In assessing what passes for politics in the North of Ireland, I often find myself in almost complete agreement (no mean feat) with Patrick Murphy’s weekly column in The Irish News. On 22nd April he opened with this:

Since the Troubles began in 1969, voters here have gone to the polls over 60 times. We have had European elections, Westminster elections, Stormont elections, local government elections, by-elections and referendums. [I think I counted 61, but I lost interest after about 30.] In 1969 our highest unemployment areas were Derry/Strabane and West Belfast. Last week Foyle and West and North Belfast still sat near the top of UK unemployment black-spots. So what did our 61 elections achieve and does anyone really believe that a 62nd election will make any difference?” 

Electoral outcomes on this island and elsewhere remind me of Oscar Wilde’s observation that when it comes to politics: “The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence.”  In every election, it would appear, the majority of us revert to the party that most inflames our emotions rather than what appeals to reason, regardless of what they have actually done (or not done) with our votes the last time, or the time before….or the time before that! 

Simone Weil’s  1943  essay  “On the abolition of all political parties” provides a sharp, if retro,  critique of  the whole political party system.  She aligns herself with Rousseau’s  Social Contractwhich regards politics as a forked road between reason and passion. Reason, Rousseau argued, lends itself to justice whereas passion tends to its opposite – injustice – just as surely as absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Weil first makes a rationalist argument for democracy based on the premise that if every individual considers an issue separately and if, afterwards, we compare all their opinions, we should find that the opinions expressed coincide inasmuch as they are just, reasonable, and true whereas they diverge inasmuch as they are unjust, unreasonable, and untrue. Truth is one but lies are many.This idea of democracy is called a Republican doctrine that regards politics as governed by “the general will”. Written in 1762, it excluded the idea of political parties. At that point, continental revolutionaries regarded political parties as a corrupt British phenomenon.

Weil’s essay was written during WWII, in a world controlled by political parties and engaged in mass slaughter in pursuit of party-political objectives.  

Weil identifies three key characteristics of political parties: 

1. A political party is a machine to generate collective passions. 

2. A political party is an organisation designed to exert collective pressure upon the minds of all its individual members.                        

3. The first objective and also the ultimate goal of all political parties is its own growth without limit.” 

Take, for example, being a supporter of Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, born out of opposing sides and enflamed passions of the Civil War. What’s the ideological or policy difference between them today? Hardly a cigarette paper. And yet there is still a deeply ingrained need to vote for ‘our’ side and keep the ‘other’ side out. At election time every party goes out of its way to enflame the passions of its support base to “Get the vote out”.

In the recent Stormont election, Sinn Fein expertly turned Paul Givan’sLíofa grant cut into a crusading call for an Irish Language Act. The fact that during the previous ten years Sinn Fein never once included or demanded an Irish Language Act in any Programme for Government, and a Sinn Fein Minister imposed more cuts on the Irish Language in 2014 than the DUP ever did….none of that mattered, ‘Our’ rights are denied, ‘We’ must vote for those demanding these rights! 

The party’s policy manifesto receives the loyal support of the members, usually whether they’ve read it or not. Weil sees this as a form of lying on which the whole system of party politics is based. In most cases, people tend to agree with one or two broad ideas of a party (their own interpretation from the woolly language of party literature) and tolerate, ignore, or simply don’t know about the rest. Engineering absolute party loyalty demands multiple lies: 

lies to yourself that you agree with the whole manifesto; 

lies to the party that you agree to the whole manifesto; 

lies to the public that you agree with the whole manifesto. 

The party regards itself as more important than any other factor, more important than free or rational thought, it is an end in itself with an almost messianic message that if only it can secure enough power, all will be right with the world. The party’s growth is the only measure of political goodness. Loyalty to the party is the measure of every member’s worth. Of course, the party’s appetite for power is infinite, a black hole that can never be satisfied. There can never be too many donations, members, or votes. Add to this that parties combine this need for growth and power with elitism. The very broad base is like the bottom of a pyramid leading to a pinpoint at the top where the real power is held and exercised. Seemingly justified by universal suffrage (one person, one vote), the expression of the general will, parties seek to centralise this power for a small circle of elites: ‘The Leadership’.  In short, it is in the nature of political parties to be totalitarian.

The party then exercises fairly rigorous discipline aimed at making people comply and think ‘rightly’ or, in other words, agree with the leadership.Weil offers the example of taking 100 mathematicians who carry out complex calculations. If those who arrive at an odd number get a nasty electric shock, how long would it be before all their calculations are tweaked in order to arrive at an even number? 

An obvious example of this is the ArdFheisor Party Conference. 99% of motions put to the floor are only there because the leadership has already decided the policy and wants the rubber stamp of ‘democracy’. The party faithful are told how the leadership wants the vote to go, and so it’s very difficult to step away from the comfort and warmth of the herd.

And what happens if ‘The Leadership’ decides policy on the basis of a brown paper envelope or wire transfer to their offshore account? In fact the whole system of parties makes it easier to corrupt politics. Multinational and corporate interests just have to buy off elements of the leadership; the party structure makes this a convenient and efficient transaction.  The party whip will do the rest assisted by a compliant media and some creative spin doctoring. Doesn’t the party always have your best interests at heart?

Simone Weil reaches the obvious conclusion about political parties:  

The mere fact that they exist today is not in itself sufficient reason for us to preserve them. The only legitimate reason for preserving anything is its goodness.”

Article by Michael Doherty, member of the Spirit of Freedom, 1916 Society, Derry.