Editorial from Irish Political Review, October 2003 Democracy?
The practice of non-electoral democracy, currently being sponsored in Northern Ireland, is nothing new in the British state. Elections were suspended while the state engaged in the two most crucial events of the 20th century, the two World Wars launched by Britain.
The British regime has now been in continuous existence for over three centuries. For the first half of that period it was anti-democratic. The greatest of its wars before 1914, the long war against France from the 1790s to 1815, was specifically a war against democracy. France was defeated but French influence compelled the British regime to initiate a process of democratisation in 1832. The regime then adopted the practice of describing itself as having been a democracy throughout. Its apparent war against democracy was really a war to protect democracy against the excesses of French enthusiasm.
‘Democracy’ is a strictly meaningless term in English usage. It is a word applied to whatever the state happens to be at any given moment.
Northern Ireland has had two Governments ever since it was concocted in 1921, and neither of them was democratic in the straightforward meaning of the term. The Northern Ireland Government, otherwise known as the Unionist Party, was not the government of a state. And the Government of the state had no electoral connection with the Six Counties.
The Stormont Government was a kind of General Assembly of the Protestant community ruling an area in which it was estimated that it could remain in a permanent majority over the Catholic community. The Catholic third of the population had its organic connection with the population of the rest of the island broken at the political level and it was at the same time cut off from the politics of the British state. The task of controlling this humiliated and disfranchised Catholic third was farmed out to the Protestant two-thirds. That was Northern Ireland. And that is all that Northern Ireland was for half a century.
The system exploded in 1969. The wonder is that the explosion was delayed for so long. A facade was retained until 1972. The facade was taken down in the hope of placating Catholic outrage at the Bloody Sunday massacre. Ever since then the ‘Northern Ireland Government’ has been a Whitehall Department. But the merger of the sub-government of the partial province with the Government of the State has not established democratic government.
The British Ministers at Stormont are all democratically elected—but somewhere else. None of them has any organic political connection with the Six Counties. The democratic test of governors is not that they are elected, but that they are elected by the people they govern. Government of India by British democrats was no more democratic, and was less beneficial, than government of Germany by the Emperor Napoleon.
For thirty years now Westminster has been trying to set up something local in place of what it knocked down in 1972. The failure of a series of competent politicians to do so—beginning with the talented Whitelaw—confirms the analysis we made at the outset, that Northern Ireland is a misconception, a monstrosity incapable of spontaneous life, and which can only give a pale imitation of life when attached to a life-support machine.
The 1974 Executive was a five-month abortion. And the system established by the Good Friday Agreement has only survived by spending most of its time in a state of suspension. It has operated under close supervision for two periods of a few months each. It supervisors do not believe it could survive a crisis and they have suspended it each time it approached a crisis point. An institution which cannot survive a crisis which arises out of its basic conditions of existence is not a viable institution.
Trimble signed the Agreement for fear of something worse, with the intention of subverting it from within. Jeffrey Donaldson, his closest political colleague, refused to sign it and conducted a campaign against it within the party led by Trimble which enabled Trimble to demand concessions from London and Dublin so that he could ward off Donaldson’s challenge to the Agreement. We have characterised their conflict as role-playing, whether conscious or instinctive. It seemed last month to be verging on a conflict in earnest with the possibility of actual rupture. But it is still role-playing. The Unionist Council once again supported Trimble’s faction, while allowing free play to Donaldson’s faction. The two factions are equal at Westminster, and Donaldson’s group is to be allowed to continue acting with impunity against Trimble’s Whip.
Trimble himself is the only person of consequence in his group. Roy Beggs and Lady Hermon are light- and lighter-weight. The people of substance are in Donaldson’s group. Donaldson himself is infinitely more presentable than Trimble. David Burnside (the ‘dirty trickster’ Director of British Airways ten years ago) is trying to buy the Belfast News Letter, which was sold to a multi-national some time ago by the Unionist family which had owned it for generations. And the Rev. Martin Smyth, who is no more incoherent in his articulation now than he was thirty years ago, is one of the old-fashioned Orange moderates of Unionism, indisputably more authentic as a moderate than the role-playing Hero of Drumcree. It was Smyth and Molyneux, in the leadership of the Orange Order, who exerted a calming influence on the Protestant community following the abolition of Stormont, when Trimble was off on the fascist binge of William Craig’s Vanguard campaign.
The operative principle with regard to elections at the moment is that they cannot be held until the result is known. This principle is quite brazenly stated. The element of the result that needs to be known in advance is that Trimble will win his bit of the election. The pretext that there is a common electorate in the Six Counties was discarded in 1998. It is now acknowledged that there are two electorates. Separate elections are held in each of them. The powers-that-be want to know that Trimble will win his election before they allow an election to be held. The great problem is how to deliver him a winning hand.
The Dublin Government has done its best for him, making concessions in breach of the Agreement all the way along, and allowing him to deliver tirades against it without response. (His contribution to St. Patrick’s Day 2003 was to describe the Republic as a “pathetic, sectarian, mono-ethnic and mono-cultural state”. He contrasted this introverted, backward-looking entity with Unionist Ulster: “We are proud of our part of being a major power that has interests throughout the globe and is active throughout the globe. We are not adopting any sort of ourselves alone approach to life and politics.”) But it all seems useless. He seems certain to lose to the DUP and the other wing of his own party.
The SDLP has also done its best to help him, restrained only by the prospect of its own disappearance if it went any further.
Sinn Fein is cornered. Sinn Fein is on the defensive. And yet Sinn Fein is winning.—That state of affairs appears paradoxical to Trimble’s Tory supporters, who have never faced up to the reality of what Northern Ireland is: an artificial concoction designed to control a large Catholic minority by setting up a small Protestant majority to rule over it.
The political structure itself, and the conduct of the Unionist Family within it, keep the Catholic community together as a cohesive social entity, despite the yearning of marginal elements within it for Royal baubles, like OBEs.
And events like an All-Ireland Football Final between Armagh and Tyrone (not only inconceivable, but strictly impossible a few years ago) almost make one believe in Providence.
The process of implementing the Agreement has, on the Unionist side, been a process of raising obstacles to implementation. Ian Paisley has declared the abolition of Sinn Fein to be a pre-condition of re-establishing a devolved Executive. And this demand is in accordance with the logic of Unionist conduct since 1998. The predictable result of this conduct on the nationalist side is an increased vote for Sinn Fein, as a matter of collective self-respect.
The latest heightening of the obstacles led John Hume to say that, if the Unionists stop the Agreement, the principal of consent should be withdrawn. This should have been the explicit position of the SDLP, and of the Dublin Government, all the way along. What has led to the present impasse is unconditional compliance on one side in the face of general non-compliance on the other.
C O N T E N T S
Cancun: Another One Bites The Dust, Hey, Hey.
Captain Kelly And The Irish Times
An Obsession With Nazis
Disbanding Sinn Féin
(Report of DUP thinking)
And So The Frenchman is beaten: O Friend, O Favourite, My choice
(Compiled by Pat Muldowney)
Sinn Féin And The Politics Of A National Movement
The Circulation Of Capital.
Part 5 of Review of Das Kapital
Karl Lueger: A Viennese View.
The Writings Of Desmond Fennell Since the mid 1950s.
Northern Ireland News Digest.
Labour Comment, edited by Pat Maloney:
SIPTU National Conference.
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