‘Losers’ consent’ is definitely my phrase of the week.
Employed by the eminent political scientist, Professor Brendan O’Leary at an event in Cork recently, it refers to the desirability of placating Unionists if they find themselves on the losing end of a future border poll.
‘If Unionists lose, they will have to consent to that process if it is to be successful,’ he argued. This is because they are ‘much more hardline on preserving the Union than nationalists are about reunification.’
What form this ‘consent’ should take is unclear from media reports of the professor’s remarks, (however the DUP’s Ian Paisley has brought forward a private members’ bill in Parliament trying to retro-fit the Good Friday Agreement provision for a border poll with a ‘super-majority’ threshold instead of a simple 50%+1 requirement).
As a concept, losers’ consent is not new. A book by a bunch of academics in 2005 describes it thus:
‘Democratic elections are designed to create unequal outcomes – for some to win, others have to lose…losing generates ambivalent attitudes towards political authorities. Because the efficacy and ultimately the survival of democratic regimes can be seriously threatened if the losers do not consent to their loss.’ (‘Losers’ Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy,’ Oxford University Press, 2005).
However, to understand what a questionable concept this is, simply extend it to any other sphere of life.
Should convicted criminals give their consent before they are incarcerated?
Or a winning penalty kick be dismissed because it upsets the losing football team?
What would it mean in contract law, or the management of casinos?
So why is the defeated side in a constitutional referendum to be accorded special privileges?
It is surely a characteristic of any mature democracy that a free and fair vote – particularly over an issue so long in gestation and already codified in a binding international treaty – must be respected and enacted, without the losing minority resorting to violence in a bid to overturn it.
It seems the professor is the latest victim of UToV.
The ‘Unionist Threat of Violence’ hangs over the debate about Irish unity.
Unable to command a majority in a democratic process it seems we are obliged to game into the equation a willingness from an indeterminate number of Unionists to restart the Troubles, murdering their Catholic neighbours if they cannot get their way at the ballot box.
(For the record, I know this is not the view of the overwhelming majority of thoroughly decent and law-abiding Protestant-Unionists).
Faint-hearted Nationalists – unable to conceptualise their essential equality – must concede their own democratic ambition for the unification of their country in favour of the violent expression of their opponents in maintaining the status quo.
(Incidentally, it’s my explanation for the disparity in support for Irish unity in some polls. ‘I support it, but not if it means trouble’).
Obviously, in any normal society, it would not be the responsibility of democrats to give ground to threats of recidivist violence. But Northern Ireland is not normal. Therefore the calculations about what is morally correct becomes compromised.
At a risk of pointing out the bleeding obvious, a majority vote for Irish unity in a forthcoming border poll – on a 50%+1 basis – must be upheld (as must a result to stay in the UK). There can be no blocking requirement, super-majority, get-out clause or veto.
Any person or group threatening to undermine that result should face the full force of the law. It’s really as simple as that.
A fair and reasonable deal was achieved in the Good Friday Agreement. Unionist politicians have had 25 years to copper fasten the existing settlement by making Catholic-Nationalists feel comfortable with the constitutional status quo.
They have failed to do so. A combination of their insufferable hubris and utter lack of strategic thinking. We must not be beholden to their bad choices. No democrat should be intimidated by UToV. Nor should we be expected to observe a self-denying ordinance from pursuing a border poll on Irish unity in due course.
O’Leary knows his onions, it has to be said, having advised many emerging democracies on their constitutions, but that does not make him right in this instance.
Supporters of Irish unity all want to see a thumping, utterly conclusive result in that border poll, but a win is a win is a win.
‘Losers’ consent’ should never be entertained.