Representative democracy, or indirect democracy, allows elected representatives to make decisions on the electorate’s behalf without further consultation. This system is efficient and, unlike direct democracy, does not require frequent referendums, relying instead on the representative to accurately reflect the views of their electorate. However, once elected, representatives can, with relative impunity, pursue their own agendas and vote according to their own beliefs. They might even choose to change party midterm. Representative democracy can, therefore, result in a lack of accountability for the ‘issue stances’ taken by our representatives, and which may not accurately represent the views of those they are representing.
One only needs to recall the duck islands and moat cleaning excesses that came to light during the MPs expenses scandal to be reminded that those in the Palace of Westminster can appear completely out of touch with the common folk they claim to represent. Tales abound of wealthy, privately educated Oxbridge graduates swelling the Commons Chamber, particularly the Tory benches. In the case of Northern Ireland, any distinction from the hoi polloi might additionally be framed in terms of that traditional regional differentiator, religious belief or more simply the presence or absence thereof.
Over the last two decades, the UK census has recorded a steady decline in religiosity. In 2001, more than 71% of the population was Christian, falling to 60% in 2011, which has led to concerns about the nation’s moral fortitude, a staple of the populist press. However, we may not all be heading for hell in a handcart. The Guardian recently cited a researcher who claimed that “Post-Christians are motivated by ethics concerning gender and sexual equality, social justice, climate change and compassion. The churches failed to deliver on those moral issues and so lost moral authority. Today’s younger generations have a different sense of soul, meaning and morality, and it’s one that rejects the church’s record of abuse, racism, homophobia and sexism.”
The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey reported that “27% of respondents said they had no religion in 2020”. A more recent UK survey revealed that 45% of the population identified as atheist or non-religious. Perhaps surprisingly, given its Calvinistic tradition, Scotland toped the poll with 54% of non-believers. The not so chapel-going Welsh came second with 51% declaring themselves nontheistic. Of the English, 47% confessed to not defending the faith and, not at all surprisingly, Northern Ireland came in last with only 31% of its adults not professing to be persons of faith.
If the above Life and Times data regarding the denominational breakdown of Northern Ireland’s population remains current, (28% Catholic, 18% Presbyterian, 11% Anglican, 12% other Christian denominations) the non-religious community is now the largest sector and will, at the expense of others, continue to grow. Humanist Brian McClinton’s question “Who represents the 27%?” is already obsolete and indeed may soon be better expressed as ‘Who represents the non-religious majority?’.
In 2015, there were 108 MLAs representing our views at Stormont and we might reasonably have expected at least 27 of these to be non-religious. However, a BBC survey from that year revealed that only seven (6%) identified as non-religious and only one of these, the Alliance Party’s now retired Anna Lo, was prepared to do so publicly. In 2021, 29% of the electorate in the US, another religiously conservative representative democracy, described themselves as non-religious, up from 16% in 2007. However, founded in 2018, the US Congressional Freethought Caucus has only 13 members (2% of all Congress members), when a figure closer to 200 might be expected. Perhaps, as with Northern Ireland’s MLAs, those US elected representatives who lack faith are reluctant to publicly declare as much. But atheists are of course not the only underrepresented sector of our society.
Of the 90 MLAs who were returned to Stormont following the 2022 elections, 32 were female, up from 27 in 2017, bringing the proportion to just over 35%. This is on a par with Westminster but behind the Welsh Assembly (43%) and the Scottish Parliament (45%) despite a commitment to increasing female participation enshrined in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. Furthermore, the distribution of female MLAs across the various parties is far from uniform (Table 1.).
|Party||Female MLAs (%)|
|Democratic Unionist Party||26|
|Social Democratic and Labour Party||25|
|Ulster Unionist Party||0|
|People Before Profit Alliance||0|
|Traditional Unionist Voice||0|
Table 1: Gender distribution by party in 2022.
Sexual orientation might also be useful as a metric for representative diversity and inclusion. On 15 August 2022, when Malachai O’Hara became the new head of the Green Party, the Belfast Telegraph ran the headline “A Belfast councillor has become the first openly gay leader of a mainstream party in Northern Ireland”. John Blair, an Alliance Party MLA, was the first openly gay member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Alliance Party’s Andrew Muir and Eóin Tennyson were, respectively, the second and third. The Office of National Statistics states that in 2020 “an estimated 3.1% of the UK population aged 16 years and over identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) in 2020, an increase from 2.7% in 2019 and almost double the percentage from 2014 (1.6%)”. Therefore, at 3.3%, the proportion of openly gay MLAs slightly exceeds the UK average. However, with due allowance for reticence, it is possible that the true figure could be as high as 10%.
The Ulster Unionist Party also fielded openly gay candidates in the 2022 Assembly elections. Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston stood in North Belfast attracting 6% of 1st preference votes. Lauren Kerr secured 3% in East Belfast. To put these results in perspective, the frontrunner in this constituency, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, polled 19% of the vote. In light of the general paucity of female Unionist MLAs, these figures might challenge Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie’s recent assertion that “Unionism’s strength lies in its diversity rather than reliance on narrow bases…”
The gender balance of our elected representatives appears to be moving in the right direction and should eventually reflect that of the society they purport to represent. However, this will clearly require a much greater push in some quarters. Sexual orientation is no longer an insurmountable obstacle for those seeking election to public office, but, here again, there is a clear disparity between the various parties. The only remaining taboo that dare not speak its name appears to be the lack of religious belief. In this respect, at least, our elected representatives are not at all representative of those they claim to represent. We could still be in for a lengthy wait before we see our first openly atheist MLA, let alone the 27 plus the statistics would suggest.
David Bell is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Archaeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is also a member of the Alliance Party and Humanists UK but is writing in an entirely personal capacity.