CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion (Report No. 2)

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Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion


Democratic dilemmas

Richard Jay

It is a common claim that, in the era of direct rule, the institutions and skills required for democratic politics in Northern Ireland have fallen into decay. Perhaps, indeed, they were never developed.

In the transition from the élite liberal politics of the 19th century to modern mass democracy, the political classes of the two main northern communities learned only how to maintain permanent coalitions in mutual antagonism and unequal power. The skills required for the management of change were neglected. Neither leadership learned how to open up democratic debate, based on mutual respect, tolerance and a readiness to accommodate disagreement. Nor, indeed, could they concede grassroots participation and encourage diversity of expression within their own communal bloc.

As this political stand-off disintegrated in the late 1960s, direct rule, sustaining all the paraphernalia of the security state, was imposed to prevent a collapse into civil war. The top-down, technocratic decision-making which ensued was qualitatively better and showed greater capacity to manage, indeed initiate, social change. But it opened up, in that now-familiar phrase, a 'democratic deficit', detaching people and their political leaders from the machinery of government - leaving them to founder, with neither power nor responsibility, in a mire of political rhetoric.

A simplified picture, certainly, but one which acquires wider significance in the context of contemporary debates elsewhere about the decay of organised party politics, the weakening powers of national political élites and the declining credibility of politicians in the eyes of their publics.[1] And it raises real difficulties in addressing social exclusion.

Policy strategies for social inclusion which do not attend to issues of democracy, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, potentially fall foul of criticisms that have become familiar in recent times: they will be driven by élite-based, bureaucratic priorities, not genuine social needs; they will be paternalist, inaccurately targeted and more likely to sustain marginalised groups in a state of ingrate, semi-detached dependency than to secure entry into full membership of civil society.

Conversely, democratic procedures which merely appear to circulate political leaders without addressing substantial social concerns will not only fail to incorporate the dispossessed into the political community but encourage others to drop out and pursue methods inimical to the democratic spirit.

In the debate about building a new democratic politics in Northern Ireland, two sets of propositions loom large. The first is the need to found political institutions upon principles of power-sharing ('consociationalism') or consensus politics. Analogies have frequently been drawn with European states which developed structures of political accommodation among political élites across religious or ideological divisions - what might be called the Dutch solution to an Irish problem.

It is not, however, clear that these proposals answer contemporary needs. Historically and culturally, consociational arrangements appear too closely linked to a fading post-war era of corporatist management, when political deference and collective discipline could sustain communal blocs in relationships of semi-permanent, if peaceful, confrontation. In Northern Ireland, for better or worse, those absolute communal solidarities have broken down, probably irretrievably. The Framework Documents[2] sought to contrive a complex constitutional arrangement, balancing majority and minority claims, which required highly consensual decision-making - a theoretical abstraction which imposed almost impossible demands upon political leaders, created a jungle of rules and committee systems, and ensured that citizen participation would be virtually a non-starter.

The second view shifts the focus away from the established political classes and organisations and towards a wider range of actors. These are community groups, voluntary bodies and other non-governmental organisations which engage directly with government. These can act as instruments for implementing social and economic policies, forums for creating active citizens and articulators of the interests and values of those outside official decision-making.

There is much to be said for such bodies as the pillars of a new democracy. But their contribution may still only be partial. However participatory internally - a moot point - question-marks can be raised about their representativeness and accountability. Moreover, their capacity to socialise power and widen accessibility is constrained: as actual or potential 'social partners', they often represent the mirror image of the bureaucratic state, locked together in an ever-more-complex web of backroom lobbying, personnel exchanges, networkbuilding, grant applications and monitoring exercises.

What, then, is entailed in ensuring the excluded have 'a voice'? This is not as simple a question as it seems. For it begs two further questions: is the larger society willing to listen? and are the aspirations of the excluded expressed in a manner which that society can understand?

There is a simple image, widely held, which suggests that flinging open the doors that bar access to power, drawing the excluded within the portals of society, is a straightforward, one-way process. Let us make, for the moment, the large supposition that mainstream society in Northern Ireland is prepared for such radical change. Less discussed has been the obverse assumption: that for those who claim to speak for the excluded, it is simply a matter of walking in. Yet engagement in such processes is complex and multi-faceted, and access is always constrained - and the price of entry may be higher than many can willingly pay.

The relationship between social exclusion and paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland over the last two decades and a half has meant that those asserting political claims on behalf of the most marginal sections have, if anything, enjoyed a disproportionate public voice - despite the largely ineffective broadcasting restrictions - as any content analysis of international media coverage of the various parties in Northern Ireland will show. And, arguably, the central political difficulty of modern times - when virtually any group with a fax machine and a press officer can find occasional space in one or other medium - is not having the power of speech but having the ability to make oneself heard among the Babel of contending voices.

Moreover, the political voice of the excluded may represent simple self-expression, rather than persuasion. We increasingly recognise in modern democracies the right of all individuals, groups, communities and minorities to express their beliefs and live their way of life - there is nothing revolutionary about 'parity of esteem', however unclear its implications for Northern Ireland. But there is no obligation on the rest of society to take a blind bit of notice of what is merely represented as different. As Northern Ireland's unionists are belatedly discovering, talking a language comprehensible only to oneself is poor politics.

It is often hard for those located, or self-located, on the social, cultural or political fringes to step into genuine dialogue, for all-too-familiar reasons. Isolation can provide its own rewards: suffering can become proof of virtue. Shifting from passive victim to active persuader is psychologically and politically a struggle: 'empowerment' involves breaking out of a vicious circle.

Entering into real dialogue is also potentially divisive. While we all stick together in the same boat, singing from the same hymn sheet, we may survive. But tacking towards a distant objective may open up cracks in our vessel, creating dangers and tensions we might have preferred to avoid. The leaders of marginal groups require immense courage to sustain the case for participation in political processes, knowing that this may yield gains which are only marginal and long-term. It may not only mean developing a different language to describe and explain one's position to others, but compromising the purity of one's ideology or morally authentic way of life.

To 'come in from the cold' is not costless, and the advantages are frequently uncertain. The very diversity and fragmentation of lifestyles and social groups raises the price of accommodation, and does not guarantee that the benefits of incorporation will be evenly spread. Affirmative action legislation in the United States, for instance, appears to have benefited women and Asian minorities more than the Afro-Americans for whom it was primarily devised.

In simpler times, when welfare states were presided over by social or Christian democracy, social inclusion appeared one-dimensional - an entitlement to the benefits intrinsic to equal citizenship and to a decent standard of living irrespective of personal misfortune. It is far from clear now, in a world where economic competitiveness is at a premium, that these are in any way deliverable in a form instantly acceptable to the potential beneficiaries.


1See Anthony Giddens' contribution to New Thinking for New Times, pp 8-23.
2 Frameworks for the Future, Northern Ireland Office, 1995

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