It’s a foolish person who seeks to draw conclusions from an election where the votes haven’t finished being counted yet. But I am a foolish person, and I want to explain to you, wherever you may be, why a round of elections for a regional parliament in a small European backwater which is likely to result in no one actually wielding power is nevertheless of critical relevance to you.
You almost definitely don’t care about the latest Northern Irish Assembly elections. Why should you? Even about 40% of the people of Northern Ireland couldn’t care less about the latest Northern Irish Assembly elections, according to the turnout. But actually, these elections are supremely relevant to all of us because they are uniquely helpful in explaining why democracy is failing.
Northern Ireland is a small territory in the North Atlantic, of just under 2 million people, bordering the Republic of Ireland and administrated by Britain. The elections there are of parochial interest.
Great Britain, the reluctant ruler of the territory, casts at best a weary side glance towards Northern Irish elections, which tend to have no relevance at all to the island of Britain except about once or twice a century, when suddenly they do so crucially, out of all proportion.
Likewise, for the most part, the politicos of the Republic of Ireland, so insistant on their their shiny hi-tech cosmopolitanism and Europeanness, prefer to function mostly under the self-delusion that the problematic six counties to their north don’t exist. Nevertheless, the shadow of history and what is colloquially known as the ‘national question’ has a habit of flaring up into relevance, not least because in the most recent round of elections, Sinn Féin, a party which espouses the political unification of the island of Ireland, became the single biggest party.
So if the British tend to ignore Northern Irish elections, and the Irish do likewise, and even nearly half the Northern Irish don’t show any interest, why should you?
Because these elections help to reveal a range of truths about why democracy is failing. Specifically, they show us that:
- Democracy is being consumed by identity politics.
- Democracy is promoting extremism, and extreme methods for excluding extremists.
- Democratic systems are essentially flawed, especially when one attempts to embed fairness into them.
- Political parties have natural lifespans, and run based on their positions on the challenges of the past, not the future.
- The really important decisions aren’t made democratically anymore.
Let’s go through this point by point. Democracy is being consumed by identity politics. This was always the case in Northern Ireland. It was created by partition a century ago to ensure a majority for the unionist, British-affiliated, largely Protestant community in the north-east of Ireland. By definition therefore, its politics have perennially been about orange and green, the vying of two identity blocs for recognition of their cultural aspirations.
This was not the case in most other places until relatively recently, with the advent of more multicultural societies, of course. But in similarly riven territories, such as Sri Lanka, societies have tended, as occurred in Northern Ireland for three decades, to descend into civil war.
What we’re beginning to see in many democratic nations is the emergence of political identity parties akin to those in Northern Ireland. In Western Europe, these tend to emerge first among indigenes on the right wing, who are ethno-nationalist and resistant to immigration. But not exclusively. There is, for example, an Islamic party in Holland. This tendency is therefore beginning to proliferate.
Likewise, we are seeing the co-option of existing political parties, or rather, their repurposing to become focused on identity politics issues rather than whatever political ideology accompanied their foundation. To this end, we can identify the move towards ethno-nationalism among long-established parties like the UK’s Conservatives or the USA’s Republicans. In response, we can see their main political rivals adopt a rival identity politics, that of an opposing ‘rainbow coalition’. But what Holland demonstrates is that such broad churches of disparate identity politics are likely in the end to splinter into more coherent, more homogeneous forms.
What results is a refutation of game theory approaches to politics. As in Northern Ireland, where unionist farmers along the border or nationalist bureaucrats in Belfast actively vote against their personal best interests and in favour of broader identity issues, we’re seeing people gravitate in many democracies towards voting for political identities which actually function against their own personal interests in many cases.
Democracy is also now promoting extremism, and extreme methods for excluding extremists, I’d argue. It promotes extremism because in a contemporary mediated world where political debate and the public sphere is being reduced to soundbites and tweets, only the loudest and simplest arguments are getting through. Furthermore, more and more of us exist in cultural echo chambers, obtaining our news and information from inside discourses we already entirely concur with. We are rendered impervious to having our minds changed because we don’t encounter alternative perspectives except in terms couched in condemnation.
In reaction to this, political establishments are forced to take more extreme measures to restrict the spread and growth of such extremism. Sometimes this involves co-opting the less extreme aspects and attempting to detoxify them. Other times it involves unstable coalitions of very odd bedfellows coming together to exclude parties perceived as extreme from holding any power. In Ireland, this manifested most recently with a grand coalition of two bitter rivals, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, to exclude Sinn Fein.
We can begin to argue persuasively in many nations therefore that democratic systems appear to be essentially flawed, even or especially when one attempts to embed fairness into them. In Northern Ireland, the Assembly is a kind of regional parliament, overseen by the British government in Westminister, but semi-autonomous in theory. Its creation was underwritten by the Belfast Agreement, in which both unionist and nationalist communities must be represented in government in an enforced power-sharing executive.
In reality, this doesn’t work very well as it creates inbuilt antagonism among people forced to share collective responsibility for political decision-making, and as a result it has collapsed on more than one occasion in the past, and is likely to collapse imminently again despite these most recent elections. So, it’s a unique system and a unique situation, not one easily mapped onto other democratic nations.
However, the strange and unstable coalitions we see democracy throwing up in recent times, often in reaction to identity politics parties, is a very similar situation. Who could have foreseen Cinque Stelle sharing power with Salvini’s Lega in Italy? Or the Republicains and Socialistes in France effectively stepping aside to permit a shiny new centrist party with a relatively untried leader to become president?
Where proportional representational models, especially list models, exist, there is a risk of opening the doors to fringe extremist parties. But in FPTP systems, though this doesn’t occur to the same extent, it prevents it solely because in itself it is less than fully democratic. Tens of thousands of voices of, for example, Green voters in the UK, simply are not represented.
More significantly, we’re beginning to see in many nations that political parties have natural lifespans, and these spans relate to the fact that they all run based on their positions on the challenges of the past, not the future. In the Northern Irish Assembly elections, formerly the biggest two parties, the Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, have effectively been consigned to history, despite their estimable political lineages.
Why is this? Partly because they are not extreme parties, but nor are they, like Macron, radical centrist alternatives. (The radical centre in Northern Ireland are the Alliance Party, who just polled an historic high of 13.5% of the vote.) Falling between two stools, their time in the sun appears to have passed, their votes cannibalised by more polarising, more extreme versions of their own politics (Sinn Fein in the case of the SDLP, and the DUP in the case of the Ulster Unionists. In fact, we can already see this even happening to the DUP. Their vote sunk this time around, largely due to leaking votes to an even more extreme unionist alternative.)
The problem for the SDLP and UUP is that they campaign based on their histories, their ability in the past to come together in a functioning power-sharing executive, to represent their communities and their identities in ways which were nuanced, reasonable and accommodating.
But those were challenges of the 1990s in Northern Ireland, as it emerged from a civil war period. The future challenges are the ones which the 1990s parked indefinitely – those of the constitutional position of the territory. Sinn Fein espouse unifying Ireland. By constrast, the DUP vehemently oppose anything they see as undermining the union with Great Britain. To this extent, they are still fighting future challenges.
But in reality, with the partial exception of the Greens, none of the parties in Northern Ireland even have policies on the REAL major challenges likely to face the territory in years to come. And this is also true of most parties in most democracies too.
Which mainstream parties anywhere have policy documents on issues like automation or roboticisation of the workforce? Or on the challenges posed by Artificial Intelligence? Or on the dangers of autonomous weapons? We’ve seen parties around the world mostly fail at addressing the recent Covid pandemic. What are their policies should an outbreak of Ebola occur globally, or even just in their nation? We’re seeing most of them fail right now at addressing energy provision and future security. How do they actually intend to transit to a renewable future energy economy?
Actually, what are their policies on the real challenges of the climate crisis? Not just things like recycling, but how to prevent the great die off of our fellow species on Earth, or the likelihood of conflict over water or food resources? The answer is that almost all political parties have little to no coherent positions on such issues. But these kinds of issues are the ones most likely to impact most people over the next few decades.
Finally, we many conclude that all the really important decisions aren’t made democratically anymore. In Northern Ireland this is utterly self-evident, because it is a regional parliament overseen by Westminster. If, as could well happen, this Assembly is unable to form a functioning executive, it will merely revert to the ministers, or to London, to run the place.
But likewise we can see in many democracies that increasingly national parliaments either do not or cannot invoke agency or power over issues of significant national interest. This is partly because of the growth in power of corporations, which often can flex more economic might than those nations.
Even where nations, or supranational blocs like the European Union, do have such might, they appear all but impotent in the face of even exacting reasonable taxes from such corporations. Meanwhile, those corporations fund squadrons of lobbyists in every democratic nation in order to bend parliamentary decisions to their interests and not those of electorates. And that’s before we even address issues like the democratic deficits embedded in so many democratic systems, from the 2 party monopolies in Britain or America, to the technocracy of the EU.
So the latest Northern Irish Assembly elections are simultaneously historical and meaningless, for a number of reasons. We might be inclined to dismiss them because of that. But actually that’s why we should be paying close attention, because they help to reveal the huge systemic flaws in all democracies.
They help explain the rise of ethno-nationalism, the prevalence of unstable and unlikely coalitions, the temporary ‘radical centre’ solutions, the apparent failures of agency, and most of all the utter failure to address the real challenges of the future.