It is worth recalling that the last time the Northern Ireland Assembly voted on same-sex marriage, a majority backed it.
However, due to our complex history, the Assembly has a mechanism called a “Petition of Concern” which, if used, effectively means change can only happen if a majority of both main traditions back it. The Petition was used and, since the proposal lacked a Unionist majority, it failed.
Liberals were incandescent.
At around the same time, however, the Welfare Reform Bill was blocked using the same mechanism, this time by Nationalists.
When I put it to the incandescent Liberals that this constituted the same problem of democracy denied, it was peculiar how many suddenly changed their view. In other words, if a Petition was used to block something they didn’t like, it was fine; it was only wrong to use it to block something they liked.
But that isn’t democracy. Making your support for democracy conditional on most things going your way means you lose the right to call yourself a democrat. You support democracy, or you do not.
(The Petition system is there for very good reason, as anyone with an understanding of this part of the world will know. I do happen to believe it is now being used for purposes beyond those originally intended and thus needs reformed, but that is for another post!)
A month ago, a democratic election took place in the United States. As the name suggests, this is not a single entity but a union of States, who collectively elect their President via an Electoral College.
In that Electoral College, quite deliberately, smaller states are slightly overrepresented – just as smaller regions are overrepresented in the Spanish Cortes, smaller States are overrepresented in the German Federal Council (upper house), and Scotland and Wales were overrepresented in the UK Parliament prior to legislative devolution. It is therefore quite normal, indeed expected, for diverse countries to overrepresent smaller areas to avoid larger populations having all the say over the direction of the country.
In last month’s United States Presidential Election, my much preferred candidate Hillary Clinton received 2.5 million more votes than any other candidate.
However, there was a problem. She in fact was a whopping 4 million clear of her nearest rival in the State of California alone. This means in the remaining 49 States plus the District of Columbia, her nearest rival Donald Trump actually received nearly 1.5 million more votes than she did. These were received in smaller States which are proportionately overrepresented in the Electoral College, and therefore led to his receiving the comfortable majority of delegates to it.
In other words, unfortunately, the deliberate (and quite normal) overrepresentation of smaller areas to avoid the tyranny of the most populated ones (like California) led to an outcome I intensely dislike.
But that outcome was perfectly democratic, part of a system whose very design is to ensure the voices of those in sparsely populated states many people could not even place on a map definitely get heard. The system, in fact, worked perfectly.
As someone seriously concerned about the winning candidate, I don’t have to like the outcome. But as a democrat, I have to accept it. Otherwise I lose the right to call myself one.