Democracy is fine, but ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes’ in Northern Ireland?

reminded us some time ago, that the defining features of a functioning democracy extend beyond free and fair elections. The increasingly kleptocratic regime in Turkey is a perfect example of a democracy sliding away from the tenets of liberal democracy on the basis of a ruler’s belief that winning elections provides him with the unfettered right to rule.

Egypt, Iran and Syria to varying degrees provide similar case studies.

In his recent book How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters Daniel Hannan MEP posits that these pillars of democracy are very much an Anglophile construct, which the rest of the world has struggled to grapple with down the years.

He further argues that the Anglosphere (his term) should be more aware of it’s role in the development of the free world and more protective of it within it’s borders.

Parsley’s article proposes that Northern Ireland has never been a democracy. This is, of course, to a large extent hyperbole, but it contains just enough truth to be carefully studied. In particular his observation:

How do you even begin any of this [the pillars of democracy] when you cannot even take assumptions about freedom of speech and an independent judiciary for granted? Remember, the DUP and Sinn Fein respect neither consistently – even accepting violence as legitimate against people merely for making a democratic choice.

The debate in Northern Ireland surrounding a structure for opposition in the legislature is complex and mired in history. The traditional nationalist knee jerk rejection of the notion is understandable: indeed it is arguably entirely justifiable, given the historical development of that movement.

However there must also be lingering suspicion that Sinn Fein’s conflation of winning elections with true democracy (without for a moment suggesting that there is evidence that this extends to Assad or Ergodan proportions) leads them to much rather hold their enemies hostage within the Executive in order to neuter criticism.

Similarly the DUP’s record does not inspire confidence that they can be regarded as effective guardians of democratic pillars or the rule of law. From Ian Paisley’s threat to roll back the Freedom of Information Act, to the habit prevalent among most Unionists (except Enoch Powell) to unquestioningly jumping to the defence of the police under all circumstances in security matters, it is arguable that there is more cause for concern in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in Dan Hannan’s Anglosphere.

What inspires this piece is the accusation from the UUP this week that OFMdFM have been ambushing it’s scrutiny committee in the Assembly with reports with less than two hours notice and 36 hours to respond in writing.

On a brief search, it appears that no news outlet covered this story, perhaps because the UUP in fact made the attack with the wrong end of the stick.

Dysfunctionality within OFMdFM is only one possible explanation, and in fact may actually be the most generous, considering that the other option is that the Ministers or their officials deliberately attempted to evade scrutiny by the legislature.

This of course seems like an incredibly minor event compared to threats to the rule of law and democracy itself. However the history of Europe is littered with lessons on how small matters get out of hand remarkably quickly.

The architect of Hungary’s post war dystopia Mátyás Rákosi (perhaps the most anti-semitic Jew in history) referred to his practice of gradually eroding the structures of democracy and building a Stalinist prison as “salami slicing”.

Following a more direct takeover in East Germany, the Communists built a system where historian Victor Sebestyen describes an instance where the Stasi employed an agent so deep undercover that he married and had children with his surveillance quarry.

These are some of the longer term stakes in such battles. They are both examples of deliberate destruction of democracy and individual liberty, however it is important to be cognisant of inadvertent salami-slicing as it is equally as insidious and just as dangerous.

The evening news yesterday today told us that the Court of Appeal in London is hearing an application for a criminal trial to exclude the press and public, and for the names of the accused to be in secret.

The news this morning recounts an accusation made by Alistair Darling that Alex Salmond is a tyrant in sheep’s clothing. So clearly issues pertaining to freedom and democracy are not limited to Northern Ireland in Hannan’s Anglosphere.

However on a national scale, there are numerous dedicated and well resourced pressure groups and journalists willing and able to engage in individual debates and push back against dangers to our way of life.

Can the same be said of Northern Ireland?


  • “the accusation from the UUP this week”

    It’s not a new accusation. At the time of the Elliott-McCrea contest for the UUP leadership, UUP politicians were saying to anyone who would listen that sometimes papers were not presented until after meetings had begun. Did Alex Attwood, when he was Minister, not pass negative comment on this and similar practices that, in effect, were treating the smaller parties with contempt?

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Following a more direct takeover in East Germany, the Communists built a system where historian Victor Sebestyen describes an instance where the Stasi employed an agent so deep undercover that he married and had children with his surveillance quarry.

    You don’t have to go that far for examples, just look across to England where undercover cops formed relationships with women and had the okay from their bosses and total impunity it now seems. And there’s also the recently revealed story of their attempts to infiltrate the grieving family of Stephen Lawrence.

  • No mention of D-Day when we know who freed Europe from tyranny.

  • quis custodiet ipsos custodes

    Isn’t that supposed to be the job of the Police Board.? How well are they doing?

  • IJP

    Thanks for the link.

    I think you are spot on with the solution – pressure groups (also think tanks), properly resourced journalists, and so on.

    As you ask, do we have them in Northern Ireland? In the political, economic and broadly social sphere, plainly no.

  • mr x

    @Scaith Sheamais

    You wonder which politician authorised that.

  • “Democracy is fine, but ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes’ in Northern Ireland?”

    We do.

    “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.” .. ― John F. Kennedy”

    Should our guardians be so so close to our public service chief executives and should the latter be so close to private sector chief executives? Might there not be conflicts of interest?

  • FuturePhysicist

    Agree entirely Nevin, there does seem to be a right wing attitude that “if you can’t change the electorate change the politicians or change the system to keep these dislikable electorate out”

  • FuturePhysicist

    Ultimately, the question is if most of our electorate want to vote DUP or Sinn Féin, we need to listen and respect them. If they want or need something else they will vote for something else. One element of the Anglosphere that isn’t even considered here is the ANCs control over South Africa since the new Republic was formed, they have an opposition there but the voters do not want anything different than the ANC. That probably doesn’t come across as true democracy to these commentators.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh FuturePhysicist, if we were offered entirely honest candidates whose actions were utterly transparent to possible voters then your arguement would be unassailable. But with most of our voters simply led by the age-old slogans from our polarised politics, jollied along drunk on these old lies to the ballot in the manner of the electors in some eighteenth century rotten borough, I can only hear the hiss of hot air as it deflates. Sure, our electorate may want to vote while “under the influence” for the DUP or Sinn Féin but if they were fully informed what would actually be done on every level of governance once these parties are in power, they might just think again. Someone once said that “Democracy is a great sytem of government, we should try it some time……” And for me that would mean not being lied to by my representitives, perhaps even cutting out the “mandate to do anything I’m thinking at the time” aspect of how our representative system works in practice.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I don’t think the electorate are “under the influence”, they are actually the main stakeholders in government. The adage that the non-voters should get the nothing they didn’t vote for holds true. The DUP and Sinn Féin, go out and get their vote out while alternative fail, and some alternatives sit in cafés trying to wonder why their action at a distance isn’t changing anything, why their ignored philosophies cannot be the ignored political philosophy of the rest who do not vote. Not everyone ignored a Zen Buddhist, not everyone’s a “Unicorn”, a “getalongerist” or a right wing Nationalist, or other caveat, every voter is unique and needs work to convinced. The DUP and Sinn Féin are doing what the UUP, Alliance and SDLP did previously, build up their grassroots and use the present political situation to their advantage, where the last two were seen as People’s Parties the top two now lie. And speaking about lying, I don’t know if honesty is the critical bottom line for the electorate but mere honesty without hope and mere hope without honesty are often part of the political turmoil in any democracy. You don’t overcome the cynicism of the electorate without offering a calculated dose of either.

  • FuturePhysicist

    where the last *three were seen as People’s Parties the top two now lie

  • SeaanUiNeill

    No, no, no, FuturePhysicist!! The electorate may be “main stakeholders in government” on paper but this is a very misleading statement, implying as it does that they have any real influence over those they elect. They can only effect any coercive influence their representatives about once every five years (and even that I question!) The people who influence these representatives on a daily basis are the lobbies for vested interests and (from experience) a single voter pitched against a multi-million pound vested interest has a very, very big hill of sand to climb before the Minister even notices him.

    And sure, I fully agree that honesty is not the bottom line for the electorate. That’s the very point I’m making, but if they even began to imagine just what its absence entails for their personal governance it would soon become the bottom line with a vengeance.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Sean I can lobby parties as a constituent, I can also highlight lobbiers for parties as a member of the community, what I can’t do is use someone else’s vote or their private enterprise and endeavours. There are massive rooms for rebellions against corporate influence in politics, you can even be political about corporations. It would be foolish though to deny any responsibility for my own consumerism in the growth of a particular company with ethical issues, while at the same time blaming parties for not being above the vices I and the average Joe/Jo has over these things.

    Look at what happened the Co-Op group when the people picked a leadership that was unable to live up to its principles. There was no outside corruption, just inside incompetence.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you FuturePhysicist for outlining my choices!! NI is a small place and I’m talking about my own direct experience, as I’d mentioned. I must disagree though with your comment about not “blaming parties for not being above the vices I and the average Joe/Jo has over these things.”

    There has been a steady erosion of the standards of probity in public life and business over my lifetime. A lot more louche behaviour is now accepted in the behaviour of politicians (and bankers) by “realistic” voters than would have passed muster even twenty years back. The result is a drop off of public interest in politics across the globe and a culture of politics and banking where no-one is ever to blame for anything. This feeds into political and business incompetence, as no-one is required to act in a professional and disciplined manner, where an absence of probity would sink them and their careers. So although you “can lobby parties as a constituent” you as an individual constituent are very small fry in a situation where your value to the MLA/MEP/MP/Councillor will perhaps be weighed against another lobby with more to offer him, his career and his party in making any decision to represent your concerns.

    There are really good representatives out there, I know a few personally, but the general culture of politics has moved a long way away from the representation of ordinary people and increasingly the voters are realising this.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Object to it if you want, but if someone doesn’t have the self discipline to boycott the products of a corrupt company, they vindicate and empower its ability to be corrupt. Corporations are dependent on the Consumer as much as Politicians are on the electorate.

    Secondly, political change requires the activity of The Masses so to speak, large scale protest does change our politics, it was actually a relatively small protest that saw Peter Robinson in one of the safest DUP seats lose it to the traditionally third place Alliance Party. If the masses can educate the consumer corporations with bad records will die. Indeed even the producer in some cases.

    Networks more than ideas or even money (which is useless without them) are where power comes from, which is why the armchair liberals, socialists, conservatives and libertarians are so bitter they can’t change anything. They haven’t really tried.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’m so sorry, dear boy, but the `Masses are a reification and their “political clout” is an illusion. Networks would only last a few seconds beyond the payments that make them possible, and are simply fields wherein attitudes and opinions are harvested by the cynical to sell on:

    Take Googles executive chairman, Eric Emerson Schmidt (and, after all, he’s in a position to know)….

    “Nous n’avons pas besoin en fait que vous tapiez tout sur votre ordinateur. Nous savons où vous êtes. Nous savons où vous avez été. Nous pouvons savoir grosso modo ce que vous pensez. Je pense en fait que la plupart des gens ne veulent pas que Google réponde à leurs questions […] Ils veulent que Google leur dise ce qu’ils doivent faire ensuite. Si vous avez quelque chose ou fait quelque chose que vous ne voulez pas que d’autres personnes ne le sachent, peut-être que vous ne devriez pas le faire en première instance. Nous avons besoin d’une identification de service positive pour les gens. Les gouvernements vont le demander (contrôle internet dans le style chinois). Nous savons tout ce que vous faites et le gouvernement peut vous tracer, vous surveiller. Nous saurons où vous vous trouvez à 50cm près, et nous réduirons cette marge à quelques centimètres dans le futur… Votre voiture se conduira toute seule, c’est emmerdant que les voitures furent inventées avant les ordinateurs, mais vous n’êtes jamais seuls, vous ne vous ennuyez jamais, vous n’êtes jamais à cours d’idées.”

    I found this quote on:

    Roughly translates as:

    “We do not actually need you to type anything on your computer. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We know pretty much what you think. I really believe that most people do not want Google to simply answer their questions……they want Google to tell them what they should do next. If you think something or do something you do not want other people to know, maybe you should not do or think it in the first place. We need to create a service that can positivly identify what people are up to. Governments will demand it, demand in effect, something to allow internet control Chinese style. We will know all that you do, so the government can trace you, observe you. We already know where you are close to 50cm, and we will reduce the margin to a few centimeters in the future … Your car will control its own actions, that its taking time is just due to cars being invented before computers , but you’ll never be alone you will never get bored , you’ll never run short of ideas.”

    Thats my own translation, but its pretty literal.

    Yeah, sure, its all hype, but a hype that he and his clients aspire to. And that’s not just me getting all paranoid, its him trying to get us paranoid with the sales pitch. It suggests to me that no one sane should rely on the internet to bring anything important to light that others may pay to keep hidden, if the internet is actually not “owned and controlled” by geeky altruists, but by business men who milk it to access something they can sell on, or limit access to, for real money. So do you really, really think that the networks are simply there for us to create our own free, accountable world with…….?

  • FuturePhysicist

    I am well aware of the speed of financial transactions these days, however without networks including of course the internet, these things would not be possible. Without the skilled individuals to set these things up then the story of Napolean’s “for want of a nail” the war is lost. For want of a miner, a refiner or a polymer designer the major oil stock plummets.

    Without skilled mathematicians (or those of mathematically orientated degrees) and programmers coming from the “ordinary folk”, Google would be lost too. Banks are not too big to fail, neither are Google and the rest. Even these big businesses are under threat from pirates, freeware, hacking circles and indeed custom hardware developers.

    In nature the large predator is under threat from both starvation and elusive and defensive prey, and struggle for habitation, quite often the oldest animals are vegetarian. That is even shown in the business ecosystem where corporate giants have plummeted while smaller businesses have survived their mainstay. Certainly the small shopkeeper is under threat from Amazon, even with some shops taking a symbiotic relationship but these entities are ignorant of real localised need.

    So let’s return to the custodial nature of politics or indeed as you suggest capitalism. It would be hard to deny they have a custodial role in our lives or monopolies on at the very least the raw materials for production. If you are labouring for a corporation you take on a custodial role to them, you are looking after something.

    To avoid custodialism in politics or business you need to assert your independence and fight back, look at the failed hostile takeover by Pzifer of AstroZennica, where it’s tag line of being the world’s largest research based pharmaceutical company was blown to pieces. AstroZennica may have problems, but it is willing to fight and die by its own merits rather than enter under the custodial wing of Pzifer.

    However labour is critical to the route of the power of the corporation, and indeed if Artificial Intelligence ever had the capacity to serve every creative need required, I would hold Asimov’s assertion that too much exploitation of A.I. will inevitably lead it to rebel too.

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
    Custodiet te, ab initio.