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Democracy in Northern Ireland - Past and Present

Democracy in Northern Ireland        Gerry O'Shea

If we identify a functioning democracy as a political system where the principle of majority rule prevails, then Northern Ireland has a sad and unfortunate history.

 Decades of agitation resulted in a 1914 Home Rule Bill passing in Westminster that yielded some limited powers to a government in Dublin. Irish nationalists celebrated this new proposal, seeing it as a first step to a fuller system of self-rule.

However Unionists, who were strong numerically in the province of Ulster, virulently opposed any involvement with a Dublin government because they feared that Home Rule would inevitably lead to Rome Rule, and they also viewed the majority Catholic culture as inferior to what the Protestant Ascendancy had to offer.

 They organized and trained a large and determined militia and imported big quantities of arms from Germany warning the British Government that they were willing to fight with guns and bombs any effort to implement the Home Rule Bill passed in parliament.

They got important support from the officer corps of the British Army, stationed in the Curragh in County Kildare, who told Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, that they would refuse to obey any order to impose the new Westminster law on the rebels in the North. This daring ultimatum, surely bordering on treason, known as the Curragh Mutiny, never happened in any section of the British Army before or since these officers' defiant declaration in March, 1914.

A bad start for Northern democracy, although it should be said that the Unionists' fear that a Dublin parliament would inevitably lead to a dominant role for the Catholic hierarchy was fully justified when the new Free State administration  took over in Dublin in 1923.

However, following the democratic norm requiring majority agreement,  Unionists faced another major obstacle: the nationalist population of the island opposed the idea of partitioning the country.

Furthermore, while Unionists had identified themselves as Ulster Protestants, they decided that all nine counties of the province might well lead to an ungovernable statelet with a possible  Catholic majority emerging. So, they cut off three counties with strong nationalist populations: Monaghan, Donegal and Cavan.

 They wanted a cut-to-measure place where they could command a majority that guaranteed their dominance over the other tribe, Catholics,Taigs, who were widely despised by their Protestant neighbors as inferior people with a backward, priest-ridden religion.

Scholars associate this kind of territorial manipulation with crude majoritarianism where a majority in any situation can use superior numbers to justify  political decisions to benefit themselves, without  regard to wider principles of law. This ruling protocol defined the Loyalist practice of democracy.

The story of how Unionist parties for more than fifty years discriminated against the nationalist population has been retold many times. Their modus operandi involved blatant prejudice against Catholics in housing, employment, law enforcement and voting rights. They were in a majority and in their convenient understanding of democracy they could behave towards Catholics with impunity in ways very similar to how whites treated blacks in the American South under Jim Crow.

Flipping ahead to the current Brexit crisis and the June 2016 referendum throughout the United Kingdom which resulted in a slight majority voting to leave the European Union, but the people in Northern Ireland and Scotland cast their ballots to remain.

The Tory government in Westminster seems headed helter-skelter for a no-deal Brexit with the full support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). In the May European elections the DUP got just over 20% of the vote at the Belfast count; the other two parties that won seats, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party, both strongly favor remaining part of Europe.

The bottom line from a democratic perspective is that the clear will of the majority in Northern Ireland is being ignored in the most important political decision in many generations. Sinn Fein with seven elected MP's should allow these public representatives to articulate an Irish perspective in important Westminster debates about the future of their country.

Businesses in Northern Ireland need to continue their easy access to the huge European market; the option of  possible new trade deals with other countries seems far-fetched and impractical.

Farmers in all of Ireland benefit enormously from money coming from Europe. How will the Northern farmers survive when the loss of Brussels subsidies amounting to 70% of their income becomes their new reality?

All parties in Northern Ireland subscribe to the 1998 Belfast Agreement which closed the physical infrastructure on the Irish border, ending military checkpoints and all the paraphernalia of territorial control. To ensure that there can be no return to the bad old days, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, and the European leaders agreed that the terms of a final settlement would include what they call a backstop.

 This would be a firm insurance policy, an absolute guarantee, that there will be no change in the status quo on the Irish border when the final exit document is signed. It means that the UK would remain part of the European customs territory, following all their rules, until a trade deal is agreed that must leave the present arrangements for an unsupervised Irish Border intact.

This backstop would be a permanent feature  unless some new customs agreement can be reached  that satisfies Europe, and they are very unlikely to sign off on any deal that doesn't have approval from Dublin.

Consider the striking irony in the fact that a hundred years ago the British drew a partition line through their neighboring island at the behest of rebellious Loyalists but with no consideration for the wishes of the majority of Irish people, who weren't even consulted about the momentous act of dividing their country.

Today the Europeans are standing with the Dublin Government and saying to Westminster in unambiguous language that the backstop is non-negotiable and that, effectively, any deal will have to have the imprimatur of the Southern government.

The DUP is stuck in the past, still preaching old fundamentalist dogmas that do not resonate with many young people today. In a recent survey just 26% of the people in the North described themselves as unionists, down from 32% just one year ago. Today 50% of the population do not see themselves as nationalist or unionist - in 1998 only one third demurred from defining themselves in traditional tribal categories.

Meanwhile the two nationalist parties in the North, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, are encouraging their supporters to spell out what they mean by a united Ireland.  How will people who are proud of their British identity be treated? Would a nationalist majority use their numbers to lord it over loyalists as happened in reverse for so many years?

The debate needs to take place. Alliance Party supporters should be listened to carefully. A consultative forum is called for, after the Brexit debacle ends, where the emerging silent majority talk through the kind of new Northern Ireland that meets the needs of people in the 21st century. This time we hope that a real democracy will emerge.

Gerry O'Shea blogs at


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