The recent European elections show that many countries in Europe are struggling to contain the rise of far-right populist parties antagonistic towards democracy. In Ireland, however, democracy has a spring in its step. In recent years, Ireland has been experimenting with new forms of participative democracy in the form of Citizen Assemblies and a Convention on the Constitution. These inclusive forums have contributed to profound social change on controversial issues - including same sex marriage, abortion and divorce - without the rancour and divisiveness these issues would have stoked in the past. So, what lessons might this small, open island with its own troubled history teach us about democracy?
Democracy is not simply majority rule
The first lesson that Ireland has learned, at great cost, is that democracy is not about one side hammering the other into submission; democracy is not simply majority rule. This was the lesson that both sides in Northern Ireland had to accept in order to bring an end to thirty years of conflict that cost almost four thousand lives.
The widespread misconception that democracy is majority rule is based on the obvious fact that in elections, the one with the highest share of the vote wins. But democracy is not simply elections. Alongside elections, democracy also requires the application of the rule of law to all, regardless of wealth or status. It requires the enforcement of laws to protect the human rights of all members of society, particularly minorities. It requires the inclusion of all ethnic and religious groups in the democratic process on an equal basis. It requires a free press representing a diversity of voices. And it requires leaders, institutions and citizens capable of supporting and enforcing all of these essential democratic functions.
Two of the giants of peacemaking in Ireland, John Hume and Seamus Mallon, knew this and based the Northern Ireland peace process on it. But they also knew that, while these institutions of democracy were a necessary pre-condition, something more was needed if one of Europe’s most bitter and intractable conflicts was to be brought to a permanent end. A stable and peaceful democracy can only endure, they insisted, if people of different identities and traditions can live together in a shared community which they all can claim as home. During his many years of engaging with US Presidents and members of Congress in pursuit of peace, John Hume would often quote the inscription on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, ‘E pluribus unum’ (Out of many, one) to convey his conviction that tolerance of diversity is a foundational precondition for a stable democracy.
Hate speech has consequences
Democratic institutions and a culture of tolerance provide the context within which communities with different identities and traditions can resolve their differences peacefully. As the Irish experience shows, however, these conditions are exceptionally difficult to establish and frighteningly easy to dismantle. And the simplest way to dismantle them is through hate.
Hatemongers have always been with us, so the tools of their trade are depressingly familiar. First, they stoke up feelings of separateness and otherness towards their chosen target, whether they are Catholics or Protestants in the context of Northern Ireland, or Jews, immigrants, or other ‘enemies of the people’ as contemporary hatemongers assert. These outsiders are not the ‘real people,’ they are not ‘like us.’ Second, hatemongers inflame feelings of anger and fear towards their target; the outsiders are criminals, rapists, germs, conspiring against us and putting us in mortal danger. And thirdly, hatemongers relentlessly parrot stories that suggest, in false and simple terms, that the outsiders are a deserving target of people’s hate. An immigrant or a Muslim who commits a crime is held up to prove that all immigrants or all Muslims are a threat.
Hatemongering is an efficient political tactic, but it has deadly consequences. In his new memoir A Shared Home Place, Seamus Mallon recounts in harrowing detail the corrosive and enduring effects of hatred during the Troubles in Northern Ireland: “Neighbour killing neighbour has a putrid smell of evil that seeps into an entire community. Each murderous act begot its counterpart, until revenge almost became a duty to be fulfilled. It enveloped every crevice of life, spreading anger, suspicion, fear, hatred and ultimately despair. It left a dark cloud of deep suffering and loss that will endure for many decades.”
Immigration enriches a nation
Ireland is a country whose identity has been shaped by the ebb and flow of people departing and arriving on its shores. The history of Ireland is a history of people on the move: from the movement of Irish Christian missionaries to Europe in the sixth century to the forced deportations to Australia where almost a quarter of those on convict ships were Irish. Or the mass exodus of one and a half million people during the Irish Famine in 1845 and the tens of thousands of Irish who seize the opportunity of free movement within the European Union today.. Today, over 70 million people worldwide claim Irish ancestry. 22 US presidents can lay claim to Irish roots, as can seven prime ministers of Australia and four prime ministers of Canada. Given this history, most people in Ireland view emigration and immigration as gifts that keep on giving. It is the lived Irish experience that the international movement of people enriches the lives of those who move abroad and enlarges the worldview of those who stay behind.
In the aftermath of the European elections, we should reflect on these hard-won lessons, learned at great cost not only in Ireland but wherever people have struggled for dignity, peace and justice. Democracy is about seeking agreement, not victory. The flow of people across borders can reduce prejudices and open minds, if our minds are receptive to it. And if we are to find ways to live together despite our differences, we must turn away from leaders who would divide us through hate. Instead, if we are to heal divisions, we must dare as Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney urged us, to
“hope for a great sea-change / On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore / Is reachable from here.”
Ian Hughes is an Irish scientist and author of “Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy.” Bandy X. Lee is a forensic psychiatrist and expert on violence at Yale School of Medicine and editor of “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”
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