I was most disappointed by a tweet from a Unionist commentator whose views, even when I disagree with them, I can generally respect.
Voting to restrict flying of flag is, in my opinion, the wrong one: but the reaction from some of the protestors [sic] was equally wrong too.
Or, to try another angle, the First Minister demanded respect for the Union Flag (above, for example, the Tricolour) as the flag of the United Kingdom that the people of Northern Ireland (i.e. the majority of people of Northern Ireland) want to remain within. Constitutionally, he is of course correct in that. But the same logic must be consistently applied: only a minority of people in Belfast voted for Unionists, and comfortably more voted for Nationalists; thus the majority position in Belfast is not to fly the Union Flag 365 days a year on City Hall. Yet the compromise still gives the Union Flag primacy, and even does so in a way which is commonplace across the UK. So where, precisely, is his problem?
Here is the truth: Unionism is not a democratic tradition.
Unionism has, rather, relied on two things: firstly, threat of the force of arms (as per the gun running 100 years ago); secondly, threat of force of numbers (deliberately creating for itself artificial majorities).
Both were instantly in evidence over the past 36 hours. Some suggested that non-Unionist Councillors should have gone along with Unionist demands to avoid the violence (and implicitly suggested those who dared to disagree with Unionists were somehow responsible for the Unionist rioting which followed) – that is mob rule, not democracy. Others suggested that the city boundaries were in the wrong place (the same boundaries that gave Unionists a majority until 2001) – that is gerrymandering, not democracy.
Many Unionists would distance themselves, in the 21st century, from mob rule – though by no means all. “The violence was inevitable” wrote one UUP former Special Adviser – knowing full well that it was utterly avoidable, if his colleagues hadn’t joined in the rabble-rousing online and in leaflets. Breaches of the law during the parades disputes were similarly regarded as “legitimate” by many – too many.
Most Unionists, however, even those who oppose violence outright, would struggle with the concept that “democracy” is not the same as “majoritarianism”. The whole argument for maintaining 365 days/year was based not on a persuasive constitutional case, but rather on numbers – either orchestrated or straight-out invented in most cases, it turned out. The argument made to Alliance representatives almost always took the form of “If you don’t do what we say, you’ll be voted out” – in other words, “We’re bigger than you so you’d better do as we say”.
In other words, to the Unionist mindset, anything can be justified, provided the majority think it. There are two problems here: first, Unionists are no longer a majority; second, and more importantly, democracy is about much more than majorities. It is about taking into account the overall “power of the people” (the origin of the term), meaning all of the people having a say equally, regardless of whether they happen to fall into a cultural, ethnic or linguistic majority or otherwise. It is about taking decisions while thinking and feeling for all the people, so that they are all empowered, not just a certain section.
To think and feel for all the people, you need to learn the art of persuasion and compromise. Force of arms or numbers are illegitimate, only force of argument counts. If you cannot persuade others to your view, you must seek compromise, not pursue threats – that applies, in fact, even if you are a majority, but much more obviously so if you are not.
There is more to democracy than voting, too. Fundamental pillars are also participation – i.e. the ability to engage in meaningful debate through the media and elsewhere; and abiding by the Rule of Law – i.e. the acceptance that the law and rules as passed by democratically elected institutions are binding on all of us, whether we happen to like it or not, and whether it happens to suit us or not. Over the last few months, Unionists have not proven consistently able to do either.
What was most obvious about the whole Flags debate was the complete inability on the part of Unionists either to put forward a persuasive argument, or to seek compromise – and then a willingness to breach the law or excuse its being breached, as in the summer. This would be alarming – for them and frankly for Northern Ireland – if they were the majority. But they’re not even that any more. Unionists must learn, and learn quickly, the democratic tradition where debate and compromise trump threats and numbers – not least because we are all minorities now.