Democracy 2.0: Five steps to give power back to the people

As the parties pick over the results of Ireland’s general election, critics say that our blunt majority-rule system is an outdated form of government


As Peter Emerson stood in the RDS last weekend, watching Irish politics enter a new phase of uncertainty, he might have been forgiven for saying “I told you so”. Over the past 40 years Emerson has documented the flaws of western electoral systems, highlighting their propensity to produce governments that are either unrepresentative or critically unstable.

As the parties and political commentators discuss the permutations involved to reach the magic number of 79 Dáil seats, Emerson encourages people to reflect on what democracy is about. Written constitutions in the US, France and Ireland “talk about ‘common will’ and the ‘will of the people’,” he says, “they don’t say 50 per cent of the ballot plus 1 [extra vote]. Democracy was always meant to be for everybody. Unfortunately we in western Europe have got into a habit of taking majority votes.

“Majority vote is 2,500 years old. It is the most inaccurate measure of collective opinion ever invented. You cannot get consensus with a majority vote, because you are measuring the very opposite; you are measuring dissent: for and against.”

A veteran of peace and power-sharing campaigns in Northern Ireland, Emerson runs the de Borda Institute in Belfast and has worked in countries as disparate as Rwanda and China on models of participatory democracy.

The publication of his latest book in Dublin last week, From Majority Rule to Inclusive Politics, coincides with a growing interest in grassroots democracy and citizens’ initiatives. These include the Reinstate 48 campaign, which is seeking to restore a provision from the 1922 constitution that would allow the public to petition the government on legislative matters.

The group’s chairman, Stephen Mulcahy, says that Irish democracy needs to be reimagined for the centenary of 1916, highlighting the successful operation of direct democracy in countries like Switzerland. “The detractors of giving people more power say, ‘Oh, you will have chaos,’ but I don’t think you could have a more orderly society than Switzerland. They even make the Germans look clumsy.”

Mulcahy notes that the Convention on the Constitution, set up by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, recommended that forms of direct democracy be developed with “adequate safeguards” but that the mainstream parties rejected it. “Asking for them to vote for something like this is like asking for turkeys to vote for Christmas,” he sighs.

Emerson acknowledges that any reform will upset traditional interests, but he believes that politicians themselves – assuming they are democrats – have a vested interest in making government more representative. But what measures exactly could be introduced? Here are five.

1: Citizen-initiated referendums

For Mulcahy the need for article 48 was highlighted by the bank guarantee and the subsequent bailing out of the banks, which would never have got a popular mandate. If citizen-led initiatives had been in place in the wake of the economic crash, he argues, we would be €43 billion better off today.

Since its launch, six months ago, Reinstate 48 has gained 8,000 supporters on Facebook and a growing number of political affiliates. Diarmaid Ferriter, the professor of modern Irish history and Irish Times columnist, has narrated a history of article 48 on the group’s website, Mulcahy says people are surprised to discover that “this was something they had that was taken away from them without their consent”.

Mulcahy, a website developer and son of John Mulcahy, founder of the Phoenix magazine, says that direct democracy could be used to address a range of issues, including religion in schools and ethical food production. “Why should we all be hostage to the government deciding which way they are going to rule on these things and when they are going to rule on these things?”

To those who believe it would be a recipe for chaos he again cites the Swiss example: “In more than 90 per cent of initiatives the government puts a counterproposal which the initiating body has then accepted. A very small number go to referendum . . . about eight a year. In the process you have a huge amount of public participation in the decision-making process.”

2: Multioption voting

A founding member of the New Ireland Group, he recalls Ian Paisley proclaiming, outside Belfast City Hall in 1985, “Ulster says No”. “One week later six of us stood in the same venue in silence with a banner saying, ‘We have got to say Yes to something.’ ”

The following year he helped to organised a meeting at which nationalist and unionist politicians voted on 10 options. Under this “preferendum” model “no one votes No”; instead you rank your preferences in order. The winning choice was a tripartite devolution and power-sharing arrangement between London, Dublin and Stormont – “a mini Belfast Agreement 12 years ahead of its time”, Emerson says.

An obvious case for a preferendum would have been the Government’s proposal to reform the Seanad. Instead of offering the electorate a Yes-No choice on the continuation of the second chamber, it could have presented a range of options.

Similarly, the British referendum on Brexit is “crazy” in its formulation, says Emerson. “It should at least be a choice between being in the EU or Efta” – the European Free Trade Association – “or independent.”

Preferendums have been used in limited circumstances in local government, such as by Dublin City Council in deciding what to name what became the Rosie Hackett Bridge over the River Liffey in 2013. “I would argue that multioption decision making is actually common to our society – except in politics,” says Emerson. “You look at the different options and then you compromise.”

3: Participatory consultation

Aarhus Convention

Liston is a founder and the chief executive of CiviQ, which is working with a number of county councils to strengthen local democracy. Traditionally, submissions on a project are made by paper or in closed emails, “so there is no sharing or learning” in advance of the decision being made.

To tackle this CiviQ has designed an online portal that allows people to view each other’s submissions during the consultation phase and to debate their strengths and weaknesses.

Three local authorities have begun using the software, including Fingal County Council , most recently for its consultations on the building of modular housing. “The aim is to join up the different local authorities, so when we look at issues like climate change and flooding we can compare approaches and start to bring data into the discussion.”

By mining the data, she says, “you can compare final decisions with the representations” – to see, for example, whether one lobby group has undue influence. CiviQ did just this when analysing Kilkenny County Council’s decision to build a central access scheme that affected the city’s “medieval mile”. The project caused bitter divisions in Kilkenny, as well as triggering legal actions.

Liston says that CiviQ’s analysis identified four key perspectives among stakeholders, falling under economic, planning, sustainability and democratic headings. But “only the economic perspective was represented at the council meeting”, with the exception of the input of a Green Party councillor.

In consultations, she says, “sometimes the loudest voices win, and even if they are not winning they silence the quieter voices or those with an alternative perspective”.

But isn’t that the way Irish politics is designed to work? “The older idea of representation is that you’re elected to do what’s in the best interests of the public in your view, but that’s quite an outdated mode of representation. Democracy is where everyone has an equal voice to influence a decision.”

4: Democratic education and upskilling

One handicap, however, is the lack of expertise in the Republic in running such things as preferendums. Liston says that public servants have attended courses in Northern Ireland and at the Consultation Institute in Britain, exploring methods of consultation and analysis, but there are no equivalent training institutes here.

Arguably, it is not just civil servants but also politicians and citizens who need education in this field. Emerson points out that a key element in any multioption ballot is an independent facilitator. “Once everyone has had their say you have some sort of nonvoting, impartial referee, and they decide what options are relevant and produce a shortlist that should reflect the entire debate.”

This requires some diplomacy and technical ability, but it’s not rocket science. Proving the point, CiviQ has launched an application that allows anyone holding a meeting or an agm in the community to log in and run their own preferendums.

5: Collective governance

He regards these crises as inevitable in countries that rely on majority rule in parliament. “There is no justification for majority rule. Just as the parliament should represent all the people, the government should represent the entire parliament. So if Sinn Féin, for example, get 10 per cent of the parliament they should get 10 per cent of the government.”

Emerson has developed his own voting model, the matrix system, which would see TDs cast votes on whom they would like to see most in the different portfolios. A similar system applies in the Northern Ireland Assembly, at Stormont. This means “you will never get to the situation where the tail can wag the dog”, as has happened in some governments where single-issue parliamentarians or narrow factions dictate policy. It also means “you are obliged to work with others”. You can resign from office if something offends your conscience, but “if you are a democrat, which everybody says they are, you’ll probably want to stay in government”.

Yes, it would put party whips out of a job. More than that, “the party would not pursue its own party policy. Every party would have to find consensus in the Dáil. Their opinion would influence that consensus, but it might not dominate it.”

Is this a recipe for instability? The evidence is quite the reverse, says Emerson. In majoritarian systems “you have the politics of the pendulum”. Each administration contradicts the work of the previous one, or swings from right to left and back again. But where a consensus is sought, decisions stick.

Again, Switzerland is the most obvious example. It has a seven-person executive, with a rotating presidency. In the current administration four parties are represented on the executive. “Switzerland is the only example of a country that has got power sharing without having a war first,” says Emerson. “I mean, we talk about power sharing for Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, yet we don’t practise it ourselves.”

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