What Europe can learn from America
As direct rule smiles on the horizon at Northern Ireland, the news media in the United States has failed to cover any of it. This probably does not come as a shock to most; surely, we have our own problems in the States and our media typically does not cover the rest of the world unless we have some skin in the game. But the prospect of a nation with its own government, albeit somewhat limited and currently on hiatus, forfeiting control to an institution as chaotic and disconnected as British Parliament should make Americans take pause.
Americans find themselves scattered across a political spectrum that would make even the most hardened of scholars blush. Despite the number of differences from state to state, county to county, and even person to person, however, we have become divided on very simplistic, but volatile lines. But statistics have shown us that Americans agree on more issues than they disagree. A majority of Americans believe that marijuana should be legalized and regulated like alcohol and tobacco, while nearly all Americans believe marijuana should, at least, be legal from a medical perspective. Nearly all Americans believe in universal background checks for firearm purchases. A large majority of Americans also disagree with a ban on handguns. The list goes on. We have been divided with purpose and it was certainly a malicious act.
What ultimately binds Americans is what binds all people: our individual sense of liberty. There is a concept in the United States that is rarely spoken about by most, but is held deeply by all. Autonomy does not apply only to the nation, state, county, or city, but to the individual. Individual autonomy can be better described as humanity. Most will agree that when we are instructed to do something we disagree with, it feels as though we are being harmed physically. Outside direction, especially from those we do not trust or know, is an abhorrent prospect that makes our skin crawl. Human beings are not designed with the capacity to accept having our choices made for us, but by us. To be in a position in which we are directed by another gives us a stifling sense of imprisonment that we must rebel against. Having worked in cubicles for several years, I can attest to the overpowering feeling of insurrection that lies at the heart of our species. Revolution is not uniquely human, but has become a perfected art form throughout our history.
Marijuana is illegal at the federal level of the United States, but several states have legalized recreational use with terrific results, socially and economically. My home state of Pennsylvania allows for the open carry of lawfully-owned firearms, but the city of Philadelphia does not allow the practice and heavily restricts concealed carry. And, while the possession and carry of firearms may be legal, I have the right to restrict or forbid the practice on my property. The trick here is that this was listed in reverse; the rights and liberties that so many enjoy and many more long for do not extend from the state out to the people, but rather from each individual to the state, which we entrust to protect our liberty. There is no greater task one may be given, thus it is the state’s only task. In order to facilitate this, we ask for fair representation and transparency. As such, regulation and restriction must also flow from the individual to the state.
The prospect that now faces Northern Ireland is not one that should be welcomed by any citizen, Republican or Unionist. As the DUP and Sinn Fein continue to ride the carousel that is devolved politics, they are willfully allowing, at a minimum, the immediate future of the country to be dictated by six hundred and thirty two politicians that do not have a stake in it. While similar ideologies across party lines may help even the field slightly, the recent passage of silver across Arlene Foster’s palm from Theresa May and the absence of seven Republicans drive home the reality that direction will come from those who campaigned for Brexit, despite a majority vote against it in Northern Ireland.
Division can be a terrible thing, leading to an existence that is fraught with tension and a lack of progress; society quite literally screeches to a halt. But as we focus so intently on these divisions, we often fail to see the humanity that connects us. A United Ireland will be a point of contention for some time, but allowing an entire nation to be directed by the representatives of three other nations, who are understandably disinterested, will not solve the problem, but compound it. Sinn Fein cannot be counted on as they refuse to take their seats, a policy which can no longer be understood. The DUP cannot be counted on as they can only wring their hands and nod their heads along to the unstable beat of Theresa May’s banter; such was the price of their souls.
Autonomy must always be first thought of as a human trait, innate in each person. We are free to make our own choices and live our lives, so long as there is respect for others’ rights and safety. Occasionally, in a community, we may even make decisions together, often based on compromise. The clear loss of a nation’s autonomy is the clear loss of its people’s humanity. It can only lead to bitterness and resentment and finger pointing, thus deepening the divide. But, perhaps, this is what both sides want. Perhaps Sinn Fein wishes for direct rule to enrage Republicans and Nationalists, while demonstrating the fallibility of the British government to Unionists and Loyalists. Perhaps the DUP wishes for direct rule to strengthen the beliefs and allegiance of Unionists and Loyalists, while demonstrating the supposed benefits of being a part of the state to Republicans and Nationalists.
Only time will tell who will win this charade. But, in the meantime, this break in government offers a period of reflection for each citizen. What is best for each individual and who can provide it? And, should no one prove sufficient, perhaps new voices can emerge and offer a suggestion. I suggest starting with a letter, then settling down with a good book while you wait for a reply. John Locke is lovely reading during the holidays.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash