Democracy’s Genius and May 7th, 2015

Thursday May 7th was certainly a very interesting day.

Israel’s new coalition government emerged from a late night deal that defied general expectations based on opinion polls, albeit with an unexpectedly perilous majority. After the election on 17th March, the public and pollsters alike questioned how polls could have gotten it so wrong when they predicted that Likud and Zionist Union were neck-and-neck.

May 7th also saw the election of a government in Britain that also defied the opinion polls. Polls had uniformly put the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck, too-close-to-call; and pundits more or less had to follow suit, numbing the public discourse on what the election was actually about. Polls had predicted as virtually certain that it would be a hung parliament with a lengthy period of negotiations before the government was formed. How the pollsters got it wrong: The exit polls on the night were so dramatically different from the pollster’s projections that they produced universal hat-eating consternation. When the exit polls proved accurate, polling suddenly looked about as scientific as astrology.

Why should Ireland care about the British general election? You may well ask and the answer is three-fold.

The first and most obvious was that Northern Ireland elected its eighteen Members of Parliament. The result saw the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) keep its tally of eight seats. The Ulster Unionist Party gained two seats (one at the expense of Sinn Féin, the other from a DUP incumbent) having entered the contest without any. The non-aligned Alliance Party lost its seat in East Belfast to the DUP. Sinn Féin lost one to the UUP and dropped to four seats. The nationalist SDLP retained its three seats and there was one (returned) Independent candidate elected.

There had been a lot of speculation that Northern Ireland MPs (except Sinn Fein who don’t take their seats there) might have a role in supporting a minority government at Westminster, but the Conservative’s outright majority has put paid to that. The policies pursued by the new Conservative government will shape much political discourse within Northern Ireland since they directly affect the decisions of the power-sharing government there, led by the DUP and Sinn Féin.

This raises the second matter of interest to Ireland and that is the Tory commitment to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union, probably in 2017. A vote to exit (aka the ‘Brexit’) would have profound implications for Ireland on a whole range of areas, including trade, Northern Ireland, the free movement of people between us, foreign policy formation, and a host of other things that we share within the European Union.

The third area of interest for Ireland was the Scottish vote and indeed that turned out to be the story of the election with the Scottish National Party (SNP) winning fifty-six of the fifty-nine seats in Scotland, at the expense of the Labour Party. While Scotland last year rejected the referendum to leave the United Kingdom and become a sovereign nation, the momentum has added fifty MPs to its pre-election tally of six at Westminster.

The last time such a large bloc of nationalists entered the House of Commons was when the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) sat there from 1882 until it was wiped out in the 1918 general election. The IPP was wiped out because it had pursued devolved government for Ireland for thirty years without ever clinching the deal from the British government. Like the IPP, the SNP is committed to independence.

As a very interesting day, May 7th is then a harbinger of very interesting times ahead.

But for that very reason, it was also a great day. Because whether in Israel, Scotland, Northern Ireland, England or Wales, May 7th demonstrated the genius of democracy.

There is something oddly satisfying about the pollsters getting it wrong because it affirms the private sanctity of the ballot. Conversely there is something annoying about when they get it right. For when they get it right, it always feels as if they are pre-empting that final walk to the polling booth when you have to make up your mind.

That walk and the act of democratic expression are as near a sacred duty as one can undertake. It is not just about how your country is to be governed. It is also because democracy is the great valve that mediates change, the alternative and antidote to conflict. Brave and admirable is every politician who submits to its verdict because the verdict is a ruthless expression of the people’s will. Heads roll but only metaphorically; the leaders of the British Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats resigned on the spot, ending youthful careers as leaders. David Cameron triumphs with a clear political mandate to make decisions. Nicola Sturgeon is conferred as the leader of Scottish nationalism thanks to her qualities and the confidence she inspires. Without democracy, heads actually roll.

The political fortunes of parties and their leaders reflect the wishes of people voting within natural constituencies. They are natural because voters accept and hallow their boundaries. And in doing so they avoid conflict even when great issues are at stake. It is no coincidence that functioning democracies don’t fight violently within themselves or with each other.

Empires and imperial rule frustrate democracy’s innate conflict resolution mechanism because they project power beyond natural jurisdictions and that projection is resisted.

The projection of British power in Ireland was repeatedly resisted; during the twelfth century Norman and sixteenth century Tudor conquests, during the Cromwellian and Williamite wars of the seventeenth century, in the great rebellion of 1798 and the lesser rebellions of 1803, 1848 and 1867, and finally in the Easter Rising of 1916 and the War of Independence of 1919 to 1921.

Ireland’s history would have been very different had self-determination been allowed to express itself. Once it was allowed to do so – with independence in 1922 and again in the all-island 1998 referenda on the Good Friday Agreement that ended the conflict in Northern Ireland – Ireland and Britain embarked on a bilateral relationship of cooperation and increasingly now one of high mutual regard. And that high regard will shape how we maintain or adjust that relationship in the years ahead, whatever they produce.

As we in Ireland commemorate the centenaries of events that resulted from the frustration of Irish self-determination, we can celebrate May 7th and all that follows as the right way to do things come what may.

Eamonn McKee

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