As currently (undefined but) practiced, majority rule implies that any party or group of TDs/MPs which constitutes more than 50% of the Dáil/parliament may then form the government. This notion has led to some pretty horrible results, as for example the current right-wing coalition in Israel. Another unwholesome arrangement involved the Tories and the DUP in Westminster in 2017; previously, in 1978, the Unionists had supported Labour, but Callaghan lost a subsequent vote of confidence, by just one vote… not least because the MP for Fermanagh and Tyrone, the late Frank Maguire – a republican by trait and a publican by trade – decided to “abstain in person.”
Other countries have suffered similar, often embarrassing concoctions. In Austria in 1999, the Freedom Party was in government, while the Peoples’ Party, with the same number of seats, was not! Was that democratic? In 2010, the Netherlands had a similar conundrum: the two leading parties had 31 and 30 seats… but 30 was left in the cold as the 31 teamed up with 24 and 21, i.e., with the Dutch Freedom Party, for a government with a majority of just one. And was that democratic?
Back home, there were similar ‘democratic’ shenanigans, as when Garret FitzGerald tried to bribe the independent TD Tony Gregory £1 million, to join a majority coalition; whereupon Charlie Haughey offered him £100 million! An even better story occurred in 1927. Mr Jinks, the member for Sligo, was “plied with drink by one Mr Smylie of The Irish Times,” so he (Mr Jinks) missed the Dáil. Mr Cosgrove survived a vote of confidence, again by only one vote!
Was any of this democratic?
Mr Cosgrove then named a racehorse ‘Jinks’, and it won the 1929 Two Thousand Guineas.
Back to the present, and after the 2020 election, some spoke of an all-party government. Alas, all too few knew how such an administration could be formed, so the suggestion died. Furthermore, many dreaded the prospect of Sinn Féin being in government, so hence the current administration, a majority coalition of ‘the others’.
But maybe the next general election will give SF an absolute majority, and it could then rule, themselves alone, or maybe along with a few independent TDs.
The prospect raises at least two questions. Is majority rule the most democratic form of government? And secondly, would an all-party power-sharing coalition, the sort of arrangement which ‘stable’ democracies advocate for conflict zones like Northern Ireland, be more suitable? If the latter, maybe the mechanism by which such a government could be formed should be agreed to, now, before the problem looms.
After all, the task is often quite difficult, not least because most political parties tend to rely on a purely verbal process. Hence the 140 days it took the Dáil in 2010, or the 298 days used in the Netherlands in 2021, let alone the 541 of the Belgians in 2011/11. And all those were only to form majority coalitions!
Sorting out an all-party arrangement could be even more difficult! Which is why various mathematical formulas have been devised: the Belfast Agreement allows for a d’Hondt ‘cherry-picking’ interpretation of their seats in the Assembly; Lebanon’s Taif Accord shares out the government posts by religious calling; while Switzerland, the only non-conflict zone (so far) to enjoy all-party power-sharing, uses a Zauberformel, a ‘magic formula’ of 2:2:1:1:1, so to share out the seven seats on their Federal Council to the top five parties. Unfortunately, however, in divided societies, these arrangements tend to perpetuate the very sectarian divisions which they were supposed to overcome.
A better methodology would surely be an election, a colour-blind, proportional, preferential election. It would need to allow the TDs to vote, in order of preference, both for whom they want to be which ministry. So the ballot paper would have to be tabular, with two dimensions. Thus every member of the Dáil could choose 15 different TDs on one axis, and allocate each to a particular ministry on the other axis. For a 15-member cabinet, the voting TD would list his/her nominees in the shaded columns, and then in the unshaded matrix, indicate the department in which he/she wishes each nominee to serve: one ✓ in each column, and one ✓ in each row; a completed ballot paper would be as shown.
The count would be done in two stages; (I switch to the present tense). The shaded data is analysed, by PR of course, to see which of the 166 TDs are the 15 most popular; and then, the preferences having been translated into points and added, the various sums in the matrix are examined, starting with the highest, to see who should be appointed to which ministry.
Now a TD of party X, with say 20% of the seats in the Dáil, may expect about 20% of the seats in cabinet, i.e., 3 of them. So any TDX member would probably give his/her top 3/4 preferences to X party colleagues. At only 20%, they probably wouldn’t get the post of Taoiseach, but could well hope for one or maybe two important ministries, according to the talents of their parliamentary party. In contrast, a tiny party Y with, say only 8 TDs and just 5% of the Dáil, might not get any ministry; there again, by combining with party Z of let’s say 8% or 13 TDs, they could share two ministries, and so on. The possibilities are several. It’s called pluralism.
In 2016, The Irish Times sponsored a public meeting in Ballymun, a role-play, to demonstrate how a newly elected Dáil could elect a government. It worked, and all in a day; the count was electronic, of course; and the outcome? Generally speaking, those chosen were considered to be suitable for their appointments, while overall, the cabinet was very proportional and fairly gender balanced.
It works like this. Every TD is eligible to be elected to any cabinet post, (except perhaps those too old or unwilling), and each party may declare who are its candidates for which ministries. In the vote:
+ she who votes for only one person gets that person just 1 point;
+ he who votes for two persons gets his 1st preference 2 points (and his 2nd choice gets 1 point);
and so on; so
+ she who votes for 15 persons gets her favourite 15 points, (her 2nd choice gets 14, her 3rd gets 13, etc.).
So the voting system encourages (but does not force) the TD to cast a full ballot. Now as implied earlier, the TDX voter will want to cast his/her top 3 or 4 preferences for party colleagues; the TDY and TDZ voters just 2 preferences. Because of PR, any lower preferences would best be cast for those TDs of other parties, those with whom they think cooperation would be more successful. In other words, this modified Borda count MBC as it’s called incentivises the TDs to vote across the (gender gap and) party divides – an essential quality, it is argued, of any power-sharing arrangement.
The count, PR, is done in two stages. And just as PR-STV encourages parties to nominate only as many candidates as they think they can get elected, so too the matrix vote, as this methodology is called. Thus to complete a full ballot, the TDY/TDZ voters must cross the party divide and even the TDX voter is best advised to do so. In an NI context, the MLAs would be incentivised to cross even the sectarian chasm; again, an essential feature of any power-sharing arrangement.
The count first analyses the shaded data, is to see which 15 are the most popular. This could be done by PR-STV, which allows the TDs to cross the party divide; better still would be the quota Borda system QBS, which like the MBC encourages them to do so. And then, the preferences having been translated into points, the sums in the matrix are examined to see, starting with the highest, who should be appointed to which ministry.
So instead of consisting of open and transparent elections followed by closed and opaque discussions, protracted and problematic, lasting for ages, the democratic process could consist of two open and transparent elections, a general election and about a week later a matrix vote in the Dáil.
Binary voting is often a nonsense, as was seen in Brexit. There were (at least) four options on the table in that debate: in the EU, EEA, (Customs Union) CU or WTO. David Cameron held a majority vote on just one of them, and it lost; but maybe, as with a bunch of kids choosing the vegetable for lunch, there was a majority against everything. In 2019, Theresa May held her indicative votes, on four options, and sure enough, there was a majority against everything. Then it was Boris. So he picked his opponent, the most unpopular deal of all, ‘no deal’, and gave the MPs the choice: ‘no deal’ or ‘his deal’. Was that democratic? The latter won. But of course it bloody won. ‘Any deal’ would have beaten ‘no deal’.
If, then, decision-making were not based on binary voting but instead on a preferential points system – the above MBC, as invented by Cardinal Nicholas Cusanus in 1433 and developed Jean-Charles de Borda in 1770 – the outcome of a ballot could be the option with the highest average preference. And an average, of course, involves every (voting) TD. Accordingly, the words ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ could fade from the political lexicon. And every democracy could enjoy all-party power-sharing governance.
Furthermore, gatherings like the COP meetings, which have rejected majority voting, could also use the MBC. In a nutshell, no majority has the right to dominate, and no minority the right of veto; rather, we all have a responsibility to come to an agreement, if only for the sake of the species.
The matrix vote was invented in 1978; a prototype was tested in 1986 at the New Ireland Group’s first People’s Convention, a public meeting of over 200, with pretty well everything from SF to the UDA – not bad, still eight years before the cease-fire. It has since been demonstrated in TASC, Maynooth, Berlin, Vienna, Sofia, Tiānjīn and Xúzhōu. But this Irish invention has yet to be considered in IPS, in Queen’s, or even mentioned on the BBC/RTE. Hopefully, this blog may help to spread the word.
Director, the de Borda Institute
Author of The Punters’’ Guide to Democracy, 2022, (Springer, Heidelberg).
Author of The Punters’’ Guide to Democracy, 2022, (Springer, Heidelberg). https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-031-06987-1