We need to grasp that NI has never been a democracy

English Philosopher Roger Scruton completed a wonderful series for the BBC Magazine of four articles – 1 2 3 4 – focused on the quest for democracy in the Middle East.

In the first he argues, as I long have, that democracy is misunderstood by most people as applying only to elections. In fact, it is three pillars – fair elections yes, but also freedom (particularly of speech) and human rights (guaranteed independently). These are in fact separate concepts and none of them guarantees any of the others. Democracy is only complete once we have all three.  “It requires the institution of an independent judicial system, property rights and freedom of speech.

In the second, he notes the requirement of any democratic government to take full and fair account of those who did not vote for it. To achieve this, it is necessary to move away from a “War” footing (wars are about absolutes, politics is about compromises); and it is necessary to prioritise the secular over the religious (again because religious arguments are by definition absolutes, not compromises). “The Turkish case vividly illustrates the point that democracy, freedom and human rights are not one thing but three. Erdogan has a large following. He has three times won an election with a substantial majority. But the elementary freedoms have been rather jeopardised than enhanced by this.

In the third, he pursues this argument, noting the need for us to see ourselves in “national” (I would say “civic”) terms rather than “religious” or anything else – in other words, we must make the law, not God. “But one thing that has been very noticeable has been the emergence of democratically elected governments that have no time for opinions other than their own.

In the fourth, he argues that compromise is essential in any functioning democracy, and that perhaps the key marker of a functioning democracy is that it allows dissent within the law, arguing also that whatever our religious, cultural and/or linguistic differences, we have to regard each other as fellow citizens. “What matters to us in our democracy is not that majority opinion should prevail, but that we should be equal participants in the political process, and equally protected by it.

Oh dear. He is suggesting throughout that Western Europe (with its compromise and promotion of secular over religious) is full of democracies and the Arab World (with its religious fervour and talk of war) is not. Which one is more akin to Northern Ireland?

We have to face up to the fundamental problem: we are not a democratic society.

After all, how do you seek compromise when you lack a “national understanding“? What do you do with groups who still speak in terms of “war” (with a mentality of absolute victory or quits)? What do you do when religious arguments trump democratic debate?

How do you even begin any of this when you cannot even take assumptions about freedom of speech and an independent judiciary for granted? Remember, the DUP and Sinn Fein respect neither consistently – even accepting violence as legitimate against people merely for making a democratic choice.

As a final thought: I do mean democratic society. You can pussy-foot around with speaking rights and official oppositions all you like, for as long as our society isn’t democratic – for as long as we disrespect people merely for taking a contrary view, for as long as we refuse to negotiate with people merely because of their background, for as long as we prefer doctrine to evidence as the basis for public debate – just a bit of tampering with the odd institution will not make the slightest difference.

To be clear, the challenge here is for the so-called “Centre Ground”, for the Progressives, to create a civic (not just political movement) for a truly democratic society – noting that we have never truly been one.

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3 thoughts on “We need to grasp that NI has never been a democracy

  1. […] reminded us some time ago, that the defining features of a functioning democracy extend beyond free and fair elections. The increasingly kleptocratic regime in Turkey is a perfect example of a democracy sliding away from the tenets of liberal democracy on the basis of a ruler’s belief that winning elections provides him with the unfettered right to rule. […]

  2. Oh dear. He is suggesting throughout that Western Europe (with its compromise and promotion of secular over religious) is full of democracies and the Arab World (with its religious fervour and talk of war) is not. Which one is more akin to Northern Ireland?

    We have to face up to the fundamental problem: we are not a democratic society.

    Not particularly true, I would not call Monaco or Liechenstine particularly democratic entities. I also think the European elections are a sign Europe like the Arab Gulf has a resistance to making compromises and so called “moderation” is being challenged. True moderation in the face of vast individualism is far from natural, it is something people need to continually work upon. Moderation comes from extremes compromising, it’s not standing in the middle but tying things up at the end. This is why we have moderation in Northern Ireland, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Belgium, even in Switzerland as a matter of necessity but that moderation isn’t always what the people want. And whatever the people want is democracy, even if democracy can undermine itself e.g. NSDAP.

  3. I also question if secularism has offered better democracy if the individual politicians do not deliver on it, being “of the age” is nothing more than some demand for modernity. The Chinese regime is extremely secular, destroying traditionalism, isolationism, it certainly pushes modernism on all, even if the regime is more tolerant to religion and does not force irreligion on people. It’s also a case that secularism does not mean humanism, nor religious and ideological tolerance for all it simply means a zeitgeist opinion held by a majority of people, if that is the case than any democracy is secular. Liberal democracy ensures fair play in a democracy, but it is only a section of that democracy.

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