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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