The Northern Irish elections foretell the future failures of all democracies

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.

Northern Ireland 2022
Republic of Ireland 2020

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:

  1. Democracy is being consumed by identity politics.
  2. Democracy is promoting extremism, and extreme methods for excluding extremists.
  3. Democratic systems are essentially flawed, especially when one attempts to embed fairness into them.
  4. Political parties have natural lifespans, and run based on their positions on the challenges of the past, not the future.
  5. 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.

Ninety-Nine More Novels

Last week, I was asked to produce my own list of Ninety Nine Novels that I might recommend to others. The criteria were that the books must have been published in the past 38 years and be available to read in English. It’s an odd request, but didn’t sound odd to me. Allow me to contextualise.

In the early 1980s, Anthony Burgess was commissioned to write a book of book recommendations. He was well placed to do it, as a prominent international author himself, as well as a prolific reviewer of fiction since the 1960s. Lore tells us that he wrote the book in a mere three weeks. By contrast it has taken me three days just to produce my own list which takes us from where Burgess left off – that resonant year 1984 – to the present.

Ninety-nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 - A Personal Choice -  Burgess, Anthony - Libri - Amazon.it
A Personal Choice.

Burgess’s list covered 45 years, whereas mine covers a little less, of necessity. I can’t predict the future of the next seven years of publishing. Also, where Burgess appended excellent mini-essays on each text, I have spared you the tedium of my pontifications, though I am happy to elaborate briefly on my choices if there are any queries.

Burgess’s book, a compendium of these mini-essays, is therefore a deft and succinct potted history of Anglophone literature’s greatest hits from the war and post-war period of the 20th century, as he saw it. Ninety Nine Novels is a fascinating list in itself, and I don’t intend to comment on or critique it at all.

It’s certainly open to critique and has inspired much comment over the years. You should read it. Alternatively, you should consult the International Anthony Burgess Foundation’s website, where they are celebrating this book with a series of podcasts. If you’re REALLY stuck for time, Adam Roberts has an excellent summary of the book’s merits (and faults) here.

What were Burgess’s criteria? That they be a) novels, b) published between 1939 and 1983, and c) concerned with what he called ‘human character’. It is, as he wrote in the introduction to Ninety Nine Novels, “the Godlike task of the novelist to create human beings whom we accept as living creatures filled with complexities and armed with free will.” I have ignored his proscription against ‘comic strips’, which he himself in agreement with the critic Leslie Fiedler, felt was already an outdated exclusion in the Eighties.

Finally, he argues that novels should “leave in the reader’s mind a sort of philosophical residue.” Whether he intended that to be as didactic as it sounds is unclear, but it has been the guiding principle in selecting these books. They are therefore novels which I have read, which feature superbly drawn characters, and which have haunted my thoughts afterwards.

Hence, they’re subject to the whims and prejudices of someone of my age, gender, class and race, raised in the place I grew up and educated in the way I was, and circumscribed by which books were available for me to encounter. There’s probably a lot of Irish fiction here. I’m Irish. There’s probably quite a lot of science fiction too. Well, I study it for a living. If there’s an especial density of texts from the late 90s, that’s probably because I was having to read umpteen novels a week as the Books Correspondent for Dublin’s Sunday Independent at the time.

You will likely disagree, and have your own list. And so you should. There are many astonishing books missing from this list, I agree. There are some choices you might find baffling. I can only reiterate how Burgess concluded his introduction to Ninety Nine Novels: “If you disagree violently with some of my choices I shall be pleased. We arrive at values only through dialectic.”

1984 – Neuromancer – William Gibson

The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera

Empire of the Sun – JG Ballard

1985 – Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

Perfume – Patrick Suskind

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Attwood

1986 – Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

The Old Devils – Kingsley Amis

The Light Fantastic – Terry Pratchett

1987 – Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams

The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe

Beloved – Toni Morrison

1988 – Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel – Milorad Pavić

1989 – Ripley Bogle – Robert McLiam Wilson

London Fields – Martin Amis

Billy Bathgate – E.L. Doctorow

And the Ass Saw the Angel – Nick Cave

1990 – Amongst Women – John McGahern

Vineland – Thomas Pynchon

Use of Weapons – Iain M. Banks

LA Confidential – James Ellroy

The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi

1991 – American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

The Famished Road – Ben Okri

Maus – Art Spiegelman

1992 – Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson

Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson

Fatherland – Robert Harris

1993 – The Shipping News – Annie Proulx

A Dead Man in Deptford – Anthony Burgess

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

1994 – How Late It Was, How Late – James Kelman

Dead Lagoon – Michael Dibdin

1995 – Independence Day – Richard Ford

1996 – Fight Club – Chuck Pahlaniuk

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

The Tailor of Panama – John Le Carre

Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

1997 – The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Mason & Dixon – Thomas Pynchon

Enduring Love – Ian McEwan

Quarantine – Jim Crace

Underworld – Don DeLillo

1998 – My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

The Catastrophist – Ronan Bennett

1999 – Q – Luther Blissett

Ghostwritten – David Mitchell

Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem

2000 – Atomised – Michel Houellebecq

White Teeth – Zadie Smith

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

Perdido Street Station – China Mieville

2001 – The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

The Constant Gardener – John Le Carre

The Other Wind – Ursula K. Le Guin

2002 – Any Human Heart – William Boyd

Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

2003 – Millennium People – JG Ballard

Brick Lane – Monica Ali

2004 – River of Gods – Ian McDonald

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

2005 – Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

2006 – The Road – Cormac McCarthy

The Book of Dave – Will Self

2007 – On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon

2008 – Bad Day in Blackrock – Kevin Power

Bog Child – Siobhan Dowd

2009 – 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

2010 – Room – Emma Donohue

Suicide – Édouard Levé

2011 – 11/22/63 – Stephen King

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

2012 – Capital – John Lanchester

2013 – Journalists – Sergei Aman

City of Bohane – Kevin Barry

2014 – Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

2015 – Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

2016 – The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

The Association of Small Bombs – Karan Mahajan

Central Station – Lavie Tidhar

2017 – Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

2084: The End of the World – Boualem Sansai

2018 – Circe – Madeleine Miller

Milkman – Anna Burns

The Black Prince – Adam Roberts

2019 – This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar

2020 – The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again – M. John Harrison

Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell

2021 – Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro

The cyclical nature of etymology

There is, sometimes, a weird cyclical pattern embedded in etymology, the linguistic science of what we might otherwise call the glacial process of Chinese Whispers. Allow me to offer one particularly colourful and occasionally literary example.

The (somewhat uncommon) Irish surname Prunty originates from an Anglicisation of the Gaelic Irish surname Ó Proinntigh, meaning ‘descendant of Proinnteach’, which in turn was an archaic Irish forename which meant literally a banqueting hall. The idea underpinning this is that of a generous person who feeds his neighbours and kin.

As often happens with surnames, pronunciation of vowels or consonants slides a little over time and usage. So Prunty also becomes Brunty in some cases. Brunty as a surname retains its Irish origins but is very rare indeed. Nowadays it is mostly found in the United States.

Probably the most famous Brunty in history is Patrick, an Anglican clergyman who was born as the eldest of ten children into a very poor family in Rathfriland, county Down, on St Patrick’s Day, 17th March 1777. Why is Patrick famous? Because of his immensely talented children, particularly his daughters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, who are all now renowned as famous Victorian novelists.

Patrick Brontë - Wikipedia
The Reverend Patrick Brontë

However, the sisters did not publish under the name Brunty. Rather, given the sexism of the era, they initially released their books under the male names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. In reality, their surname had become Brontë by then. How had this happened? It’s unclear why Patrick changed his surname, but a desire to distance himself from his impoverished Irish origins after his graduation from Cambridge no doubt is part of the reason.

bronte home
The Brunty homestead, now in ruins, still stands in county Down.

Another reason, it has been suggested, relates to a desire to honour Admiral Horatio Nelson, who had been given the title of Duke of Bronte by the King of Naples, whom Nelson had restored to his throne. Bronte is the name of an Italian estate in eastern Sicily, close to Mount Etna which was also granted to Nelson by the grateful King.

We now relate the name Brontë to his famous daughters, the authors of books like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall respectively. The parsonage Patrick oversaw for many years in Haworth in Yorkshire, which inspired many of the scenes in his daughter’s books, is now a museum in their collective honour.

The Brontë Sisters: How Emily, Charlotte & Anne Changed The World -  HistoryExtra
The Brontë sisters

But Haworth is not the only location which honours the Brontë sisters. There are many such locations, given their collective fame. One such place is the little town of Bronte in northern Central Texas. Ever since an early oil boom subsided, it has been a relatively impoverished place, not unlike Rathfriland, with a stable population around the 1,000 mark.

Back in the early 20th century, this was one of the small Texas towns that was briefly home to Isaac Howard, a semi-itinerant doctor who wandered with his wife and son from town to town working as a medic, and occasionally losing his money on get-rich-quick schemes, much to his wife’s frustration. Isaac’s son was a big reader, and, encouraged by his mother, began writing his own stories from an early age. We now know him as Robert E. Howard, the progenitor of the ‘Swords and Sorcery’ genre of fantasy fiction, and author of the Conan the Cimmerian stories in particular. Howard was particularly interested in Irish and Scottish mythology, and many of his characters, including Conan, display this interest.

Professional photograph of Robert E. Howard wearing a hat and suit.
Robert E. Howard, author of Conan the Barbarian.

The Texan town of Bronte has had its pronunciation amended by new world accent to /bɹænt/, or ‘brant’, over time. This is of course a homophone for a genus of goose, the Brant or Brent goose, which migrates in winter to Ireland and Britain. The Brent oilfield in the North Sea takes its name from this goose.

It is a smallish bird by geese standards, but nonetheless, in the era before the new world turkey took primacy as the quintessential Christmas dining food, the Brant goose (whose name derives from the pan-Nordic brandgás, or ‘burnt’ goose due to its black colouring) would have been one of the more common feast dishes provided by generous hosts in Ireland at the midwinter feast.

Due to a widespread medieval myth, which persisted in Ireland into the 20th century, that these geese were somehow related to barnacles, they were permitted to be eaten by Catholics on a Friday, when meat other than fish was otherwise prohibited. In other words Proinnteach the medieval Irishman got his name due to feeding this bird to his friends and neighbours.

Such is the cyclical nature of etymology.