Rosa Luxemburg once observed that without all the components of democracy (elections, unrestricted free press and assembly, and free struggle of opinion), “public life gradually falls asleep, and a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy direct and rule”.
In Northern Ireland we certainly have elections (three of them last year alone). But after twenty years plus of on/off institutions politics there’s a growing gap between the people and the political machines which appoint them to look after their interests.
Who saw the 2019 Alliance surge coming? I had a notion three years ago something was coming. But Professor Pete Shirlow tells me he saw evidence building within social science over the last ten years, but the bigger parties had become too insular to take it seriously.
The evidence suggests that both he DUP’s staunch social conservatism and Sinn Féin’s belief in demography as a single route to unification are both undermined by the fact that identity amongst the young is far more fluid than its ever been.
And fluidity is opportunity for whoever embraces the opportunities for change, not by forcing it but, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty once put it, to ‘return to things themselves’, in other words to us, as the people we have become, not who we once were in our younger days.
Politicians with an eye on the future, must tackle the vacuum of thought at the heart of the politics of our time. To do this, Shirlow says, we need a free and informed civic space, where other voices are welcomed and social learning is put at the centre of everything we do.
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Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty