Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2023), Letters, Volume 31

Above: The image on last issue’s front cover— Seán Keating’s Homo Sapiens: An Allegory of Democracy—was incorrectly credited to the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI). It should have been credited to the estate of Seán Keating

Sir,—I refer to the seminar review, ‘Machnamh: Memory, History and Imagination’, by Colum Kenny (HI 31.1, Jan./Feb. 2023). Dr Kenny makes the following assertion in the second-last paragraph of his review:

‘The realities of the period a century ago need to be faced. The rejection of the opinion of a majority of citizens, expressed democratically by them and on their behalf by elected representatives in 1922, cannot be seen simply as a matter of opinion, for that rejection was backed by violence, and by a wing of the IRA that was prepared to overthrow the new Irish state.’

The turnout for the general election of 16 June 1922 was 62.5%. That means that 37.5% of registered voters abstained. The result represented the opinion of an oligarchy. Unless words just mean what we want them to mean, democracy and oligarchy are two separate concepts. The voters of six counties of Ulster were not included. That general election was the first in Southern Ireland to be conducted according to the system of Proportional Representation/Single Transferable Vote.

Unless, and until, we opt for a system that requires the winning side to win 50% plus of registered voters, we’ll continue to have an oligarchic political system rather than a truly democratic one.

If the unspoken assumption in Dr Kenny’s review is that the anti-Treaty side was fascist in leaning, we only need to fast-forward to the time of the Blueshirts to realise that the pro-Treaty side wasn’t without its own supporters who were fascist in tendency. It is not the case that fascism was the preserve only of some pro-Treaty supporters. When the fascist party Ailtirí na hAiséirghe was around, in the 1940s and 1950s, it attracted support from both sides of the Civil War divide. R.M. Douglas has written a very good book on the subject—Architects of the Resurrection: Ailtirí na hAiséirghe and the Fascist ‘New Order’ in Ireland 1942–1958 (Manchester University Press, 2009)—and what is amazing is the number of ‘enlightened’ players who, at one time or another, were active in that party. Maybe that is why the book is a bit too embarrassing for so many people.

A truly democratising form of government would be characterised by the following: all governments would be coalition governments; the posts of ministers and ministers of state would be given to those who had scored best in the general election; any candidate, or party, willing to take part in a coalition government would have to declare that intention before the general election; those not interested in a coalition government could form the opposition; the whip system would need to be done away with. The new arrangement would need to recognise the following, according to this order of precedence: voting according to one’s conscience; voting for the common good; voting by party affiliation. All candidates should be required to make a solemn promise to that effect on entering the Dáil or Seanad. That would help to weed out, gradually, the number of YES-men and women in the Dáil and Seanad, and a significant percentage of politicians, especially in the Seanad, who don’t bother to show up for key votes.

Unless such an approach is applied to our referendum system, it will continue to be oligarchic also. In the case of a referendum, for it to take place, it should have to get over the hurdle of a pre-referendum, whose result would be based on 50% plus of registered voters. To be clear, the pre-referendum would decide whether a particular issue should be put to a referendum. This system could be used, to great effect, in dealing with possible votes on the reunification of Ireland. Such votes must not be all-or-nothing votes, but held constituency by constituency. On that basis, it is my opinion that, relatively soon, eight of the eighteen Northern Ireland constituencies would opt to be reunited with the southern state. It would appear to be the case that abstention is significant in general elections and in referenda because so many registered voters are of the opinion that their vote won’t count anyway.—Yours etc.,

Dublin 14


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