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.
Photo: Getty
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.