The problem in Northern Ireland was, in part, majority rule.

Should it be a 6-country majority or a 26-version? Hence, in part, the troubles. Then came the Belfast Agreement, and a new majority took over. Initially, the ‘nice’ people, the SDLP and UUP were supposed to have a majority over the ‘unnice’ parties, (and we all know who they were), but the plan back-fired of course.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that most people, most politicians, and most professors of political science, actually believe in majority voting, even though it is the most inaccurate measure of collective opinion ever invented.

Take, for example, 2012, and Queen’s invited one Professor Tierney to talk on the theme, Can Referendums be Fair? I wrote to him beforehand, to remind him of all the multi-option referendums there have been in the world – the first was in New Zealand in 1894! – but, in a one-hour lecture, he said not one word about any of them!

One year earlier, remember, we had the 2011 referendum on the voting system: the alternative vote versus first-past-the-post, AV v FPP. Neither is PR, proportional representation. So for the PR supporter, it was like asking the vegetarian, beef or lamb? Just before the ballot, the BBC did a one-hour documentary on referendums, but again not one word on multi-option voting.

Earlier still, in Dr. Whitaker’s 1996 Review of the Irish Constitution, a bevy of lawyers and professors declared, “the referendum has worked well in practice,” (p 469). This was after the 1972 border poll, which was a dangerous nonsense; after the referendum on divorce, which was won by less than 1 per cent; and after numerous binary plebiscites in the former Yugoslavia, where “all the wars started with a referendum,” (Oslobodjenje, 7.2.1999).

Not only do these professors and journalists think that majority voting is OK, they actually think anything better would be worse: the “obvious problem in multiple-option referendums is what to do if none of the options receive a majority,” writes Professor Michael Gallagher in his book, The Referendum Experience in Europe, p 245. Presumably he still believes in what the late Professor Sir Michael Dummett called “the mystique of the majority,” and this despite all the appalling evidence, from here in Northern Ireland, from the Balkans, from the Caucasus etc. Professor Brendan O’Leary, for example, supported the idea that South Sudan should have a referendum. It has now imploded.

In all, the de Borda Institute was prescient: we warned of the dangers of two-option voting in Ukraine (2009 before 2014),South Sudan (2003 before 2011), Bosnia (1991 before 1992) and the Caucasus (1990 before 1992). In all of these conflicts, then, we warned, before the violence erupted, of the dangers of majority voting.

But we criticised majority voting. Imagine that. And we criticised professors. And imagine that! Yes, we criticised what many misguidedly believe is the very foundation stone of democracy! That apparently – or so it would seem – we are not meant to do. Which is why, presumably, the organisers of Imagine! Belfast chose not to even mention consensus voting, let alone invite the de Borda Institute to give a presentation.

Peter Emerson, The de Borda Institute

Editor’s note: Unfortunately we have a jam packed programme of talks and workshops and it is not possible to facilitate other debates at this point. However, we are happy to publicise Peter’s campaign in this way.

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