A dysfunctional agreement?

Regarding my piece of the 23rd July, political scientist Michael Hodkinson comments:

“The Belfast Agreement is a consociational model. Basically, it requires political elites to reach a consensus about objectives in the hope that the followers will adopt more consensual attitudes from the lead given by their representatives. The model was developed from the Dutch experience after 1945 where the society was deeply divided between Protestants, Catholics and Secularists. It worked for Holland thru big coalition governments but is hardly applicable to Ulster given the more fundamental divisions and crucially the lack of real consensus among the political elites.”

Robin Wilson from the Belfast think tank, Democratic Dialogue hinted that this chosen device for delivering consensus government was fatally flawed in a piece written for the Belfast Telegraph, back in February of this year:

“One of the failings of the Belfast agreement is that it made a Faustian pact with the sectarian devil—for example, by requiring all assembly members to register as ‘nationalist’, ‘unionist’ or (pejoratively) ‘other’. In so doing it ensured the perpetuation of communalist mindsets at the heart of democracy—our MLAs might as well be given Celtic and Rangers tops—and it turned political representatives of a civic disposition into non-persons. This arrangement could easily be replaced by a requirement that controversial decisions enjoy a purely numerical weighted majority.”

He went on to point out that, “nowhere else is a coalition government formed by the d’Hondt rule—for the obvious reason that all coalitions depend on trust and reciprocity, and all governments need oppositions to scrutinise them and, after elections, potentially replace them. The unspoken assumption in Northern Ireland has been that if all (sectarian) parties are not in government then an opposition party will feel entitled to resort to murder and mayhem.”

“We have got to reach a point of grown-up politics, where parties in government attend government meetings and parties in opposition accept democratic constraints—and where voters have a genuine choice over who governs them. This would put the onus on parties to accommodate potential coalition partners if they are to enjoy the fruits of government, and to accept collective responsibility thereafter.”

A perceived lack of collective responsibility appears to be at the bottom of what has rankled most with Unionist politicians; and ultimately has caused Trimble to make one last desperate push to make progress under the current terms of the Agreement. Perhaps Wilson is hinting where the only ground for a successful re-negotiation of the original Agreement may lie.

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