Don’t blame the system, blame yourselves and then get on with it

Is the consociational model – that is, guaranteed power sharing – wrecking the Northern Ireland Assembly or rescuing it? Its critics have long argued that a system specifically designed to force accommodation actually hardens the battle lines and elevates them to unprecedented prominence. As for the political parties, living with the sectarian divide isn’t the problem; it’s rather that they can hardly bear the squeeze of the consociational pincers upon them. It’s all too tempting to blame the system when the answer lies in themselves. Talk of voluntary coalition (strictly a misnomer) and a smaller, more efficient Assembly and Executive is suspended as the parties struggle through the Hillsborough agenda. But if the devolution of Justice is finally settled, will the parties leave the structures well alone in the interests of bedding down in their fragile new relationship? It will be hard to impossible to persuade Sinn Fein that voluntary coalition is more than a dodge to exclude them from power. Even so, the subject could crop up again under pressure of elections, particularly if the polls record increasing unionist fragmentation and a Conservative government is serious about taking it on. An intense argument over the outworking of the power sharing system has been going on in academic circles for years and is worth examining for ideas about how it might perform better in the long run. The main themes are discussed in Consociational Theory: McGarry and O’Leary and the Northern Ireland conflict edited by Rupert Taylor of Queen’s, (Routledge), a snip at over £80 and inaccessible to me in London university libraries, so I rely on extracts and conversation and older versions of the arguments, apart from McGarry and O’Leary’s lengthy rejoinder. No doubt the Queen’s and UU politics departments are buzzing with them. Although the papers I discuss were written from between three months to three years ago, the arguments are still valid with little or no amendment. The indictment comes from Rupert Taylor (Political Quarterly April-June 2006).

The Assembly model condemned

? The Assembly is “ inherently illiberal and fails to lead to a democratic advance”
? STV for elections produced more polarised politics
? The centre parties were destroyed
? Executive irresponsibility was encouraged – viz the IRA was allowed to remain while Sinn Fein took their seats in the first Executive.
? The equality agenda was too much shaped by the unionist-nationalist zero sum game.
? “In consociationalism, contrary to what its supporters believe, cost benefit calculations trump deliberative politics every time,” i.e. party interests and the zero sum game always win over the wider public interest.

No case to answer, say its chief defenders
The rejoinder to Taylor and other critics comes in the book itself from the two most forceful advocates of the model, John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary. They insist on the basic reality of two national identities which are unlikely to assimilate into a common identity anytime soon. They coin the paradox that it often takes an “inflexible and hard” agreement to make accommodation possible. They divide the political environment into accommodationists ( like themselves), and integrationists who live with the illusion that somehow, society will transform itself. Here Robert McCartney’s UKUP and rejectionist republicans make strange bedfellows. Why? Because UKUP (and now presumably the TUV) believe most nationalists are happy enough inside the UK and dissident republicans believe unionism is fundamentally soft and can be overcome. These are illusions. Idealists like Taylor and Robin Wilson who believe in the transforming potential of civil society are likewise mistaken.

Look instead at the consociational record, say the authors. It gave birth to the Agreements. It was not the consociational model but British prevarication over implementing the 1999 Patten policing reforms that was responsible for the delay in IRA decommissioning and dogged the first Assembly. No peace dividend? Nonsense, it brought ten years of peace. Fears of political polarisation, “ do not survive inspection ”; SF and the DUP have moved on to the centre ground and the hankering for a lost middle ground is yesterday’s story. Democratic objections to excluding the “other” are largely dismissed, as the main designations represent 90% of the vote. Yet the divide need not be eternal. The authors believe that if the Assembly endures, a shared Northern Ireland identity is possible in twenty years.

Scrap the designations

In an article published last month in Parliamentary Affairs (not yet on line and subs req’d), Queen’s politics professor Rick Wilford sits above the academic battlefield. If the Assembly functions at all, it’s as much due to the fact that it’s the only show in town rather than its particular consociational architecture. Contrary to Taylor’s emphasis, Wilford commends the close correspondence between voter preferences and the inclusivness of the Executive. At the same time there’s no disguising the Executive’s poor behaviour and record. Parties can behave with total impunity, being in government and opposition at the same time. All negotiations are top down. The committees have failed to show much independence or come up with enough bright ideas, being unwilling to shake loose from the party straitjackets. In his most significant judgement, Wilford does agree (but almost in an aside), that the Alliance party’s marginalisation is wrong and that the designations should be scrapped, in favour of placing reliance on straightforward weighted majority voting.

The moral flaws

In Northern Ireland: the Politics of Entrenchment, (a slim work at only £54.13), Cillian McGrattan, formerly of the UU, now UCD returns to the attack on consociationalism. He argues for the pull of history. The politics of the last atrocity have determined political behaviour at least as much as O’Leary’s supposed ethnic divisions. McGrattan comes close to rejecting power sharing on moral grounds. The Good Friday Agreement produced a moral malaise which allowed republicans to write themselves into the political system as victims and introduced a false pragmatism into the idea of a shared future. His thesis recalls the fierce arguments over the Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the Past. McGrattan differs crucially from O’Leary and McGarry on the fundamental issue of trust. While the latter accept the genuineness of the SF-DUP moves to the centre, McGrattan believes these are only superficial. SF still pursues it road map to Unity while the DUP hankers after a voluntary coalition.

The Assembly’s indifferent record

What are we to make of all this? None of the writers would abandon consociationalism outright . With all its flaws, McGrattan’s mentor the unionist-leaning Professor Henry Patterson supports what he calls “ the stabilising banalities of a functioning Stormont”, whatever its supposed moral deficiencies. Different time scales account for some of the differences of view. Over a 12 year time span, the Assembly has survived. But look closer and it has come near to collapse four times.

Considered generously, it is hardly surprising that the parties have shown a poor grasp of government. For generations they have had no focus for winning power, which is the usual object of a political party. Unionists have had no practice for 38 years and nationalists none ever, apart from four short chaotic months in 1974. The record is probably better than the severest critics suggest, but not much. A peace dividend has surely been won but O’Leary too easily dismisses a rising tide of street violence behind the peace walls, just as McGrattan is wrong to imply that the IRA got away with it unscathed. Nearly 300 were killed and 10,000 imprisoned.

Too late to row back

Wilford’s slipped in suggestion for ending Alliance’s undemocratic exclusion must receive a moral boost if David Ford takes the Justice Ministry. Could that be the pebble that starts an avalanche? The proposal to end designation voting in the Assembly leads inexorably to the crunch point that Hillsborough has only briefly overshadowed. The DUP must rue the day they negotiated away the joint election of the first and deputy first minister in favour of nomination in order of individual party strength. This departure from the consociational principle could cost unionism and the Assembly as a whole dear. After the next Assembly election, unionism could be faced with unpalatable choices of trying to patch up unionist unity out of a three way split (now further away than ever, it seems) ; swallowing a SF first minister; or plunging the Assembly into an even more intractable crisis. Sinn Fein is unlikely to be selfless enough to avert a new confrontation, nor is anyone else likely to spot a get out of jail bargaining chip to avert it. Unionism as a whole faces a bout of intense self questioning over whether to take the symbolic hit of a Sinn Fein First Minister, in order to save the Assembly.

Change behaviour and learn the arts of government

In the present volatile state of politics, it is surely unwise to attempt structural reform. More constructively, we should look for a change of behaviour as a result of recent traumas. We can accept that arcane disputes over the Irish language and loyalist parades are the tip of an iceberg of fear that one side will somehow dominate the other. Yet after Hillsborough, it may have dawned on the DUP and Sinn Fein that after winning primacy in their respective camps, it benefits them little to take their pet projects right to the brink.

Their sense of impunity may vanish if they are faced with the unpredictable consequences of a declining vote. Public pressure however unfocused may be sufficient to prise them away from the signature issues towards the problems of real life which, truth to tell, many of them find boring compared to the poetry of identity politics. But government is not entirely written in prose. How for instance should each party calibrate its approach to a divided polity: separate but equal, a shared future, reconciliation? Lacking experience of government, they leap from vision to local politics with little in the way of policies in between.

If they were to adopt problem solving techniques to the toxic issues they would find themselves building a better platform of stability. An ideal subject would the school transfer deadlock – a cross community problem where grammar schools on both sides of the divide are in a people’s revolt against an impotent Executive – tailor made for a collegial approach.

Many will not share Brendan O’Leary’s grim relish for the durable nature of the divide. He himself admits the need for flexibility. But for as long as the parties hold to a system of mutual veto, a voluntary coalition won’t fly. If confidence grows, the traditional identities may become less defining. There is public longing for a lot of accommodation and more than a little transformation. If that happens, the consociational model will be standing there, waiting to take the credit.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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