Democracy in Northern Ireland

IssueJune - Aug 2003
Comment by Rob Fairmichael

The recent impasse on re-establishing the institutions of local government in Northern Ireland raises many questions, among them the goodwill of both the republican and unionist communities.

The postponement of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, until at least the autumn, is a disappointment, particularly as the normally volatile summer period is nearly upon us. It is usual to seek to blame one side for such an impasse, and, while there can be some point in this at times, it can be part of a zero sum game which does not really benefit anybody when the problem is a collective one in a sectarian and divided society.

The road is long

The “republican movement” of Sinn Fe'in and the IRA has come a long way in the last couple of decades, travelling a route which some people thought they would never even set foot on. There is the final step of putting its army out of the picture, and the British and Irish governments have picked at the words of statements on what has really been committed. The IRA does need to make the final step.

But from a nonviolent point of view, as has been said before, there is another perspective. We do not see that simply because it is a state possessing arms - as in the British or Irish states - that this legitimates force, the threat or force or the use of force. In other words, if the IRA possesses arms which they are not going to use, is this any different to the state holding arms, presuming the state is also not going to use them?

And the state in Northern Ireland, the British state, certainly did not come up smelling of roses from the mid-April Stevens (interim) report on collusion between the “security” forces and loyalist paramilitaries. Even the Belfast Telegraph, which tends to avoid political controversy, had a banner headline “Army helped loyalist killers”.

Call their bluff

But it is a fact that unionists in Northern Ireland see “guns under the table” as a threat to them, and an inequality, and for this reason alone in allowing and assisting the unionist community to emerge from its trenches, the IRA needs to fully disarm. If it does then there can be no excuse for any unionists to object to full involvement by republicans (who have rejected armed struggle) in anything. It is time for republicans to call the unionist bluff. Without IRA arms, the recalcitrant “no's” of the Unionist Party will have little space to manoeuvre without revealing simple prejudice and bigotry.

But there is another point which we would reiterate. When the republican movement was involved in armed struggle it also used what might be considered “nonviolent tactics”, in how it campaigned and protested on various issues. Because of the alliance with armed struggle it is difficult for those who believe in nonviolence to see this as purely nonviolent struggle but it certainly took that form in many ways.

From bullets to ballots

As the republican movement has moved away from the bullet and adopted the ballot it has unfortunately rejected also this way of strong campaigning which is, ironically, a loss.

If the republican movement had continued the stronger campaigning stance aside from the parliamentary wheeler-dealing of constitutional democracy, it could have been more able to contribute to a vibrant democracy in Northern Ireland. And others might have learnt from it.

Democracy is about much more than parliaments and political parties. It is about how we make all sorts of decisions, and whether people at a grassroots or campaigning level have the opportunity to make their feelings felt and heard and taken into account.

Northern Ireland is a fairly small society, of 1.7 million people, so there should not be a problem of access to those with power - and the Stormont institutions did look like they were delivering government which was more in tune with people's wishes than the long years of direct rule from 1972 onwards (or, indeed, the previous Unionist regime from 1922 which served primarily one part of one section of the community).

Democratic insurrection!

It is, as we say above, time for republicans to call the unionist bluff and fully disarm. But it is also time for us all to realise that a healthy society depends not just on democratic institutions but also on democratic insurrection (which is where Sinn Fe'in's previous “nonviolent” tactics come in).

By “democratic insurrection” we mean a critical approach to those very institutions (and the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement's institutions are far from ideal) and a willingness and ability to fight nonviolently for the causes that we believe in, without being cowed by the corralling of people by political parties.

A populace which is cowed by the trappings of parliamentary democracy may get to voice its opinions once every five years or so; a populace which sees power as its right, privilege and duty will always keep the parliamentarians on their toes. It is to be hoped that, in future, whenever institutions return and things settle down again, the people who are Protestant, Catholic and Everything Else will feel free to develop the kind of vibrant democracy where Assembly members are always on their toes due to organising and campaigning at a community and grassroots level. That is indeed a goal worth pursuing.