Editorial from Irish Political Review, May 2003

Northern Ireland:—
Anti-Electoral Democracy

We were told it was “democracy”, so let’s pretend that is what it was—the system of fragmented sub-government at Stormont.

Democracy was suspended by arbitrary power six months ago. The Government that suspended it was an arbitrary power with relation to Northern Ireland because it was elected elsewhere. Government is made democratic by being elected by the electorate which it governs. The government which abolished the Stormont system did not receive a single vote from the Stormont electorate. It is therefore an arbitrary power in Northern Ireland.

It set up the Stormont system for its own purposes, allowed it to exist while it was useful to it, and abolished it because the wrong parties flourished under it.

An election was looming. It was taken to be a virtual certainty that the parties favoured by Whitehall—the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party—would lose their majority status to the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein. The UUP leader and First Minister threatened to bring the house down as a way of strengthening his position against the Democratic Unionist Party. The Secretary of State, John Reid (formerly of the British Communist Party) identified the interests of the State with David Trimble’s interest and acted for him.

Whitehall’s object during the past five years has been to try to make it appear that Trimble has not been behaving destructively towards the Good Friday Agreement. So Dr. Reid—he is some kind of sociology ‘doctor’—took up Trimble’s allegations as if they were facts, launched a high profile police raid on Sinn Fein’s offices at Stormont, ordered some arrests, and abolished the democracy on the ground that it was being subverted by Sinn Fein.

Trimble’s three allegations have ever since been presented as established facts by the British state media (BBC and ITV), and also by the Irish media for the most part. They are that theft of security documents from the high-security police barracks at Castlereagh in broad daylight by a group of men not wearing masks was a Republican operation, that there was a Republican mole operating as a spy at the centre of the Government of the State, and that the Republicans were engaged in terrorist activity in Columbia.

Not one of these allegations has been proved. No charges have been brought in connection with Castlereagh or the spying. And the charges brought in Columbia have run into severe trouble at the trial, even though Columbia is very far from being a liberal democracy and the Dublin Government has refused to exert itself to ensure that its citizens get a fair trial. (At one moment it seemed that an all-Party group of observers from the Dail was going to subject the Columbian trial to close scrutiny. The first action of Pat Rabbitte as leader of the Irish Labour Party was to attack that project. Rabbitte, a leading member of the Official Republican movement until it merged with the Labour Party, was pursuing the Stickie vendetta against the Provos. But, despite his encouragement to the Columbian authorities to get on with it, the evidence appears to be so flawed—so concocted—that even the biassed system may fail to secure a guilty verdict.)

Does any of this matter, any more than the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? The allegations served the purpose of the moment. In the absence of police charges—not to mention convictions—it is reasonable to call them lies. But what was done by use of those lies is not undone when they are seen to be lies. They served their purpose. Something has been changed by use of them.

And—as Clare Short said about the other lie—nothing is achieved by raking over the past. We must move on so that the future may be enabled to happen—something like that.

Dr. Reid, who was something in his own right, has moved on. His successor, Paul Murphy, is only a lap-dog, who knows he is lucky to have so big a job. And, despite all the help given by Whitehall, Trimble is no more likely to win the election in the “democracy” than he was last year. He has therefore called off the election which “by law” should have been held in May. He sulked and said that, if the election were held, he would refuse to take part in the election of a First Minister. And Whitehall again saved him from the necessity of having to engage in overtly destructive action against the Agreement which he signed, by calling off the election.

The pretended reason for calling off the election was the refusal of the IRA to do and say certain things. The demands made on the IRA are not even requirements under the Agreement for the participation of Sinn Fein in devolved government, and yet compliance with those demands is made a precondition for the holding of the election.

We have been told in another connection in recent months that “democracy is a process, not an outcome”. And the process of democracy is an election. (So it is at least in the system of representation by parties based on universal franchise, which is the only political form recognised as democratic in the present era.) But the state-subsidised ideologues of democracy in Northern Ireland tell us that it is vitally necessary to the well-being of democracy in Northern Ireland that the election provided for by law should not be held. And the reason it should not be held is that it would have the wrong outcome. Professors Bew and Patterson called for a pre-emptive strike against the process to prevent the immediate and present danger of its delivering the wrong outcome.

In a democracy, the punishment of politicians who are not democratic is that they do not get elected. Men behaving badly is therefore no reason for abolishing elections. Of course, the men who behave badly may want to abolish elections, preferably after they have been elected. But it is something new when the ideologues of democracy call for the electorate to be deprived of an election as a punishment of men who, they claim, have been behaving undemocratically.

Henry Patterson (University of Ulster) appeared on Radio Eireann in mid-April (on Good Friday) to say that he “sees no democratic imperative to hold elections”, even though the law calls for them. Elections, he said, “would reward the bigots and extremists”, by which he meant the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The awkward thing about democracy is, of course, that it is democratic. Professor Patterson is a supporter and adviser of David Trimble. He is convinced that Trimble would lose an election and so he is against elections. He stands for some higher form of democracy—some form from which Demos is excluded—which will operate without elections.

We have ourselves spoken out against the holding of elections in Northern Ireland. We have been doing so for about thirty years. But we never did it for the purpose of upholding democracy, as Professor Patterson does. We did it on the ground that Northern Ireland is not a democratic entity, and that elections held within it are a caricature of the democratic process. But Professor Patterson rejected that view. He holds that Northern Ireland is a democracy. We cannot follow the reasoning by which he holds that view. But he holds it. And he is therefore an anti-electoral democrat.

He claimed that the SDLP agrees with him about the election, though it is unable to say so publicly, because it knows it would be routed by Sinn Fein in an election. It was put to him that the SDLP may actually hold its own against Sinn Fein, now that things have settled down a bit. He dismissed the idea. He said that the perception of the nationalist community was that, “essentially the war is over”, and that “so long as Sinn Fein is committed to peace”, the rout of the SDLP is inevitable.

Radio Eireann interviewers never ask Ulster Unionists difficult questions. Professor Patterson was not asked, as an adviser to Trimble, why, since it is his view that the conviction of the nationalist community is that the war is over and that Sinn Fein will rout the SDLP by being committed to peace, Trimble threatened to bring down the Agreement on the ground that the war is not over and Sinn Fein is not committed to peace?

Nor was he asked why he himself had described a party committed to peace as consisting of bigots and extremists?
In support of his view that there is no democratic imperative to hold an election, he said that in 1998 it took a year and a half to get the institutions off the ground because of decommissioning. The meaning seemed to be that that year and a half should be added on at the end.

That would in fact have been a very sensible approach. And we have often suggested that the clock should only run when the institutions are functioning.

Decommissioning was not a precondition of setting up the institutions. The Agreement makes it clear that decommissioning was expected to occur progressively over a number of years during which which the system of institutions it provided for was functioning. Trimble was eventually obliged to concede that decommissioning was not a precondition of the establishment of the system but was to occur after the system had been set in motion. But he was allowed to get away with including his deliberate delay of a year and a half as part of the time within which decommissioning was to occur. And, when he eventually was forced to allow the institutions to be set up, he only ever allowed them to function for brief periods, under ultimatums, in a crisis atmosphere.

When Patterson says in effect that the war is over and Sinn Fein is committed to peace, he only blurts out in simple form what Trimble believes to be the case. But a commitment to exclusively peaceful action by Sinn Fein is not enough for Trimble—or for Patterson. What they need is something which they can present as a surrender of the enemy. They take it that the enemy is committed to peaceful methods, but he remains the enemy nevertheless, and now that he has become peaceful in his operations the demand can safely be made that he should be humiliated.

In this regard the Ulster Unionist psychological need fits in with a tendency of the British state. In 1998, when Britain made a de facto Ceasefire agreement with the IRA, we suggested that, as with the Armistice with Germany in 1918, Britain would not rest easy until the Ceasefire had been developed into an unconditional surrender. It was reckoned that, with the end of the war, Republican morale would begin to weaken and that the leadership, desperate for status within the new arrangements of things, could be manipulated towards capitulation.

The Republican scheme was for a gradual withering away of the Army over a couple of years in the context of the operation of power-sharing and North/South institutions, reform of the governing apparatus of Northern Ireland and British demilitarisation. Trimble’s purpose from the start was to deprive them of that context, while requiring them to act as if the Agreement institutions were in being. He was supported by Blair in this attitude all the way along. And, in effect, Blair’s letter to the Unionist electorate on the eve of the referendum in Northern Ireland has been set up in place of the Agreement.

The Stormont administration was suspended on the strength of three allegations which have not yet been substantiated, and two of which have not even been made the subject of legal proceedings. The election was called off on the ground that the IRA was engaged in terrorist activity, in breach of the Agreement. And yet Professor Patterson says that SDLP would be routed in an election because the Catholic perception is that the war is over and Sinn Fein is committed to peace. So how does it happen that the Catholics do not see what the Protestants see—that the IRA is still at war? Particularly since this alleged war is being conducted against, or within, the Catholic community?

The bulk of the “terrorist activity” currently engaged in by the IRA is a kind of policing undertaken on the insistence of the Catholic community. The RUC remains unacceptable in Catholic areas, which only see a change of name, not of substance. The IRA maintains a degree of order by popular demand. It does not engage with the Protestant community or the British forces. And, as Professor Patterson says, what the Catholic community sees in this situation is the end of the war and a Republican commitment to peaceful methods. They see what is actually there.

The position adopted by Trimble within an hour of signing the Agreement on Good Friday 1998, committed him to raising an unlimited series of obstacles to the functioning of the Agreement. The Republicans have conceded much more than a reasonable reading of the Agreement requires of them. But to no avail. Appeasing Trimble is a futile activity. Because of what is driving him, he is unappeasable.

The Home Rule movement would probably have been absorbed into the British Empire eighty years ago if the Ulster Unionist Party had not raised a terrorist army against it. The raising and arming of the private army of the Unionists, the Ulster Volunteer Force, led to the formation of the Irish Republican Army, the 1918 vote for independence, and the defensive war of 1919-21.

The Unionist pogrom of August 1969 led to the formation of a new Republican movement—one produced out of the Northern Ireland caricature of democracy, and essentially specific to the Northern Ireland situation. After twenty years of military conflict the leaders of this Northern Republicanism decided to try to make a deal. The deal they signed could be construed as Partitionist. If the Unionist Party had worked it with them, they would in all probability now be establishment figures in the Northern Ireland annex of the British State. It must appear in the broader Republican perspective that, as in 1912, Ulster Unionism has saved them from themselves.


Northern Ireland: Anti-Electoral Democracy.

Iraq: Another Puritan Victory.
Pat Walsh

The Clonbanin Column:
Banking Commission; Partnership?; Shannon Reward; Sutherland v Kok; Poland; Whither Trade Unionism?; Police Co-operation; Hell; Home Help

Let's Hear It For Irish Protectionism!
Jack Lane (review)

An Cor Tuathail: And So The Frenchman Is Beaten
(Compiled by Pat Muldowney)

Appropriating The Anglo-Irish.
Desmond Fennell

Unpublished Letters To The Irish Times

A General Theory Of Partition.
Brendan Clifford

Northern News Digest (March/April)

Rejoining The Commonwealth?
Sean McGouran (report)

Labour Comment, edited by Pat Maloney:
Iraq And Ireland

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