An evening of effective democracy

Jonathan Dawson explains the going on of a mid-week meeting and what a "heart-keeper" is.

A mid-week meeting is called. The subject is planning – specifically, how we are going to develop the new stretch of land in behind the Universal Hall that is likely to gain planning permission in the next year.

On the surface, hardly the stuff that wild nights out are made of!

In the event, 70 people cram into the community centre – before the meeting has begun, there is floor-sitting space only. We begin with a rousing song. There follow four short presentations from community members. A number of significant differences in perspective and approach are evident.

Questions at this stage are limited to those seeking clarification.

A ‘heart-keeper’ has been appointed to hold awareness of the quality of communication and attention. Every once in a while, as we begin to get lost in the heady discussions, she sounds a meditation gong and we take a minute or so of silence. Some close their eyes, others look as though they are processing new ideas and insights – the aim is to create a space in which to relax, breathe and remember that all is well.

We break into small groups to give everyone a chance to speak their thoughts and then we reconvene in the full circle for debate. The key fault-lines and challenges are now becoming clear.

Will decisions about development be made by the 90 or so community members who have bought shares in the company that owns the land or by the community as a whole? How could a community of 500 or so engage in decision-making at this level without slowing the whole process to a crawl as we seek for a high level of consensus?

Should the housing development be undertaken by the Community Development Company that has recently been formed – i.e. by the collective body – or by individuals or groups who would be invited to buy the plots?

What mechanisms could we use to ensure that a good proportion of the housing units are affordable to rent or to buy? Could housing cooperative or housing association models work for us?

Perhaps most important of all, how can we ensure that a good proportion of the escalating property values remain within the community (that collectively makes this such a desirable place to live) rather than with those who are able to afford to build their own homes? What would this mean for those selling up and relocating to somewhere else where property prices have also increased?

Arguments and counter arguments flow. Communication is clear and direct. Assumptions are questioned and assertions challenged. The meditation bell brings moments of silence. here are murmurs of approval for one woman who suggests that we recognise that most of us, to greater or lesser extents, carry most of the voices being aired within us: ‘Not much value in creating beautiful houses if we treat each other like shit’.

This is the kind of evening that effective democracy is made of. I have seen countless meetings like this in rural Africa, with villagers sat round a fire in the evening discussing community affairs. Here is where communities move way beyond neat principles of justice and equity to explore the messy business of applying these principles to the imperfect and compromised world in which we live.

In so doing, we develop muscles – of patience, of quality listening and of compromise. We also develop the practice of grappling with tough ethical questions rather than leaving these to the ‘professionals’.

Television, of course, has put paid to mass participatory democracy of this sort in the West.

I am a profoundly political being and have always voted in elections – indeed,
I have been an active canvasser in many of those. However, democracy at the community scale feels more real somehow.

My wish is that as we head down the energy descent curve, locally-based decision-making structures along the lines we have kept alive here will re-emerge as people truly engage in empowered self-governance.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Northern Ireland's election: Will Arlene Foster pay the price for a domestic scandal?

The wind is in Sinn Féin's sails. But both parties have to work together after the poll. 

Will voters use the forthcoming elections to the Northern Ireland assembly to punish ministerial incompetence?

After all, these elections are all about the Democratic Unionists’ Arlene Foster and her disastrous mishandling of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, the energy subsidy she previously introduced as enterprise minister without putting cost controls in place, thus racking-up a £500m liability for the Northern Ireland Executive.

Her refusal to stand aside as First Minister and allow an independent investigation triggered a sequence of events that collapsed the power-sharing executive that runs Northern Ireland, necessitating this poll.

The electorate offers its verdict on Thursday.

So far, there has been a predictable rhythm to the campaign. Cautious and insular, the parties have all been here before and know how to harvest their vote. Elections in Northern Ireland are effectively a race to see who can shore up their core the most, (made harder by the overall reduction in seats from 108 to 90 across 18 multi-member constituencies).

Foster knows she is fighting for her political life. Her woeful handling of the RHI scandal, exposed her severe limitations as a politician. Brittle and stubborn, she further damaged her reputation at the DUP’s manifesto launch by refusing to take any questions from journalists on the basis she had "man flu".

Her pitch was a sectarian "Project Fear" warning that Sinn Fein might overtake the DUP as the largest party and push for an early referendum on Irish unity. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams joked after the launch on Twitter: "Just for the record, I didn't give Arlene the flu." 

Foster’s campaign might be ugly, but in Northern Ireland’s hyper-tribal polity, it could prove effective. If the DUP suffers a reversal, however, her colleagues may yet think twice about re-nominating her for First Minister/deputy First Minister.

Meanwhile, as Sinn Féin’s new "leader in the North" Michelle O’Neill finds herself in exactly the same situation as Foster was 12 months ago at the last assembly elections - taking over from a male predecessor who had been a mainstay of the political process for years.

O’Neill is so far proving formidable. She benefits from the fact the wind is blowing in Sinn Féin’s sails. After all, the reasons for this election - the DUP’s incompetence - will play well among republicans and nationalists. 

Sinn Féin’s pitch is therefore about ensuring "equality, respect and integrity", with O’Neill claiming this is "the most important election since the Good Friday Agreement". The Shinners are pushing for the strongest possible mandate in what O’Neill describes as the "short, sharp negotiation" that will take place after the elections. She says she doesn’t want a new agreement, "just the implementation of previous ones".

In terms of the other parties, Mike Nesbitt, a former television journalist turned leader of the Ulster Unionists, deserves credit for trying to appeal beyond the tribe. He has offered his second preference vote to the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party. Tactically, he has to try something to dislodge the UUP from the political sediment.

Both the UUP and SDLP are essentially fighting for relevance in these elections. They constantly claim the electorate has had enough of the SF-DUP duopoly and wants change, it’s just that the voters never vote for it. 

Following Thursday’s results comes the hard bargaining, if the parties are to get power-sharing up and running again and avoid a period of direct rule from the Northern Ireland Office. Both Foster and O’Neill need to be seen to strike a hard bargain. Foster will be desperate to claim she is still in control of events. O’Neill, the newcomer, will want to show she is no pushover.

If she is smart, Foster will  push for an early restoration of the executive and try to put this mess behind her. If, on the other hand, there is a lengthy delay, the election could become a running sore. After all, as the DUP may yet have to be reminded, power-sharing lies at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.