Thursday, May 12, 2005
A Unionist Citizens Inquiry
I would propose that the UUP make an effort to remedy this by setting up a Unionist Forum, along the lines of the Opsahl Commission or the New Ireland Forum. Such a body would consist of a number of commissioners drawn from a range of backgrounds with the task of seeking out new ideas for the future of Northern Ireland.
To this end the Unionist Forum would invite written submissions from all interested members of the public, whether unionist or otherwise. The Forum could then hold public hearings where the most interesting ideas could be teased out in questioning and debate and would produce a report together with a permanent record of the submissions it received.
Such a Forum would help redress the view that the UUP are distant and detached from the people. By looking to our own citizens for ideas it would give the thinking people of Northern ireland (and further afield) an input into the political process.
I went to the Linenhall Library a few years ago and read some of the contributions made to the Opsahl Commission. I was very favourably impressed by the creative thinking of the contributors. I am sure that many of them have never been members of a political party nor had many of them been asked for their views before, yet the level of insight would put many professional politicians to shame.
Northern Ireland politics is sadly lacking in "think tanks" of the sort that exist in other countries. Perhaps this can be remedied by using everyone as a think tank.
Democracy in Northern Ireland
One theory is which I would term "representative democracy" suggests that the prime feature of democracy is representation of all of the groups in society. The purpose of a set of democratic institutions is to give as far as possible all groups in society representation in the institutions of governance. This theory is keen on proportional representation, coalition governments and on mechanisms to ensure the widest possible diffusion of power within those institutions.
A second theory which I would term "liberal democracy" looks at the key feature of democracy as being the accountability of the government to the people. This theory tends towards a more majoritarian conception of government because it regards the right of the people to dismiss our government as being of key importance. This theory tends to regard legal rights and constitutinal limitations on government powers as being the mechanisms to protect minority groups.
The constitutional orthodoxy in Northern Ireland since 1973 has been towards a representative model. The aim of successive British governments (and latterly Irish governments too) has been to produce a set of constitutional mechanisms that guarantee that parties from both sides of the community end up in the executive regardless of the election result.
I would suggest that this constitutional orthodoxy is a major source of our difficulties. There are a legion of divided societies on this planet yet only a few have gone down the line of entrenching communal positions in the executive. Lebanon and Cyprus are the two main examples, unfortunately before their respective civil war and near civil war. It is my opinion that the reason why it is so difficult to create a power sharing constitution in Northern ireland is because the very idea itself is unworkable.
If my opinion in this regard is correct and power-sharing is unworkable, then we must try to find a plan B. Here is where the liberal democratic models may be of more use. The US constitution is the classic example of liberal democracy. I would not propose it as a model to be slavishly followed here, yet although majoritarian, it has a series of guarantees:
1. It divides powers geographically by its federalism.
2. It limits the powers of its institutions.
3. It has strong judicial controls.
While the GFA looks better in theory, it has not worked in practice. In the real world the sort of mechanisms set out in the US constitution and in the constitions of other liberal democracies may prove a lot more effective than anything in the GFA.
Because the NI orthodoxy is so strongly wedded to "power sharing" nobody is really even considering the multitude of other constitutional mechanisms that may be available. Pursuit of utopian perfection has prevented us from looking for solutions in the real world.
It is my opinion that, in a divided society such as our own, the constitution should be encouraging alliances and voting accross the divisions rather than, GFA-style, institutionalising them.
In the STV system there is no incentive to vote accross the divide as all groups which get a quota will be represented. I haven't seen much recent data, but older studies tended to show that the number of voters who give their preferences accross the divide are minimal.
Ironically the much maligned first past the post system actually encourages more cross-community voting. Because there can only be one winner, in many seats the individual elector can decide either to vote for a no-hoper from his own "side" or to vote tactically for the least bad of two candidates from the other side. It seems that the very majoritarianism that is much decried by critics forces the voter himself to make compromises that the comunal party he might usually vote for would never consider.
In many ways a system that has too many guarantees simply reinforces the existing divisions.
The fall of Trimble
If the IRA had decommissioned and disbanded does anyone seriously doubt that Trimble would not now still be First Minister of a government including Sinn Fein and the DUP? If Irish nationalism had taken action to isolate Sinn Fein because of their failure to secure IRA decommissioning would there be any doubt that Trimble would still be First Minister of a government not including Sinn Fein?Trimble has taken every risk possible for peace and all that he has ended up with is defeat and failure. Nobody in Irish nationalism lifted a finger to help him. Nobody in nationalism has taken any risks for peace as they prefer the safety of sectarian communal solidarity to peace. There is no nationalist David Trimble and it does not look like there will be in the forseeable future. I have seen at least one academic article written by a puzzled US law professor trying to explain why the unionists in Northern Ireland was so generous to nationalism in the GFA, I have yet to see any explaining nationalist generosity in the GFA.
Trimble genuinely tried to act for the good of the whole community and nationalism responded by closing ranks and undermining him.
I voted against the GFA. I was opposed to prisoner releases, I thought the Strand 1 scheme was utterly unworkable and I thought that the language on decommissioning was too vague and wooly. It looks like all of my objections have been proven right with time. I would rather have been proved wrong.
If IRA decommissioning had happened by 2000, on the timetable set out by the agreement, I would have been proven wrong and we would probably now be looking at the end of the DUP instead of the end of the UUP.Trimble bravely did what he thought was right. Many of us disagreed with his judgement. Unfortunately we were right and he was wrong. It would have been better for all of us had that been different.