Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

A little rebellion can be healthy for government

Dissenting voices may not end dissident violence, but they could reach out to those abandoned by two-party rule, says Ruairi O'Kane

The anti-Vietnam war movement adopted the phrase "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism" as one of its many slogans in the Sixties.

The quote's origin is disputed, but is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson - a Founding Father and the third President of the United States.

No proof exists that Jefferson actually uttered these words, but he did say he was not opposed to "a little rebellion, now and then" for the sound health of government.

The underlying issue of both viewpoints is: if the government seems to be doing wrong, both practically and morally, is there a sense of duty to oppose it?

We are no strangers to rebellion and dissent in Northern Ireland. Our past is littered with episodes of political upheaval and violent uprising.

In 1798, the United Irishmen tried and failed in their attempt to unify Catholic, Protestant and dissenter.

More than 300 years later, we now enjoy political stability, with the future determination of our island in the hands of its people, as enshrined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

However, as political disillusionment and apathy grows, so does the sense that our Government structure is one of Catholic, Protestant and no dissenters.

Mandatory coalition government at Stormont was a model of necessity for its time.

But, 14 years on from 1998, amid increasing dissatisfaction, is there a case to be argued for allowing a greater platform for the dissenting voice?

SDLP Minister Alex Attwood often draws the comparison between being in power and being in government.

One focuses on exerting control; the other on exercising constructive constitutional policies.

Dissenting voices from within the Northern Ireland Executive are quelled by the two larger parties and arguments against Executive decisions by their smaller partners are undermined by their participation in the same body.

But dissatisfaction with internal dissent is not confined to outbursts from the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure's directive to arms-length bodies on how to deal with the media straddled a fine-line between best practice and a gagging order.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's Children's Commissioner was accused by the Minister for Social Development of creating "unnecessary concern among local families" for having the temerity to commission research which concluded that forthcoming changes to the benefits system will increase child poverty.

Creating poverty is obviously not as concerning as telling people about it.

Ironically, opposition to Opposition comes from parties who were founded and flourished in times of dissent. But what is there to fear from organised, constructive and peaceful dissent?

Would a change to the Stormont system that ends the mandatory coalition and puts in its place a 'mandatory voluntary coalition' of the two largest parties from each side of the house set us further back?

Could it force our political parties - nationalist and unionist alike - to raise their game both inside and outside the government?

In the last Assembly election, only 54.69% of the electorate voted.

That leaves a sizable portion of the population - more than half-a-million people - whose voice is not represented up on the Hill.

Those who did vote strengthened the mandate of Sinn Fein and the DUP at the expense of the other parties.

But did they vote for a government that, one year on, has only passed three Bills, with changes of a symbolic, rather than the seismic, nature? If voting patterns continue and turnout slips to below 50% of the electorate, it will have more serious ramifications for democracy in Northern Ireland and give more grist to the mill of those people who are intent on destroying and defying the democratic will.

The first Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring report, published earlier this year, stated that dissident violence was "certain to continue".

It noted that it was proving counterproductive for paramilitary groups and, instead of disrupting political harmony, had served to consolidate the existing consensus.

But dissident republicans have not allowed themselves any possibility of a political exit, the report concludes.

Now, it would be naive to say Opposition structures would end dissident violence, but could it give a peaceful platform for those disaffected with nationalism to see change is not only necessary, but achievable without violence?

Could working-class loyalists be given back their voice and see demonstrable evidence of the ability to influence and improve lives?

The introduction of five-seater constituencies will see a further erosion of independent voices, many of whom slipped into the Assembly in sixth position.

Therefore, accountable change is required now more than ever.

In the midst of the Vietnam War, Robert F Kennedy told students at the University of California that dissent should not only be allowed, but demanded, "for there is much to dissent from".

Nearly 50 years on, not much has changed.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Latest News

Latest Sport

Latest Showbiz