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Government of national unity: cleaning up the mess of elections. Sinn Féin should be in government in (roughly) the same proportions they are in the Dáil; so should every sizeable party.


By Peter Emerson


The word ‘democracy’ is used with abandon, even to describe that from which it has long since been abandoned.  Take for example the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  They have elections, but it’s all “Candidate X, yes-or-no?”  And with turnouts of 100%, the answer is always ‘yes’.  What a nonsense.  There should be lots of candidates, and folks should be able to choose whomsoever, as they wish.

Or take Britain.  They have referendums, sometimes, “Option X, yes-or-no?”  Brexit.  What another nonsense.  There should have been lots of options – the WTO, Norway plus, Canada plus, and so on – but Britain had a multi-option debate, or rather, bloody great row, only after the 2016 referendum.  

As noted by Pliny the Younger in the year 105, when there’s no majority for any one thing, there’s a majority against every thing.  In other words, in a multi-option debate, taking a majority vote on only one option is (almost) as nonsensical as a North Korean election on only one candidate.

 Majoritarianism or Pluralism

It’s the same when considering other subjects: forming a new government, budgets, planning proposals, names for a new bridge over the Liffey, and so on; none of these debates, and none of the votes, need be binary.  They can be.  They often are.  Someone chooses the question; and usually, that question is the answer.  That’s how Napoléon did it, Mussolini, Hitler, Gaddafi, Khomeini et al.  It usually works… though not with Brexit.  

It’s not just majority voting that is inadequate, so too is binary majority rule.  But we know this already.  It was problematic in Northern Ireland; in the former Yugoslavia, “all the wars started with a referendum,” (to quote Sarajevo’s famous newspaper, Oslobodjenje, 7.2.1999); the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was initiated with the slogan “Rubanda Nyamwinshi,” (“We are the majority”) and so it goes on: majorities fighting minorities, in Kenya, Ukraine, and throughout the Middle East.

Accordingly, we need a more accurate way of determining the collective will: the opinion, not of a simple, comparative majority; we need the superlative, as in “the greatest good for the greatest number.”  No matter what the controversy, debates should allow not only all relevant options, one from each party or group, to be ‘on the table’; but also a (short) list, normally of up to six options, on the ballot paper.  Then let the TDs cast their preferences, to identify that option which has the highest average preference, for an average involves every TD, not just a majority of them.

The appropriate voting preferential points procedure was mooted as early as the year 1199 by Ramón Llull, by Cardinal Nicholas Cusanus in 1435, Jean-Charles de Borda in 1784, and the Rev. Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) one century later.  And it was demonstrated in Dublin City Council in 2013, when from a ballot of five options, Council chose to name the new bridge in honour of Rosie Hackett.  

2020: Forming A New Irish Government

A FF/FG minority administration?  Or one of the ‘left’?  A FF/FG majority coalition, with GP and/or Labour/SDs and/or one or other group(s) of Independents?  A Government of National Unity?  It is indeed a multi-option question.

Resolving this fairly is best achieved through a multi-option vote: the Modified Borda Count, MBC.  In a vote on n options, TDs may cast m preferences, and (1st, 2nd … last) preferences cast shall be awarded (m, m-1 … 1) points.  So he who casts just one preference gives his favourite 1 point.  She who casts two gives her favourite 2 points, {and her 2nd choice 1 point}.  Those who cast all n preferences give their favourite n points, {their 2nd choice (n-1) points, etc.}.  And the winner is the option with the most points.  So the very mathematics of the count encourages the TDs to vote across the party divide, i.e., to share power. 

Sinn Féin are in the Dáil, with their proportionally due number of seats.  They should also be in government to (roughly) the same proportional due; so should every sizeable party.  Don’t allow any one party to have more influence than it should. The DUP in Westminster, the Freedom Party in Austria, and the Jewish Home in Israel all accumulated so much power it became dangerous And don’t disallow any one party from any power.  Before the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s Catholics were never in government.  Today, the Muslims in India, the Arabs in Israel and the Kurds in Turkey know that, in all probability, they too will never be in government.   This too can be dangerous.  

All-party Power-sharing: Will it Work?

No matter what the political structure, there will always be opposition: that’s politics.  Des O’Malley and Charlie Haughey, remember, both colleagues in the same party, split into two parties… which a little later on formed a coalition.  So what was all that about?  Other battles royal have split many parties, from the UK’s Labour Party – Gordon Brown and Tony Blair – to Russia’s Communists – Josef Stalin and Leon Trotsky.  

As in majority rule with a government versus opposition, so too in any power-sharing all-party coalition, arguments will still rage…but here’s the difference: in binary politics, as soon as you reveal your fall-back position, you have already fallen back to it; in consensus politics, stating all your preferences does not diminish your enthusiasm for your 1st preference.  In a word, you can negotiate.

Preferential majority rule is perfectly feasible.  Let the people elect the TDs, as they do, in open and transparent elections.  Next, let the newly elected TDs elect their government – again by PR.  The appropriate methodology, a matrix vote, also encourages the TDs to vote across the party divide.  As demonstrated by the Irish Times in Ballymun after the last 2016 election, it could mean that a government could be formed, democratically (and electronically), all in the space of a week.

Then, in the Dáil, let controversies be resolved, as in the recent Citizens’ Assembly, with multi-option voting.  The latter used (but did not name) a Borda methodology.  Preferential decision-making is indeed perfectly feasible.  Let any party/group propose an option: have a debate; and then let the TDs, unwhipped, cast their preferences in each debate to identify that which, to quote the New Ireland Forum, has the “highest degree of overall support”.

Peter Emerson is Director, the de Borda institute, and author of Majority Voting as a Catalyst of Populism, 2019, (Springer, Heidelberg).