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?

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