Demos

Maurice reflects on a pair of demonstrations he attended recently, and their implications for thinking about democracy

Green Party members dance their way down Royal Avenue at Belfast Pride 2018

I’ve taken part in two demonstrations in recent weeks, one small, the other very large; one tense, the other joyous; both of considerable significance in judging where we are, and where we are headed, in Northern Irish politics.

The first took place on 28 July outside the Ards Leisure Centre (in Newtownards). The fascist organisation calling itself ‘Britain First’, having failed to make inroads in England, had decided to come here to try to exploit the anxieties and anger of disaffected Loyalists. And though there has long been a certain amount of cross fertilisation between Loyalism and the far right, whether they will make any inroads here remains to be seen. That said, we had no intention of sitting around waiting for the data to come in on that one.

‘We’, in this instance, means a group of people from diverse backgrounds and organisations who had quickly pulled together enough of a counter-demonstration to make our point. There were perhaps fifty of us in all. Sufficient to make it clear to the organisers of the fascist meeting that they would not simply be allowed to turn up and claim Newtownards as their own territory unopposed.

There were people from a range of political groups, including the Greens, Alliance, PBP, Socialists, and even one from the Ulster Unionist Party, though he stood initially to one side. If I have left anyone out please forgive me and let me know!

There were also people from Trade Unions, including NIPSA, PSC, and Unison.  And there were, no doubt, other concerns citizens not affiliated with any particular organisation. Again forgive me if I have missed anyone.

The other demo, the larger by a long way, was the Belfast Pride parade of Saturday 4 August.

Here too there were people from a wide range of backgrounds and organisations. There were, obviously, representatives of various LGBTQ groups. There were the aforementioned parties (including the same UUP representative, this time with colleagues) and many more, as well as the Trade Unions. Indeed there were members of a whole range of unions present.

Why bring these demos up? A number of reasons.

First, you can’t spell democracy without the demo.  Demonstrations and democracy go hand in hand, because democracy has to be active. Casting a vote every few years is the veryleast you can do, and still call yourself a democrat.

Equally importantly, democracy is about diversity. This is not just a nice add-on: it is essential to the whole concept of democracy, and this is not widely understood enough.

Take the letter published in the Belfast Telegraph on 16 July, by a correspondent addressing the decision of the Presbyterian church in Ireland to deny full membership to same-sex couples.

His argument was that, as the vote of the General Assembly was democratic, no one can oppose it who claims to be a democrat (“it was a democratic vote and each person should abide by the decision of the Assembly…how true a democrat are you when you do not encourage a democratic decision?”).

This betrays a complete, but symptomatic, misunderstanding of democracy. Democracy is not just a question of implementing the decisions of a majority. First you have to have a society in which each enjoys the same status, where each has the same standing. Then and only then do you have the basis on which democracy can proceed.

If a minority strips a majority of their standing – think of Apartheid South Africa – it’s pretty obvious it is not a matter of democracy. But that’s not because of the relative size of the factions. It is just as anti-democratic if a majoritydecides to strip a minorityof their standing. That’s domination, not democracy.

The drive to dominate increasingly seems to have taken hold at the level of state politics too.

Take the fascists mentioned at the beginning. They exploit the anxieties and perceived marginalisation of working people (and indeed many middle class people) by giving them a convenient foreign scapegoat to hate. Expel these foreigners, the thinking goes, and we would have more resources for ‘our own’ people. But leaving aside the issue of the huge contribution immigrants make, in truth, the unions – those opposingthe fascists – have done more, far more for ordinary workers than any fascist movement – or indeed than right-wing populists, who might claim to be democratic, such as Donald Trump.

Populism can sound democratic, but it isn’t. It is, however obliquely, opposed to democracy.

The populist comes along and says ‘I represent the people, not the elite’. So ordinary citizens cheer and vote for him – or her (Marine, I’m also looking at you).

So far so good. But they don’t stop there. They go on: ‘And I’m going to tell you who the people are’. Or rather (and this comes to the same thing), ‘I’m going to tell you who are notthe people’. The liberal elite. Mexicans, LGBT people, Feminists. Muslims. Or whatever other denomination suits their purpose. Catholics or Nationalists, perhaps. The British, perhaps.

Divide people (in the plural) by first denominating THE people (singular) and their enemies. Now you have two entities, rather than a multiplicity, a shifting, moving congregation of diverse people with diverse views and interests who are obliged to learn to live together.

Populism aims to dominate, not democratise.

Democracy does not aim to suppress difference by casting it in a hostile light. It aims to create a community of others, a community that respects the differences between all of us, between you and I, and attempts to accommodate those as nonviolently as humanly possible.

And it can only do this through a commitment to the principle of nonviolence and the institutions, however imperfect, that represent attempts to embody that principle – i.e., the rule of law, democratically set and adjudicated by one’s peers.

The demos of ‘democracy’ is always plural, a multiplicity, not a homogeneous block. Democracy must always be a movement towards a society of equals – a political system in which I am now in the majority, now in the minority, and my being in the minority does not give you the authority to deprive me of my standing.

Finally, we need to be clear that sometimes the populists show a cunning awareness that democracy involves protecting minority rights. We need to be alert to their attempts to exploit just that essential component of democracy.

Doubtless the fascists who came to Newtownards the other week would claim their aim is to defend, say, ‘the white working class’ as though the latter were an oppressed minority. It is a seductive routine for those who do, in fact, find themselves marginalised, in precarious jobs or out of work in a post-industrial area, and facing austerity cuts.

But their aim is not to defend the poor: it is to divide them, setting neighbour against neighbour, in pursuit of local dominance.

Better, much better, if they were to abandon the aim of dominance and join the Trade Unions and the democracy movement opposing them. Trade Unions have done far more to empower the disempowered – including the ‘white working class’ – than any fascist movement.

And the Trade Unions need to start shouting about that from the rooftops. It is good to take a stand in opposition when the fascists take to the streets, but what we need, I suggest, is a sort of Trade Union equivalent of Pride. Something that starts in opposition, a protest against marginalisation, discrimination, oppression, but which comes to embody the joyous, colourful, energetic and, yes, proud spirit of living, grassroots democracy in action.

Maurice Macartney

21 August 2018