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Northern Ireland, a democratic deficit

The 21st century has been marked so far by uncertainty, chaos and change.

From 9/11 to the execution of Osama bin Laden by US forces in 2011.

To the arrogance of Donald Trump, who said today that he has ‘complete power to pardon’ after examining his powers to pardon aides, family members and himself.

And especially the egregious hypocrisy of Theresa May, boasting of the sale of £3bn worth of UK arms to Saudi Arabia to ‘keep people on the streets of Britain safe’ from ‘global’ terrorism, while ignoring the deaths of countless men, women and children in the Yemen being bombed by a Saudi-led coalition using those very weapons.

In the UK, anger, fear and hatred stalk the land. Theresa May’s blind reliance on the politics of austerity is compounded by her appalling performance in Brexit negotiations.

And nowhere is there more uncertainty than in the North of Ireland.

Last week a Westminster House of Lords committee warned that political stability in Northern Ireland cannot be allowed to become ‘collateral damage’ of Brexit. The fallout from the vote to quit the EU contributed to the collapse of the Executive and this year’s Assembly election in March, the peers said. The EU Committee also blamed Brexit for worsening divisions between the Protestant and Catholic communities.

That was hardly news to those of us living in the North of Ireland. Since the EU Referendum, where Northern Ireland voted Remain by a majority of 56%, paramilitary and racist attacks have increased. Take the case of 44-year-old Derry man Anthony Moran, shot in both knees ‘as a substitute for his friend’ who had been under threat from republican dissidents but escaped without injury.

Since the first IRA and loyalist ceasefires of 1994, as well as the second and final IRA ceasefire in 1996, and the subsequent signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Northern Ireland has been suffering from a prolonged democratic deficit.

It is a democratic deficit which results from the imposition of a power-sharing executive between the loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the nationalist Sinn Fein (SF), which in reality is nothing more or less than institutionalised sectarianism.

Earlier this year, the Northern Ireland Assembly hit the buffers when the late Deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, resigned in the wake of a financial scandal involving Sinn Fein’s partners, the DUP.

Since then all attempts to hold talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein have ended in dismal failure. This stalemate is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in Northern Ireland. Voting figures have fallen dramatically from the high turnouts of 86% at the time of the Fermanagh South Tyrone hunger strike by election of 1981.

A few years ago, only 44% of people voted. Half of women and young people questioned in a Belfast Telegraph opinion poll in 2013 declare that they would not vote in an Assembly election were one to be held the next day.

Only in this year’s Westminster election was there an increase in the turnout, with most of those who did vote plumping for the two main parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP. This saw the elimination from the House of Commons of the relatively moderate Ulster Unionist Party and the mainly nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party. The DUP secured 10 of NI’s 18 Westminster seats, with one independent Unionist and seven Sinn Fein MPs taking the rest. However, Sinn Fein have always refused to take their seats in the House of Commons because they will not take the customary Oath of Allegiance to the Queen. So, in effect, the democratic deficit is extended to Westminster.

Not only is there institutionalised sectarianism in the NI Executive, many perceive the structures of the Assembly as fundamentally flawed. As the power sharing Executive is intended to represent both sides of the community, there is no effective opposition.

And rather than an effective opposition, we have a mechanism called a ‘Petition of Concern’, which was designed to protect cross community interests.

This means that a proposal before the Assembly can only be carried with the support of a majority of both nationalist and unionist members, rather than a straight head count.

A valid petition requires the signature of 30 Assembly members. In the previous mandate the DUP, with 38 seats, was the only party that could table one on its own.

That gave it an effective veto on a range of issues, including proposals to lift NI’s ban on gay marriage.

And as the figures for the electoral turnout show, very few want to vote for stalemate politics.

Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it – a dismal prognosis for the future of the peace process here. And none of us want to return to the futile and bloody conflicts of the past.

But we can take a lead from Gramsci.

He nailed it when he talked of pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will.

What we need is a pessimism of the intellect which knows the world as it is, not as how we would like it to be.

A pessimism of the intellect that can see the danger of retreating behind a nationalism which has long since run its course.

And a pessimism of the intellect which knows that it is the narrative of neoliberalism which foisted the myth of austerity on us – when the reality is that the West has never been richer and global inequality more prevalent.

Optimism of the will, on the other hand, has faith in the power of humanity to make and change our own history.

We need to recognise the truth of Gramsci’s words:

‘What comes to pass does so, not so much because a few people want it to happen, as because the mass of citizens abdicate their responsibility and let things be.’

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