If there is an erosion in democracy as some political theorists believe, then one need look no further than Brexit to find out why.
Any occupation that purports to work on behalf of and for the wellbeing of another person implies a sacred trust. A person holding such a position is signalling a willingness to put others before self. In practice, the doing of this is in stark contrast to the ease with which it may be promised.
Human beings are hardwired to connect with and to help others, to be of service and in so far as possible, to do good deeds. Most of the time, this goes unnoticed. Each day, many hundreds of thousands of people go about their day helping others to get by, perhaps as a carer for a relative, or a volunteer community worker, a paramedic or a nurse.
Taking on such a role is onerous because it demands sacrifice and a willingness to put the welfare of others first. There is an implied understanding that the helper can be counted on to work for and in the best interests of the person being helped. In accepting that help, we are giving our trust to our helper, we let them see inside our lives and we become vulnerable to them.
Most of the time, this arrangement works well and when times are better, perhaps that good deed will be rewarded by being paid forward to help another, or maybe it is just appreciated for what it is. There are many who would argue that there is no higher calling for human beings.
Over the last century, most western countries have fared well as a result of the emerging market-driven economy. Life expectancy is now greater than it ever was, the abject poverty of the Victorian era is largely gone, and the population is much better educated than it has ever been. Yet, there remain huge inequalities in society and, painful as it may be, we are still as we were in earlier centuries, governed by a very small and easily recognisable elite in society.
The vast majority of wealth is owned and or controlled by a small elite while the rest of the population manages on what’s left. Those who form the largest groups in society, the high-and middle-income earners as well as the lower paid will never have access to enormous wealth, and most have no aspiration to.
That is because, for most of us, there is a lot more to living a good life than accumulating wealth. And, so, we look to our politicians to act as a kind of buffer that protects the majority of society against the avarice of the mega-rich and against those who would seek to capitalise on our relative lack of political power, whether economically or politically.
The obligation placed on politicians in this regard is no different to the ‘sacred trust’ I referred to earlier. But, unlike the good neighbours, the carers, paramedics, teachers and the rest of the army of helping prople, it is increasingly difficult to find such motivation in many of todays politicians.
Throughout the world, politics is represented as power. Brian Walden, a renowned political interviewer who was a Labour MP, described politicians as people who like being bossy, who are restless, dogmatic and who want to impress. In many ways they are the very antithesis of the helping person who is working only on behalf of the other.
Yet, they constantly profess to be working on our behalf. Who can forget Theresa May’s impassioned speech outside 10 Downing Street where she promised that her leadership would be about fighting injustice? She made big promises and I’ll admit, I was impressed. I don’t know if she achieved all or even any of those things, though, and like many others, I just keep on taking care of the things I actually have some, albeit less and less each day, control over. I am a typical member of the so-called ‘silent majority’.
Now, three years later, we have heard another set of promises from the new Prime Minister. Where previously I was impressed, now I’m just fed up. I never wanted Brexit, most of the people who live in Northern Ireland don’t want it, yet we are just expected to put up with it. For what?
With Brexit, everything hinges on the so-called backstop. I refuse to call it the Irish backstop, because, in fact, it is an idea that has come about in order to protect the Good Friday Agreement and is the product of negotiations that the UK took part in. It is not, as some UK and unionist politicians might have us believe, an Irish invention.
The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are co-signatories of the GFA. There are, thankfully, some unionist politicians who are content to sign up to the current Withdrawal Agreement and build on the cross community and cross border trust that has developed since the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
But others, most notably in the DUP, using increasingly vitriolic language, see the backstop element of the withdrawal agreement as an underhanded plot to undermine Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the UK. I can’t help but wonder if their extreme annoyance stems from their initial support for Brexit precisely because they saw it as a way to further strengthen the constitutional position, thus making the potential for a united Ireland much less likely if not completely impossible.
Sinn Fein, co-authors with the DUP of the political stalemate that Northern Ireland currently finds itself in, see a golden opportunity to induce the need for a ‘Border Poll’ rising from the ashes of a disorderly Brexit. Each of these Parties seems happy to use any means to gain dominance over the other, both prodding history for their own aims. Meanwhile, ordinary people can only watch on in despair and growing horror as the terrible possibilities that may emerge make themselves ever more visible.
Shame on both of them. It is well beyond time that both the British and Irish governments, working together as they should, took proper charge of the political discourse and even consider demoting both of these antagonistic parties from their privileged positions and begin speaking with the more moderate groups who haven’t even had a look-in since Stormont collapsed.
Like most people living here, I will have little influence over what eventually happens with Brexit. We are being fed a daily diet of meaningless diatribe by opportunistic politicians on both sides of the political divide here. Those who want to cement the so-called ‘precious union’ and those who want a ‘united Ireland’.
What I want is the same thing most of my neighbours want. We want to live together in our communities, play and work together in a way that before the troubles ended was very hard. Northern Ireland is a space shared by people, most of whom have learned to accommodate each other’s national identities and aspirations in a way that is peaceful and respectful.
Making use of Brexit to impose either one over the other is wrong and destabilising to this place. The Brexit debacle, a horror show born from the embers of English political vanity, is a major threat as positions become polarised. London started Brexit, now London must find a way to fix the mess by working with both Dublin and Brussels.
Here in Northern Ireland, there are new shoots of discourse that recognise no sectarian divide and is focussed on working and living together. A new initiative being led by the Ulster Universities chancellor James Nesbitt seeks to find ways to create a space within which the voices of the silent majority might be heard. It is clear that the system of political governance has failed to do this. Now, ordinary people need to find new ways to give expression to their aspirations. As Nesbitt said: “It just feels that there’s been a silent majority here for far too long that actually needs a voice.”
Ordinary people may have little power or influence, but we are not stupid either. When politicians wonder about the erosion of trust and engagement from the people, they need look no further than the mess they have created in Brexit and the resulting fallout to find the reasons for it.