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30 September 1997

All parties, no people

Those who would like to see a lasting democratic solution in Ireland should not invest their hopes in the all-party talks, writes Brendan O'Neill

History will be made in Northern Ireland this week. For the first time since the state was founded over 70 years ago the Ulster Unionist Party will sit down with Sinn Fein to negotiate a political settlement. By ditching their long-standing insistence that the IRA hand over weapons during the talks, the Ulster Unionists have paved the way for full-scale negotiations, ending 15 months of 'procedural wrangling'. John Hume, leader of the nationalist SDLP, said: 'I have refrained from using this word before, but this is historic. We are moving into the serious negotiations that we are here for and that is a major development'.

Out of the 10 parties that were elected to the talks forum in May 1996 only two are refusing to attend: Robert McCartney's United Kingdom Unionist Party and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists. Both parties refuse to negotiate with Sinn Fein while the IRA is still heavily armed. But, like the IRA, these two Unionist parties now find themselves accused of turning their back on democracy and of failing to represent the people who voted for them. It is now accepted by almost everyone that 'it's good to talk', and that change can only be affected through a democratic process like the all-party talks. But in reality the real degradation of democracy in Northern Ireland is taking place INSIDE the talks forum.

Contrary to popular belief the aim of the all-party talks is not to find a lasting democratic solution in Ireland, but to put an end to independent politics and to frustrate democracy. The inclusion of minority groups like the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition has been hailed as a triumph for the new politics of consensus and a kick in the teeth to the male-dominated adversarial politics of the past. But while this may sound very radical, it is inherently anti-democratic. The true anti-political and anti-democratic nature of the talks is clear from the 'sufficiency of consensus' mechanism; a triple-lock mechanism which has been enforced on the talks to ensure that all sides get a fair hearing.

No proposal or submission makes it past the forum unless it wins 'sufficient consent'. 'Sufficient consent' means the following: firstly the proposal must win the support of the two largest parties at the talks, the nationalist SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party; secondly, it must be clear that those two parties have a sufficient electoral mandate; and thirdly, the proposal must win the support of a majority of the smaller parties. This mechanism has been hailed as the future of 'democracy' in Northern Ireland, a democracy based on consensus rather than first-past-the-post majority rule. However, 'sufficiency of consensus' will have disastrous consequences for political life in Northern Ireland.

Take 'lock number one': 'the proposal must win support of the two largest parties at the talks'. This sounds democratic enough, but in reality it signals the end of independent political life. The SDLP and the UUP have fundamental disagreements on how Northern Ireland should be governed. The nationalist SDLP has as its ideal a united Ireland, and in the meantime would like to see as much 'Irish involvement' in Northern Ireland's affairs as possible. The UUP, on the other hand, is bitterly opposed to a united Ireland and to 'Irish interference' in the North, and wants to remain a part of the United Kingdom. It will have to be a pretty non-adversarial, non-political proposal to win the backing of these two fundamentally opposed political parties. 'Lock number one' of 'sufficiency of consensus' effectively outlaws independent politics.

What about 'lock number two': 'it must be clear that the two parties have a sufficient electoral mandate'? Does this recognise the importance of majority rule and the idea that ordinary people should have a say in how their country is governed? Not quite. 'Lock number two' reduces having an electoral mandate to a technicality. It is safe to assume that Protestants in places like the Shankill Road voted for the UUP so that they would argue for an internal British settlement, and that nationalists in Derry and West Belfast voted for the SDLP on the understanding that they would oppose the Unionists and put the case for some sort of all-Ireland arrangement. However, as we have seen from 'lock number one', neither party will be allowed to argue for an independent political position. For the purposes of the all-party talks, therefore, having an electoral mandate does not mean doing what the people have asked you to; instead it is about having enough support to give the politics of consensus a democratic gloss.

And finally, 'lock number three': 'the proposal must win the support of the smaller parties'. This reveals the true anti-democratic nature of the talks. The five small parties taking part in the negotiations are the Progressive Unionist Party, the Ulster Democratic Party, the Alliance Party, the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition and the insignificant Labour Party. Between them these five parties represent just over 100,000 people, yet they will be able to veto proposals that have been supported by the UUP and the SDLP, who, at the last count, represent a total of 438,000 people. So even if some non-adversarial, non-political, inoffensive proposal wins the support of the two largest parties, with their stage army of voters in tow, it can still be thrown out by a majority of the smaller parties. This all adds up to make the all-party talks in Northern Ireland the most anti-democratic regime in the Western world.

'Sufficiency of consensus' at the talks forum is a triumph for minority groups like the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, who think that consensus is more important than democracy. It is also a triumph for the British and Irish governments, and the Clinton administration which is chairing the talks, who want to see controversial debate in Ireland reduced to a minimum. But it is a tragedy for the people of Northern Ireland and the mass political parties they support - all of whom will have less say than ever on how their country is governed.

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