Pending Vote: Democracy 101 in the Lyric as part of #BelFest

Over a hundred people filed into the Lyric’s Naughton Studio clutching their digital binary voting handsets: we used our fingers to press the Yes or No buttons.

Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at QueensSeated on three sides of the small theatre facing a large screen with a blinking cursor, the audience quickly got used to answering questions as the timer counted down to zero.

For a while Roger Bernat’s Pending Vote felt like the true beginnings of the much lauded seldom found new politics in Northern Ireland. We agreed that the theatre was our land – the System named it for us: ‘Homeland’. Latecomers became ‘Foreigners’ and we voted to make them sign in. Foreigners didn’t get a vote, though when the population shrank in later acts we allowed them to become full citizens. Within five minutes of the first act starting, the results of the questions were already creating a sinister feeling to this new democracy. At times the background music stopped and the theatre remained silent and still until members of the audience gave in to the pressure to obey the results of a vote.

[I’ve kept the spoilers to a minimum since Pending Vote is on again tonight in the Lyric. The Festival box office may have some tickets left for tonight if you ring them. I’ll add in a little more detail tomorrow.]

Pending VoteThe continual cycle of reading the question, reading the two options, deciding on an answer and voting was stressful. Each seat’s answer was displayed up on the screen along with the overall Yes / No / Abstain / Blocked / Population size figures. If you looked quickly you could figure out how friends sitting across the theatre voted. Soon the questions tested how far we were willing to bear the responsibility of our alleged freedom to vote. We appointed (and reappointed) two co-chairs – speakers of the house of Homeland – along with an army (no one reaffirms the army’s mandate!) and an neglected judiciary. Oddly we neither staged a revolution (we voted to allow that) nor asked the judiciary to overturn a vote. Like many real-world politicians, we didn’t always grasp our full power or potential.

It wasn’t all serious. We voted to ban Stephen Nolan from the airwaves, only to discover that he became the BBC Director General instead. The System had a curious sense of humour and a way of interpreting our voting intentions to create a very different and unexpected result.

We chose the music we wanted to listen to. And we made it snow! Oh how we made it snow in the theatre. Our moment of real power! The System seemed to know this pleased us. Though we should have realised earlier in the evening that voting to change the weather wasn’t that rational an idea.

During each interval, the System interfered with our growing ease and engaged in a bit of political engineering by reallocating our seats. During the second act we lost the right to vote individually. It needs to be said that Northern Ireland theatre goers are appallingly bad at coming to quick decisions on multiple choice questions. The score board turned to a sea of yellow as many newly-formed couples could not agree how to vote when one thought yes and the other no and simply abstained. Those of us who could decide and negotiate quickly with our partners to cast an intentional vote were in the minority. Yet, since we were the only ones voting, only our participation counted. Dithering abstentionists lost their power.

Lots of serious issues covered, with debate as well as voting. Fertility treatment, circumcision, integrated schooling, prostitution, drugs, upping taxes to improve health and education, considered replacing he/she with a gender-neutral pronoun. The majority voted that they’d be happy to receive blood from Stephen Fry. Strongly pro-choice. (For the pollsters out there, roughly two thirds of those who expressed an opinion said they felt European, Northern Irish and Irish; about a third felt British. But I’ve no idea which people chose which combinations!)

The de Borda Institute and other proponents of voting system reform should be leafleting the audience on the way out. Binary yes/no voting on many issues isn’t a clever way of gathering opinions which are more nuanced or would benefit from a greater range of options.

Act three changes the democratic dynamic again, as we head towards the show’s ending. At times the audience (who are the on-stage actors) forget that while they’re rolling the dice in a live show version of a roleplay gamebook the narratives have been written in advance and no matter what we choose, we’re heading towards the System’s chosen endpoint … and the ending teaches us another important lesson about who’s really in charge.

The results from each show will be available on Roger Bernat’s website, allowing comparisons to be made across Spanish, French, Brazilian, Austrian and Northern Irish audiences governments.

Early on the big screen flashed up some advice from the System:

Even if your vote doesn’t count continue to vote because the system listens to you.

Perhaps that’s the message for Northern Ireland. Despite the imperfection of the system of voting, the make-up of the institutions and certainly the actions (and inactions) of the members of the institutions, maybe the system will still be listening?

Plenty more events at this year’s Belfast Festival which runs until Sunday 27th. Mark Carruthers will be discussing his new book Alternative Ulsters at 8pm on Friday evening in QUB’s Great Hall. Chaired by William Crawley, Mark will be joined by some of the thirty public figures he interviewed about identity: Baroness Blood, Joe Brolly, Brian Kennedy and Ian Paisley Jnr to discuss whether identity is fixed or continually changing, and whether more people are embracing a Northern Irish identity.

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