Could Switzerland’s bottom up democracy provide a model for a widely agreeable united Ireland?

One thing I can say about my friend David McWilliams is he is creative when it comes to charting the future of Ireland. In his latest column he argues that the Swiss Confederation might be a way to think about a united Ireland.

David used to work for the Swiss bank, UBS and so is clearly well informed about the principles on which Switzerland works…

The balance of political power in Switzerland is divvied up between the three Cs – the Confederation, the Cantons and the Communes, in descending order of size. The basic rule of Swiss government boils down to the principle of subsidiarity; in short, anything that can be done at a lower political level should not be done at a higher level.

This rule is set out in the constitution. This prevents Germans making the rules for the French or the French making the rules for the Italians, and at a stroke diminishes the likelihood of inter-ethnic grievance.

It’s not that the Swiss don’t recognise the potential for sectarian strife, they just don’t let it happen.

The confederation handles issues of national importance and scale, such as national defence, foreign policy, customs and monetary policy and nationwide legislation. Each of the country’s 26 cantons has equal status and sets budgetary matters, taxation, healthcare and the operation of the political system. At the local level, Switzerland’s 2,300 or so communes determine local taxation, planning, schools and hospitals.

Around one fifth of these communes, mostly large cities and towns, are organised into their own parliaments. The remaining 80 per cent employ direct democracy, whereby all residents are invited to cast votes in a communal assembly.

Direct democracy ensures that everyone participates and reduces enormously the potential for the accusation that the government is “up there” or not relevant or remote.

He describes what we have at the moment (in the UK as well as the Republic) as a spectator democracy, where we vote every so often to elect a government and then we let them get on with it with as little interference as we might.

The governing idea is that…

…the Swiss model would be far more palatable to the British people in the northeast of the island because in effect they could run their own affairs in a hyper-devolved Irish federation.

Switzerland is different to Ireland or even Northern Ireland, the former being one of the most highly centralised countries inside the EU. Swiss hyper local sovereignty derives from geography as much a need to manage religious difference.

The ‘next valley’ is a Swiss alp away, not just a dander over the hill. People have been living separately for 900 plus years of the life of Confederation. So, historically, if people in one valley are Catholic, most of them will be.

Ditto those valleys where the reformed faiths became dominant. It also works because the confederation has been able to subdivide people when they’ve wanted to separate. Take the case of the old Jura region, for instance.

In 1978, what’s now the Canton of Jura (75% Catholic and mostly French speaking) separated from Berne Canton (52% Protestant, mostly German speaking), but the French Protestant areas stayed. The Laufen district went to Basel.

Ireland is, as my old Corkonian Geography teacher used to say, like a saucer: highlands on the outside, flat in the middle. Its counties are an (British) invention that have a few consonances with natural landscapes, but not many.

Politically the Republic is even more centralised than Northern Ireland. The technocratic office of County Manager has a power over county business almost to the extent of turning elected councillors into a management committee.

Recent local government reforms have been aimed at stripping out layers below county level, and trying to popularise the sort of mayor led projects we’ve seen starting to take off in Britain (by parliamentary diktat from London).

In Switzerland (and Germany and the Nordic countries) no such centralised powers exist. But Dublin’s capacity to interfere are boundless. Economically too, Dublin dominates the Irish economy (50%) in ways even London doesn’t.

One other thing worth noting about Swiss demographics is the rate at which religious affiliation in this once unreservedly socially conservative nation is dropping. Between Catholics and Protestants the number is balanced.

But some 22.4% state clearly they are unaffiliated with any official religion. Despite huge efforts before the last NI census to identify religion by means other than a direct question, unaffiliated numbers appear to be rising in NI too.

But that would mean (like many other ‘big’ ideas, like offering to change the flag) imposing an imported solution on the south to tackle an issue in the north. One the south would have the power to strike down in a referendum.

That’s before you get to how you take Dublin’s unrivalled iconic (and political/economic) position within the pantheon of Ireland’s independence story down a peg or three. Cantonising NI alone wouldn’t appeal to anyone.

However, he is right argue that the UI lobby needs new ideas capable of generating a broad appeal. Enlarging the parameters of the question is also the right way for them to go. Going big is right, but it must be retro-engineerable.

After 100 years apart, that’s not going to be as simple as it’s often portrayed.