties is completely anti-democratic', says Ian Paisley junior, justice spokesman for the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP has boycotted the talks because of the inclusion of Sinn Fein. Every inch his father's son, Paisley junior describes the forum as an 'IRA-driven process': 'We will not sit down and watch the IRA dominate a process which should be about finding a solution that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want.'

But behind his paranoia about the IRA, Paisley junior is also concerned about what he considers to be the degradation of the democratic process in Northern Ireland: 'For a party like the Women's Coalition who got 0.7 per cent of the vote to be allowed to have the same number of delegates as my party which got nearly 20 per cent of the vote, I mean, anyone can see that that is completely anti-democratic.'

Paisley junior is concerned that the emphasis on consensus at the talks will prevent the parties from representing the will of their constituents. 'The DUP was elected by people who want to see an internal British settlement in the North, but we would not be able to argue for that because we would have to try and reach consensus. It's a joke. Our objective now is to stop this process delivering a settlement that will be against the interests of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland.'

Having spoken to Monica McWilliams and Lord Alderdice about the elevation of consensus, I found myself forced to agree with Paisley that the talks are undemocratic and that the parties will be prevented from representing their voters. But then I thought, what right does Ian Paisley junior have to talk about democracy? The only reason the Paisley family and the Democratic Unionist Party support majoritarian democracy is because they know it will return a Protestant-Unionist majority every time in the statelet of Northern Ireland, whose boundaries were so carefully drawn in 1921 to ensure a permanent pro-British majority.

So maybe the new politics of consensus is not such a bad thing? If the new politics enables small groups of radical women and others to challenge Unionist domination, then maybe we should welcome it? After all, anything which so infuriates the Paisley patriarchy has got to be good, right?

A new partition

I would not be so sure. It might be satisfying to see Unionist bigots getting a taste of their own undemocratic medicine, but it looks like the new politics of consensus will be at least as bad, if not worse, than the old politics of partition. 'It is imperative that we move toward consensus', says Monica McWilliams as our conversation comes to a close. 'The old politics have not worked.' And if the people of Northern Ireland continue to support the old politics? 'Well, I would argue that electoral representation is not the only legitimate form of representation', responds McWilliams, ominously. 'We also need participatory democracy, where elected representatives can sit down alongside community representatives and public sector representatives, and reach accommodations and solutions together. That way everyone gets a chance to put their views across.'

This is the reality of the politics of consensus. Despite being presented in the language of inclusion and consent, the new politics heralds the end of electoral representation in Northern Ireland and the beginning of a 'consensual dictatorship'. By elevating the smaller, consensus-driven parties and unelected 'community representatives' to the same status as the mass parties, the process will deny people in Northern Ireland any say on the political agenda. Consensus is the order of the day, whether the people like it or not.

In this sense, the politics of consensus is to the 1990s what partition has been for the past 70 years: a means of frustrating democracy and popular choice in Ireland. And willingly or not, the likes of Monica McWilliams and Lord Alderdice are set to play a similar role for the new establishment as the Unionists played for the old. The talks process is a triumph for those who think that consensus is more important than democracy. It is also a triumph for Tony Blair and his Northern Ireland Office who want to see controversial debate reduced to a minimum. But it is a tragedy for the peoples of Northern Ireland, all of whom will have less say than ever in how they are governed.

U2's single Please, is addressed to party leaders in the talks, who get the Andy Warhol treatment in the record's publicity

Reproduced from LM issue 105, November 1997



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