The challenge of democracy

I found it thoroughly uplifting to hear that a majority of Northern Ireland’s democratically elected legislature had voted in favour of extending marriage to same-sex couples. It was only a slight swing from the previous vote, but it brought Northern Ireland into line with its neighbours and most of the civilised world in having a legislature in favour of allowing civil marriage for love with no restriction. All is not lost in this little place!

On a slightly more negative note, this did then move us on to the inevitable, and quite proper, outrage that the motion in fact nominally “fell” because the DUP applied a “Petition of Concern”, which effectively enabled it to block the motion on its own. This move was indeed undemocratic, straying obviously quite beyond the original purpose of the Petition system.

However, many of the same people decrying the DUP’s move as “undemocratic” raised no such concerns when both Nationalist parties did the same thing to block welfare reform. Some, indeed, even expressed relief that they had done so. You cannot have it both ways.

In fact, some of those slamming the DUP in this case were the same ones demanding a Petition be used to block the DUP’s “Conscience Clause”. In this case, I find myself completely against the proposed legislation, but it had cross-community social support (as the Catholic Church also made positive noises about it) and therefore was something to be defeated by rational debate, not a sectarian blocking mechanism.

Indeed, the Petition of Concern has now become a means not of encouraging rational re-think, but of nullifying any debate at all. Instead of engaging in serious discussion of the issues, with a view perhaps of seeking to change views through persuasion or at least reach accommodation by compromise, we now just form our own minority social circles and then block everything we don’t like through a Petition. This is undemocratic, as clarified above – but we are all guilty of it!

It is not good enough to say “Ah, but they are different issues”. If some of those are issues of overriding Human Rights or Equality Law, that is for the courts to sort out. But if they are otherwise matters of political opinion, we need to accept that it is precisely that upon which people are elected.

None of this is to say, by the way, that Petitions of Concern should be eliminated altogether. I think it is reasonable to use them to delay potentially harmful legislation while human rights and equality implications are considered; and conceivably even to block outright things which did not appear in a Programme for Government (although even that is subject to my own contention that the agreeing of such a Programme should precede Executive formation).

However, it is to say that we have a basic problem with democracy – from Loyalist to Liberal, from Republican to Radical. We like to accuse others of being “undemocratic” when Petitions go against us, but we do not self-reflect when we use them for our own ends. Fundamentally, we believe our own ends are of greater value than our opponents’ – but that is what elections decide, not our own judgement about sectarian blocking mechanisms.

Democracy is a challenge. Too few of us are up to the self-reflection necessary for it – a problem which exists well beyond Northern Ireland, for what it is worth.

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One thought on “The challenge of democracy

  1. William Allen says:

    The concept of the petition of concern is completely undemocratic, but then the way the assembly is set up with the enforced cross community executive is by itself completely undemocratic. In a democratic system whichever party or voluntary coalition of parties that has the majority of representatives will form the government. We may get to vote for our MLAs but that does not a democracy make.

    The whole system therefore needs to be re-examined. It is my humble opinion that we are being politically held back by the very political parties that are available for us to vote for, because largely they represent the views and issues of the past rather than the present and future. The problem however is that so many of the people who really do think differently than what is represented by our political parties just don’t engage in politics at all allowing the elections to be carried time and time again by the die hard (and mostly older) section of the population who can not see beyond the past.

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