Whichever way you vote, in Northern Ireland, the Government always *does* get in…

Tony Benn was, in my opinion, as mad as a March Hare, but this quote of his is truly insightful in the context of our own very particular [Nay, peculiar? – Ed] democratic experiment:

“In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person–Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates–ask them five questions:

“What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”

And we can’t get rid of them, can we? It feels as if they can do what they want up on the Hill and we are trapped with this mandatory, unaccountable coalition of the damned.

I once asked Professor Vernon Bogdanor (never name drop, as Ronald Regan always said to me) what he thought of our government structure and whether as a world expert on government, he felt a mandatory coalition with no opposition was democratic.

Bogdanor was one of the architects of the particular ring of hell which runs our country.

He told me that the electorate of Northern Ireland didn’t deserve any better. (The conversation was then broken up by a third party before it descended into violence). So that’s why we have it, because – in the opinion of the intelligentsia – it’s all we are fit for!

Opposition and accountability would be too hard for us. Perhaps we wouldn’t know what to do with it if we did have it. And so instead we end up with accountability via ‘shock jock’.

The politicians are off to the country to gain a mandate and wave it around to show someone somewhere supports what they are doing. But what sort of mandate will it be?

I despair of the number of articulate engaged citizens who have told me over the past few days that they really don’t think they can bring themselves to vote this time.

We really could be looking at less than a 50% turnout. Can you honestly call yourself an elected politician if you can’t even galvanise half the electorate to go out and vote?

There are people all over the world fighting and dying for the right to vote because they hope it can change things. People aren’t going to vote here because they have come to believe as Mark Twain said: “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.”

I have heard it said that 110,000 voters came out for the Brexit referendum that hadn’t voted a month earlier in the May Assembly elections. They did it I assume because every vote counted AND they cared about this vote. It would make a difference, whatever the outcome.

Should we try and get those voters and the other no-shows to come out on March 2nd?

Or alternatively, should we follow PJ O’Rourke’s advice:

“Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards”

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  • file

    I totally agree with Von Bognor Regis that we do not deserve any better. We have the government structures we have because for fifty years from partition the unionist parties demonstrated that they could not be trusted to rule in a democratic fashion. And this reason should be thrown into Jim Allister’s face every time he asks what type of country has a mandatory coalition government and no proper opposition. We are that type of country (and South Africa used to be). Until there is some proof that unionists know how to rule without discrimination, we will continue to have forced power-sharing. Mind you, one unionist party has now proved it cannot be trusted to employ power-sharing either.
    But we can change our elected representatives, and one way to do it in a noticeable manner is for each person reading Slugger to try to convince one non-voter to vote this time.

  • Zorin001

    “Von Bognor Regis”

    Autocorrect strikes again!

  • Teddybear

    More fool those who die for the vote. If only they knew how useless democracy is. Most people are uninformed and intellectually unengaged yet they have a vote.

  • AntrimGael

    Indeed, Unionism doesn’t vote on matters or topics at hand. If a monkey with a DUP hat was put up in North Belfast, Lisburn or North Antrim it would still romp home.

  • the rich get richer

    At least Arlene and co will have some nice heated sheds to get warm in while out on the election stump . It would be a pity to waste all those hot empty sheds .

  • file

    No … I typed it like that on purpose for humour.

  • Zorin001

    Well it gave me a chuckle either way.

  • Karl

    Compulsory voting is the solution. It will strengthen the centre relatively and allow new parties enter the system. No idea in a post conflict environment like NI why its not used.

    As for the article. ‘We’ can get rid of them. ‘We’ choose not to. Your issue seems to be that your we is not the same we as those who vote. You appear to have a colourless we. Other wes appear to be more green or orange. I suggest a trip to the doctor to get it checked out.

  • Mirrorballman

    I’m sick of this “we can’t get rid of them” shite!!

    We can get rid of them! We get the chance to get rid of them at least every 5 years! We’re about to get another chance in a few weeks time.

    Now stop the nonsense. Our Government is democratically elected. They can be democratically removed too.

  • mickfealty

    MBM, but surely you’re wrong. We’re fairly unique in the western world in that we cannot actually vote to get rid of them, entirely. We can downsize them yes, but we cannot tell them we don’t want them in government any more.

  • Mirrorballman

    Cant be right Mick. If no one votes for SF they aren’t in government anymore simple as that. That goes for any of the parties on the hill. No one is up there by divine right.

  • Karl

    Theres no blocker on new parties entering the market. They might have the benefit of encumbancy but theres no ‘cant’

  • Brian Walker

    There’s too much pessimism in this. .

    Fundamentally unionists and nationalist voters indeed can’t “get rid of” the other side’s majority party. This was in the design as “the power sharing squeeze ” to force a multiparty coalition to work together .The system is now a tiny bit less monolithic with provision for a formal opposition.

    If they want to the opposition parties can become an alternative coalition. Ok, early days yet but we will be watching for any tentative moves in that direction. The chances of an alternative coalition would be improved if there was
    a campaign to replace the designation blocs which might In time replace the present two party coalition with a weighted majority coalition system . Before it produced a replacement Executive, a weighted majority might begin by encouraging more flexible voting on individual issues. It should increase the voting power and therefore the appeal of parties designated no longer as”other “Alliance, Greens and PBP.
    With a little application and ingenuity, this would present the occasional challenge to the Executive on the floor of the House or its committees and sharpen up Executive performance.

    The big problem here is where the momentum for change comes from. The mutual veto of the DUP and Sinn Fein would almost certainly continue to operate as a joint veto unless one or both of them was overtaken by its bloc rival

    Any change would also need cross community voting and that too is a cyclical subject.
    Parties would have to recommend it and the public would have to indicate some demand for it. So it’s not entirely the fault of the parties.

    Do you feel like starting a reform campaign?

  • Granni Trixie

    Not necessarily.

  • J D

    “…we cannot tell them we don’t want them in government any more.”

    And? That decision was approved in a referendum. With greater turnout and margin of victory than Brexit.

    Why do you hate the democratic choices people make?

  • johnny lately

    “Compulsory voting is the solution” – What should happen, legally, if someone or lots and lots of individuals ignore any new law making it compulsory for Irish citizens to vote in British elections.

  • mickfealty

    What on earth gave you that impression? I was just explaining that the point Felicity is making was a valid description of the system we have.

  • J D

    The use of the word “we”.

  • On the fence!

    OK take it the other way then.

    What about someone who wanted to keep our present assembly which has been brought down by the resignation of one person and the failure of his party to replace him.

    And for balance, this could have been done equally by the DUP if there was something they were unhappy about no matter whether the nationalist side wanted it or not.

    Whatever side you want to look at it from (or no side at all!), our system is a perversion of democracy!

  • On the fence!

    As would one in other parts of the country with a glorious past in the RA!

    Whether you like to admit it or not, bigotry on both sides is why we’re going nowhere.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    You make a good point there. We should at this stage be able to slip into a voluntary coalition system. One imagines at the outset that the plan would have assumed such would happen after a given period of time. But, Unionisms failure to live up to its commitments by continuously blocking political progress in the Assembly alongside street violence suggests that it is not quite ready for grown up politics just yet.

  • anon

    You can get rid of them by voting SDLP and UUP. It’s not rocket science.

  • Michael Harkin

    Sorry, but I couldn’t finish the article following the author’s insulting and moronic statement regarding Tony Benn. Shame.

  • file

    I got this error message when I tried to get on to the Assembly webpage. Maybe they have discovered humour?

    We’re sorry but an error occurred.

    We apologise for the inconvenience caused. If this error persists please email websupport@niassembly.gov.uk.

    Return to the Northern Ireland Assembly home page.

  • file

    Anthony: you actually think there was a plan?

  • file

    because the government of Northern Ireland from Partition until direct rule was brought in in 1972 was a ‘perversion of democracy’.

  • the rich get richer

    An inconvenient Fine lets £75 should be enough to get a big turnout .

    Kind of the reverse of buying democracy…………

  • scepticacademic

    But can the DUP and SF be denied exec ministries under dHondt in the seemingly unlikely event that UUP and SDLP are returned as the 2 largest parties?

  • aquifer

    Yep a picture of UUP SDLP Alliance Greens PBP in suits around a shiny big table, a bit of a joint manifesto different from SFDUP, and people might get the picture.

    Then again, if the above parties cannot even powder their noses, borrow a big room, and organise a photographer they belong in opposition, playing holier than thou but actually useless.

  • Brian Walker

    No.. weighted majority coalition would require a legal change which would be logical.

  • mickfealty

    We, as in the demos?

  • Katyusha

    Indeed, the formation of Northern Ireland itself was a perversion of democracy. It should be no surprise that it has spawned nothing but perversion, but at least our third-generation government is more tolerable than what went before it.

  • Katyusha

    Of course you can tell them you don’t want them any more.
    If nobody votes for them, they’re out on their ear.

  • file

    Like Ghandi when asked what he thought of Western Civilisaton, I would venture that the response to that has to be, “It’s too early to say.”

  • johnny lately

    Isn’t it already illegal not to register to vote ?

  • J D

    No. In your statements. You talked about the positions using the term “we” over and over. I think it is reasonable that someone talking about opinions using a possessive pronoun is in agreement with such opinions.

    At least in the dictionaries I’m familiar with.

  • mickfealty

    It works in more than one direction though MBM.

    Accountability is about the apportioning of blame and the levying of punishment. The great liberating moment of southern politics was the reduction of FF to a rump and consequent banishment from power in Feb 2011, or the Tories dispatched by Blair some twenty years ago this May.

    As it happens both have recovered and returned as much fitter, leaner, younger projects than the ones that were so summarily dispatched by their respective Demos. Opposition aids the rejuvenation of parties of government every bit as much as the opposition parties themselves.

    Neither is possible in NI, which is one reason why our two government parties are slowly seething into apoplexy and at the same time being cooked in the hot juices of their own serial failures to govern either fairly or effectively.

    Much as they each might wish otherwise, there is no way out of their relationship, nowhere else they can go but back to each other.

    Trouble is their too quick and too easy tendency to catastrophise their own relationship also undermines their credibility as government parties.

  • mickfealty

    Meaning Demos. The hate thing, I don’t get.

  • Croiteir

    I thought that was Mao Tse Tung over the French Revolution?

  • Croiteir

    That is a form of tyranny

  • anon

    Perhaps not – but if they stitched things up the way SF and the DUP have in recent years it wouldn’t matter.

  • anon

    SF and the DUP have almost diametrically opposed manifestos and it doesn’t stop them from getting votes. I don’t disagree that UUP, SDLP and Alliance should at least have a similar message about ‘time for change’, but joint electioneering is a step too far.

  • On the fence!

    Struggling a bit with the concept of moving forward I see!

  • file

    turns out it was neither of them, but it is still a good response!


  • Steptoe

    Mark Durkan described our system as “the ugly scaffolding surrounding the Good Friday Agreement”. I’m afraid it’s a lot deeper than that. The foundation stones of the agreement were not laid right, thus the potential for collapse was ever present. A full structural rebuild is now required. The building blocks should be the accommodation of minorities, an agreed appointment who rules if petitions of concern are valid, thus removing the potential for them to be abused, a full and unique bill of rights for NI incorporating socio and economic rights which will also address the ever festering sore that is the past. The mortar for all of this should be a spirit of kindness and cooperation from All sides. If you build something on sand, it will be unstable.

  • file

    When has logic ever had anything to do with the governance of northern Ireland, Brian? We cannot have ‘normal’ democratic government because we are not normal, and because unionists have proved over the course of nearly 100 years that they do not want to govern democratically, or do not know how to.

  • Croiteir


  • Katyusha

    What about someone who wanted to keep our present assembly which has been brought down by the resignation of one person and the failure of his party to replace him.

    If the people want to keep the same assembly they can simply vote for the same parties as last time.

    Coalition governments are prone to collapse; its the same all over the world. That does not make them anti-democratic. In fact it serves as quite the opposite – if one of the government parties does something that earns considerable anger from the public, their coalition partner can withdraw support and force an election, instead of having to wait for the unpopular ruling party to see out their term.

  • Brian Walker

    I asked Vernon Bogdanor whom I know if he’d care to comment on your rather surprising reference to a conversation with him, He has replied as follows:

    “I can’t ever remember meeting Felicity Houston, and would certainly never have made the comment she attributes to me – which I do not believe, as she would have discovered if she had read the relevant chapter in my book `Devolution in the United Kingdom’. I am now very worried lest the settlement break down which would, I think, be disastrous for everyone in Northern Ireland.”

    I would day to you that It’s important to be careful what opinions you attribute to people particularly those who have reputations to defend, unless you’re sure of your ground. Vernon is one of the leading constitutional authorities in the country

  • On the fence!

    No problem whatsoever with coalition government. Coalitions are good as they tend to curb the excesses of extreme parties and can often allow for a degree of input from a smaller party which would otherwise be totally isolated. And there is no doubt that given the political landscape here that coalition government will be the only way ahead for as far as anyone would wish to look.

    However I would suggest that once you introduce the word “mandatory” then things start to unravel rapidly. Mandatory – “required or commanded by authority”, surely the very antithesis of democracy!

  • On the fence!

    “The big problem here is where the momentum for change comes from.”

    It could come from the UUP and SDLP. Supposing both Mike Nesbitt and Colm Eastwood suggested that they would press for voluntary coalition but under such an arrangement neither of their parties would form a majority government with either the DUP or Sinn Fein respectively thereby avoiding the possibility of either a majority unionist or nationalist government.

    I would suggest that such a move could quite drastically alter the entire political landscape here fairly rapidly.

  • J D

    The demos spoke in a referendum. Your constant refusal to accept that reality simply because YOU do not like it is the hate to which I refer.

    Never forget that YOUR views are those of a very, very small minority in NI. Very, very small indeed.

    50%+1 is coming and when it does the north dissolves into the south.

  • Felicity Huston

    I have the date and time I met him in front of me as I type- if that would help jog his memory – even though he can’t spell my name. It was his position as a ‘leading constitutional authorities in the country’ that prompted my original question.

  • Granni Trixie

    Sounds like this man takes himself awfully seriously.

  • Brian Walker

    The spelling is probably my fault. But I would let it lie if I were you.

  • Jeremy Cooke

    Only if there is a box “None of the above” to tick. What happens with those votes would be interesting – establish a hurdle ?

  • aquifer

    Too sensible by far? It would demonstrate that they are not under any delusion as to the nature of power exercised through the NI Executive, and expose the separate manifesto ambitions of SFDUP as empty fantasy. It would also show a capacity to co-operate, lacking in SFDUP. But you are probably right, they each like to imagine that they might become as big as SF or DUP. Not happening anytime soon.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you for the link file, delightful!