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Shaking up the voting system

INTERESTING IDEAS: Peter Emerson at home in North Belfast this week INTERESTING IDEAS: Peter Emerson at home in North Belfast this week
By Michael Jackson

LAST month political parties began a new round of talks aimed at restoring the Stormont institutions.
While news from the secret proceedings have been scarce the issues that have been at stake since the Assembly was collapsed in January 2017 continue to dominate the political discourse. However, underlying issues of majority and binary decision-making processes, and the resulting exclusion of certain voices, are ones that have dogged the institutions since the formation of the Northern state. It is this same system of binary voting that has further polarised opinions and furthered tension in the wake of the Brexit vote. Therefore, it is in this broad context that democratic processes advocated by the North Belfast-based de Borda Institute become all the more interesting.
Headed up by Ballysillan man Peter Emerson, The de Borda Institute aims to promote the use of inclusive voting procedures on issues of social choice. These procedures are multi-choice and make use of points based voting system popularised by French mathematician Jean-Charles de Borda.
Peter began his own professional career in the British Navy, but soon became disillusioned with the role of British Empire, instead viewing colonialism as “part of the problem” in other nations.
His divergent path following his naval resignation saw him move to Rwanda, where he worked as a teacher in the 1970s. It was during that time that he began questioning the majority voting systems implemented by Europeans worldwide. When he came to the North of Ireland in 1975, he realised how similar processes had hindered political progress.
“Traditional African decision-making is so much better than majority voting,” he explained.
“When you look back and realise that Europeans went to Rwanda and applied majority rule. How crazy can you get?
“I started to question majority rule in Africa. Then I came here in 1975 and realised that it was part of the problem here. My dad was Irish, from Cork, but he was a member of the minority because he was a Protestant. My mum was English, but she was a member of the minority because she was Catholic, so I’m a political b*****d.
“We have this stupid thing here where we’re asked whether we’re British or Irish, which I was asked a lot when I arrived here. They have the same in Rwanda – are you Hutu or Tutsi? It’s a closed question. You’re caught because you could be neither, or both, so you can’t answer a question like that.
“I realised very early on that the question was part of the Northern Ireland problem. In 1985 there was the Anglo-Irish Agreement and you had Paisley standing outside City Hall protesting. One week later, six of us stood outside the same venue with a banner saying ‘we have got to say yes to something’.
“Six months later we brought a number of parties together at a conference to discuss a range of issues. You put down in order of preference what you like and you can see which option has the widest support. We did this in May 1986. We had Sinn Féin, Official Unionists, UDA, Ulster Clubs – you name it – and we had this fantastic meeting. People could suggest anything they like and as long as it didn’t infringe the UN Charter on Human Rights it was allowed.
“We finished with 10 options on the ballot paper and the people came to conclusion that Northern Ireland should have devolution and power sharing within a joint Dublin, London and Belfast tripartite agreement. It was like a mini Good Friday Agreement, but just 12 years ahead of its time.”
The methods – known as the ‘Borda Count’ – employed by The de Borda Institute, are used to determine the highest average vote amongst a number of options, resulting in what should be a more democratic outcome. While western countries pride themselves on being ‘democratic’, Peter said that their use of majority voting calls that self-ascribed description into question.
“In Western Europe we often discuss electoral systems, but when it comes to decision-making it has to be a majority vote,” he said.
“Sometimes you see complaints about North Korea, and their elections where they have do you want candidate ‘x’, ‘yes’ or ‘no’? Then we go ahead and have Brexit, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – it’s the same thing. The basic idea of just asking yes or no is too primitive and gives all the power to the person who sets the question. Majority voting has been used by Napoleon, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Pinochet, Duvalier, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi – you name it – dictators love it. David Cameron wrote the Brexit question. The Electoral Commission says it’s fair – it’s crazy. It’s like asking a vegetarian if they would like beef or lamb.”
In the coming months Peter plans to publish a new book entitled ‘Majority Voting as a Catalyst of Populism’, which tells of his overland journey from Belfast to Beijing and back. The book offers an assessment of a number of regions that he visitied that have suffered from majoritarianism, including post-conflict areas such as the Balkans and the North of Ireland. Asked about our own political impasse, Peter said: “Politicians don’t like the idea of giving people a choice. The politician who wants ‘x’ is happy to have it on the ballot paper, and maybe ‘y’, but not ‘z’. If you are a proper democrat and you want the will of the people then you give them the choice to decide. Then whatever they decide you, the Executive, execute. If you totally disagree then you resign.
“We go to the polling stations and elect an assembly. If somebody abstains then that’s fine. Those who do want to get on with it can. If the DUP and Sinn Féin don’t want to be there then that’s a pity, but to give them the monopoly or veto is a crazy way of doing things. Part of the trouble is that the Belfast Agreement was designed by people who were part of the problem in the first place. It is a very majoritarian document. They devised this system that gives them control.”
He added: “This idea that because one group is bigger or more numerous that they can tell the other where to go is totally primitive.”

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