The peace process not such a good model after all

Which reminds me…. Platform for Change’s driving force Robin Wilson has produced a corrective to the notion that the lessons of the NI conflict are easily exportable. Like myself, Robin is associated with the Constitution Unit. He introduced his new book in a  CU blog which I here reproduce.

The water crisis in Northern Ireland before Christmas, which saw queues of citizens plaintively bringing plastic containers to standpipes, presented the region to the world’s media as akin to a third-world country. It brought home starkly how the restoration of devolution in May 2007 does not mean it is finally a ‘done deal’ which can now (conveniently) be neglected once more in London.

The trouble is partly that the governance arrangements, an impenetrable palimpsest of endless successive behind-closed-doors negotiations, are simply dysfunctional–no opposition in the assembly, no collective responsibility in government and a system of mutual vetoes which brings only inertia. And it is partly that power was consciously to be transferred (even in advance of elections to that effect) to two parties identified in a recent , authoritative text as within, and marginally outside, the family of the populist radical right—whose affiliates are elsewhere deemed governmental pariahs.

Yet, ironically, Northern Ireland has, at least until recently, been presented as a political model for export to other ethnic troublespots: Barack Obama appointed George Mitchell to his ill-fated middle-eastern mission in the belief that the former Stormont talks chair could work the same magic with Israelis and Palestinians. So why the region’s ‘peace process’ has not realised expectations—paramilitary violence too has been on the rise again—is of wider public interest. I’ve tried to offer an explanation in The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: A Model for Export?, based on archive research in London and Dublin on the early 1970s power-sharing experiment, interviews with senior officials associated with the Belfast agreement of 1998 and a comparative look at power-sharing in Macedonia and Bosnia.

And I try to chart a political route out of the morass in which Northern Ireland remains—fundamentally from a society where it is assumed superficially that ‘ancient hatreds’ remain in play and that therefore communalism is the only realistic politics to an evidence-based alternative recognising that the (diverse) individual citizen is the only unit of a democratic society.

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  • ?

  • Pete Baker


    You need to actually ask a question…

  • New Yorker

    The fundamental assumption was that democracy would be a good system of government for Northern Ireland. That assumption was very dubious, but convenient for London, Dublin and Washington whose aim was to get problem off their tables and confined to Northern Ireland without regard as to whether a good system of government was or would be in place in Northern Ireland. The plan did not properly take into account the historic animosity of the two major communities, properly address paramilitary criminality, what to do with ‘ex paramilitary’ personnel, security and whether or not it was realistic that historic enemies would work together in a democratic structure. But it mostly kept violence away from mainland UK and the Republic, and vain politicians could crow that they were ‘peace-makers’. It all worked for London, Dublin and Washington, but not for Northern Ireland as scant thought was given to how to make the place better. It is about time to take stock realistically with the end result of the peace process. It is time to go back to the drawing board and question the fundamental assumption of democracy. Perhaps conditions for democracy will be in place in 20-30 years and in the meantime something that works better is needed.

  • New Yorker,

    “It all worked for London, Dublin and Washington, but not for Northern Ireland”

    This is overly pessimistic. Northern Ireland has made progress. Just read the newspapers. There is more interest in bread and butter issues than ever before.

    The assumption being made is that power sharing is an end in itself. It is a stepping stone but it might take some time before all of the Northern Irish parties buy into the idea that reform is needed.

    In all probability, we have reached the position where there is little that National Governments can do in order to help future evolution of Northern Irish politics.

    The next stage of evolution has to come from the NI political parties themselves.

    So far, the only constructive suggestion for reform, coming from one of the Northern Ireland parties, has been from the UUP. The proposal is that there should be a voluntary opposition. For that to work, it would require all four of the largest parties to agree between them that the largest parties from each community block takes all the seats in the executive and the rest stay outside as an opposition.

  • Drumlins Rock

    I agree with Seymour on this one, after years of conflict we have reached a stage of relative political stability, the problem ironically is its too stable and too dificult to rock the boat when things are going wrong, such as the “Water Crisis”, which possibly is as much to do with “the System” adjusting to the politicians as vice versa, the all party government was a unique experiment which has short fallings, but let it evolve over time into “normal democracy”.

    As for NI being third world, can we get a bit of perspective here? shall we call Queensland third world too? and as for comparisions to Bosnia, apart from Greenflag I dont think anyone really want more repartition.

  • Neil

    Yet, ironically, Northern Ireland has, at least until recently, been presented as a political model for export to other ethnic troublespots

    And why not? It’s imperfect but that’s the nature of all government. There’s a good bit less death and that has worked well for Northern Ireland. Some people might even say one life not ended is worth the imperfect nature of our government, never mind the hundreds or thousands that would have been lost had the troubles rumbled on.

    As regards the water crisis, the water mains didn’t start to crumble four years ago, they’ve been deteriorating for decades under direct rule. Whatever investment is being made in water may be some way short of the 1% investment being made by Scotland (the highest investment in water for any country in these islands), but is it likely the crisis would not have happened if a direct rule minister were in charge of water, roads and whavetever else falls to DRD? Personally I would imagine Jesus alone would have prevented it given the situation and the money available.

    If Americans think this makes NI 3rd world, they should have a think back to hurricane Katrina. If we, in this tiny little place, can provide water in a crisis we’re some way ahead of this massive superpower who couldn’t provide water, or anything else, to people in New Orleans for nearly a week.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Well indeed Mr Robin Wilson is right. The lessons of our conflict are not exportable. It is an unpopular thing to say and not what all those “Conflict Resolutionists” want to hear.

  • Greenflag

    I’ve never been convinced of the ‘exportability’ of the NI solution to other parts of the world where conflict is endemic . NI is ‘lucky’ that it’s geographical location is between two stable democracies . That luxury is not afforded to places like Palestine , Israel, or in not so recent times the countries of the Balkan region .

    @ drumlin’s rock ,

    You misunderstand my position re repartition . My support for a fair repartition by a neutral international organisation such as the UN or EU was based on the not unreasonable belief at the time – that ‘power sharing ‘ between the major diametrically opposed parties in Northern Ireland was a) never going to happen and b) even if it did -it would eventually collapse due to the ‘undemocratic’ (in the purist sense) nature of the current ‘solution’.

    While NI is not out of the political woods , I agree with Seymour that a degree of political stability has been achieved and that NI as currently ‘constituted’ has learnt to live with it’s ‘undemocratic’ mandatory power sharing solution . It’s probably as good as it gets and while the UUP proposal for voluntary opposition may have some merit I can’t see it changing the political dynamics any time soon and certainly not before the next assembly elections .

    @ Neil ,

    ‘As regards the water crisis, the water mains didn’t start to crumble four years ago, they’ve been deteriorating for decades under direct rule.’

    Ergo a ‘scapegoat ‘ must be found . Mackenzie fits the bill nicely .

  • New Yorker

    While the polarization in some areas of society has lessened, in politics I see no evidence it has done anything but increase. The political parties are part of the problem and, of course, they always say give us more time. The current system is unworkable. Westminster should prorogue Stormont for 20-30 years and replace it with the best system that delivers for the citizens.

    Republican and Unionist ideologies are 19th century and should be recognized as such. They are played out and turn off most of the people in Northern Ireland. Just look at the quality of personnel in the current parties, can you say they are attracting the best and brightest?

  • Greenflag

    ‘Republican and Unionist ideologies are 19th century and should be recognized as such. ‘

    They are both currently being dragged into the 20th century so we’ll just have to be patient re getting them into the 21st century .

    The current system is not perfect neither can NI ever be a ‘normal democracy’ at least not in it’s present format but we have to accept a less than perfect solution or solutions because they are politically and economically non deliverable .

    As for the quality of personnel in the current parties ? Who are you comparing them to ? The House of Commons ? the Dail ? the USA Congress ?

    The limited powers which the Assembly has are there for a reason . The current economic climate in these islands has perhaps woken up all political sides in NI to the ‘fragility’ and ‘limitations ‘ of the power they aspire to whether in the Assembly or in the parliaments of their ‘preferred ‘ aspirations .

    I’ll give them 10 years and if they’re still working together by then I guess we’ll have to call it a ‘success’. Beats killing each other by the thousands in search of the ‘perfect’ solution does it not ?

  • manichean

    Robin Wilson appears to claim that proponents of consociationalism for Northern Ireland are driven by an ‘ancient hatreds’ analysis of conflict. This is nonsense. No serious theorist of consociationalism concerning contemporary Northern Ireland (e.g. McGarry and O’Leary, Wolff, Kerr) works from such a skewed logic. The ‘ancient hatreds’ thesis was developed by Robert Kaplan specifically to account for the outbreak of violence in the Balkans in the early 1990s. No leading thinker has tried to apply it to Northern Ireland. Robin Wilson seems to have fashioned a straw man argument here.

    The roots of consociationalism have a much more prosaic reality. In divided societies which use a majoritarian electoral system (i.e, first-past-the-post) the system of winners and losers mean that minority ethnic groups are de facto excluded from power. Northern Ireland is a perfect example of this. During the old Stormont regime, Northern Ireland was a one party Unionist state and Nationalist parties were de facto proscribed from power. In societies were minorities are practically barred from government it is often the case (though not exclusively so) that minorities feel aggrieved and this can be very destabilizing for the polity. What consociationalism does is to create a system which accommodates all salient groups based on their demographic size and electoral support. It is thus a fair system and has absolutely nothing do to with Wilson’s ‘ancient hatreds’ crap.

    Furthermore, why compare Northern Ireland to Bosnia in regards to lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process? The Dayton Accord was signed in 1995, three years before the GFA. More importantly, the GFA is substantially different and better than Dayton, since it is much more liberal. Consociationalism in Bosnia is highly illiberal. For instance, In the Bosnian Federation the three-member presidency requires one Muslim, one Croat, and one Serb representative, and each representative can veto legislation they believe undermines their own group’s vital interests. Nowhere in the GFA does it say that seats or political positions should be reserved to any ethnic group in advance of an election. If people stopped voting for nationalist or unionist parties in NI, then these parties would not have power in Stormont.

    This liberal system, therefore, is far superior to illiberal consociational arrangements in places like Bosnia, Lebanon and Burundi. For instance, in Lebanon, members of ethnic groups can only vote for parties within their own ‘ethnic’ segment. As such, Northern Ireland’s form of liberal power sharing is quite a good model for export.

  • Drumlins Rock

    “While the polarization in some areas of society has lessened, in politics I see no evidence it has done anything but increase”

    New Yorker, are you blind deaf and stupid? we essentially have a coalition government of Sinn Fein and the DUP, how on earth is that polarisation!!!!! ok they put on some of the usual shows to keep the voters happy, but if you attack one the other will back them up.

  • Drumlins Rock

    PS, wondered would you pick up on that one Greenflag lol

  • New Yorker

    Greenflag, you are assuming that democracy is the best system of government for Northern Ireland. My point is that that is a dubious assumption. While the ‘evolution’ to democratic politics is taking place, you need competent people to manage delivery of services to the people. The water crisis highlighted just how incompetent your ministers are and their placement is due to a bad system of government. What are you going to do until sufficient evolution occurs? Go back to outside privies and hedge schools?

    The question about the quality of personnel in NI parties is are they attracting your society’s best and brightest? Obviously not. It is my experience that most people in NI are turned off by current political parties and their antics. Serious people pay as little attention as possible and get on with things in spite of the politics. Some, I’m sure, see it as a social welfare system for politicians who could not get gainful employment otherwise.

    Drumlins Rock, How many Protestants are in SF and how many Catholics in the DUP? That is the polarization referenced. Your parties are largely based on identity rather than ideas or policies. Comprehend, thicko?

  • Greenflag

    New Yorker,

    I haven’t given up on democracy in NI just yet or the current attempt to approximate a less than ‘pure’ democracy via the convoluted mandatory power sharing system . The ‘polarization’ you refer to preceded the existence of the present NI State and will continue even if and /or when the current NI State no longer exists .
    But we can hope that with increasing political stability and secularisation that at least the sectarian division between most people in NI will lessen over time until at some point it will become irrelevant to all but a tiny minority.

    As for the personnel in NI parties ? You might want to broaden your point to the personnel in all parties on these islands and indeed to the personnel in the elected governments of the western world and their economic advisors this past decade or two .

    Their ‘lack of ideas’ re resolving the current worldwide economic , monetary and currency chaos makes NI’s water crisis look like an insignificant dot on a map.

    BTW they are NOT my Ministers . In the Republic we have our own ‘incompetents’ who were as aware of what was happening in the world and in the Irish economy in the period 2002 through 2010 as I am of the mating habits of the tsetse fly 🙁

    About the only western governments that seem to have retained popular confidence in the recent decade were those of the Scandinavian countries , Canada and Australia .

    Here’s an excerpt from the late Horseman’s site
    which brings numerical rigour to the ‘competent ‘ politician comparison.

    Thanks to Gerard O’Neill of Turbulence Ahead for publishing yet another of the international comparisons that allow us to see how well – or badly – we are doing compared to other western countries.

    This one looks at our image of politicians. Needless to say it doesn’t include Northern Ireland separately, but it would be surprising if Northern Irish people trusted their politicians any more than the average western European.

    But one country stands out, as almost always in comparative surveys, no matter what the topic – Sweden.

    In Sweden 43.8% of people have a ‘rather favourable’ opinion of their politicians, compared with an EU average of 12.4%. And only 18.4% of Swedes have a ‘rather unfavourable’ opinion, against the EU average of 55.4%.

    Swedes are not foolish people, and are no more likely to be fooled by their politicians than anyone else, so what these results show is that Swedish politicians are simply better than any others. If their voters have a positive opinion of them it must be because they are more honest, more diligent, more representative and more efficient than any others.

    And, of course, good politicians lead to good politics and good governance – and these lead, almost inevitably, to a more responsive state in which the needs of the people are served better than elsewhere. No wonder Sweden is close to the top of the list in almost every international comparison, whether it is looking at freedom, affluence, education, development or happiness.

    Whatever it is that Swedish politicians are doing, they are doing it well, and their voters are happy with them. We need to learn from them.

    GF comment ,

    Horseman did not mention the fact that Sweden has not been in a war either foreign or domestic (other than in a peacekeeping role ) for over 350 years which some might say plays a role in their ‘political’ competency.

  • Brian

    “If we, in this tiny little place, can provide water in a crisis we’re some way ahead of this massive superpower who couldn’t provide water, or anything else, to people in New Orleans for nearly a week.”

    Way to compare apples to apples. LOL

  • Greenflag

    @ drumlin ,
    If you are going to pronounce on my views on repartition best to consult the archives first . IIRC we had several hundred comments on the subject . Only the brightest commentators agreed with my then ‘analysis’. 😉 I don’t intend raising or commenting on the subject again until such time as the present Assembly ‘collapses’ I’m sure there will be comment on the results of the May elections and on the NI census update when the results are in. But don’t hold your breath.

  • There has been much analysis, made mainly from those sympathetic to direct rule right it has to be said, before now along these lines.

    Not a squeak from Walker on the subject (in fact if anything he’s been gushing in his defence) until his mate needs a book flogged.


  • Drumlins Rock

    Greenflag, the census shall be interesting when read alongside the election, espically as i’m guessing the turnout differentials are starting to even off, ie. the west is dropping to “normal” turnouts of around 60%.
    As for democracy, as Churchill said its the worst system of government know to man, with the exception of everything else he has tried. Personally I’m still a fan and would prefer Conor Murphy to the direct rule minister, only 2 or 3 of them ever seemed to pay any attention to thier jobs apart from using it as a step up in their career.

  • Greenflag

    Agreed DR . The ‘experiment’ has been underway a mere 200 years i.e popular democracy . Former Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En Lai when asked in the 1970’s before the ‘opening up’ of China by the far sighted Nixon/Kissinger combo , about how he viewed the results of the French Revolution said it was still too early to say .

    You can’t blame the Direct Rule ministers as they had their home constituencies in Hartlepool or Oldham or Tunbridge wells to keep an eye on . While local involvement , participation and accountability seems to work best it can be overdone at the expense of the ‘national ‘ or bigger picture . In this respect in the Republic we have exaggerated the local at the expense of the national which is why ‘high calibre ‘ candidates first have to compete with factions at the local constituency level and even if elected have to mind their p’s and q’s and not upset any other faction within the same party or a few hundred ‘personally disaffected’ voters can make the difference between election and defeat .

    Whether what we call democracy will be able to withstand the economic and political pressures of the globalisation age is imo debateable . The ever concentrating power of international capital will increasingly exert pressures on democracies small and large which as of now the politicians of all nations seem unable and/or unwilling to face -thus the G-20 current stand off between the USA , China and Germany 🙁

  • New Yorker


    Northern Ireland has a population of well under two million and is a province. The political system is hugely out of proportion for a province of that size. Add to that parties based on identity and the incompetence of ministers, and it is clear that reconfiguring is what is required to run the place properly. NI sends MPs to Westminster and that is where the major decisions of the democracy are made.

    As to politicians in the Republic, you have my sympathy. Politics there seem to attract a high percentage of crooks and liars. Just consider the statements about the conversations at Druid’s Glen and it is obvious that they either think people are stupid, don’t give a damn or are habitual liars who know no difference between truth and falsehood. As in NI, the quality of personnel in politics there is dismal at best.

  • Mark

    New Yorker ,

    Bang on about the politicans in the south . They’re a dreadful shower.

    The executive in the North is still quite young and as posted above , doesn’t always get the credit it deserves . It’s a unique environment where critics are always waiting for the next thing to go wrong . The encouraging part is that the two main protagonists ( SF & DUP ) are starting to work together and show example to others .

    This can lead to great things .Once people start to trust eachother and stop worrying about sectarianism , the politicans can concentrate on real issues and the community can prosper and grow . The younger generation will be encouraged to stay and contribute and people can start to feel proud again about this great part of the world we live in .

  • Greenflag

    @New Yorker,

    Yes all very true re the current NI system but that’s what works for now- however imperfectly or inefficiently. I think Mark above at 8.19 am hits the right note as to one way out of the NI sectarian cul de sac .

    As to your comments re the Republic’s politicians you omitted to mention ‘arrogance’ . I recall a time when TD’s and Ministers were berated for their poor performance back in the mid 1980’s during the then self engendered debt crisis and the answer at least from some of our ‘free marketeers’ of the time was – If you pay only peanuts you’ll attract only ‘monkeys ‘.

    And so the taxpayers of Ireland decided to pay the ‘monkeys ‘ even more – so much more in fact that our Taoiseach earned more than British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and as not more than a few tens of thousands behind the USA President .

    Greed , overweening avarice and self seeking blind stupidity and above all an arrogance that one would normally associate with colonial rule 🙁

    BTW ‘paying them more ‘ did’nt work . It just attracted an even more selfish cadre of those who prefer to live off OPM (other people’s money -i.e the taxpayer) .It’s always interesting to note that those in politics on the far right in the UK and USA and in Ireland are very reticent when mention is made of the fact that they too are on the public purse .

  • New Yorker

    Mark, I admire your optimism but do not share it. I do not think the NI Executive is working well nor do I think it capable of doing so. If new parties that were based on ideas and policies and not identity developed, I’d be more hopeful: For now it is the tired old burnt out parties without any good ideas or people who would come up with them. I think it is better to have a really well managed system of delivery of services and let new groupings and parties organically grow.

    Greenflag, I did not mention arrogance as it assumed a’holes are by nature arrogant. Fintan O’Toole has a good chapter on the politicians in “Ship of Fools” and the insane amounts they paid themselves. As I recall, it was that they thought they created the conditions for the Celtic Tiger and should therefore reward themselves by grabbing princely sums and aristo artifacts and rules that apply to the plebs but not them. You should have a law that no current office holder can run for any office. You might lose a few decent people, but you would clear out much trash.

  • Drumlins Rock

    New yorker,
    relectant to do this but have to do the old American comparison, firstly NI is bigger population wise than at least half a dozen States, and probably not that much more over-governed than they are. As for the political parties, hopefully someday more normal voting patterns will evolve, and I dont think that is a pipedream, but is a long term aim. In the meantime the system is workable, we have a main party and an opposition within both sectors, and a not insignificant centre ground, it is democratic enough for now in that give people a real choice, the the problem mainly are in the management of the executive and some sort of fix is needed there to improve accounability.
    However back to the US of A, frankly when I visited 5 yrs ago I was shocked by how divisive the politics had become, and can only imagine it has got worse since, so yanks have little room to lecture us.

  • Mark

    New Yorker ,

    The executive has found it hard to flourish against the backdrop of the troubles . It hasn’t been easy . Don’t believe everything you read from the vultures in Fleet street .

    The optimism stems from supporting Dublin in the GAA .

  • New Yorker

    Drumlins Rock and Mark, I hope you are right but fear not. I’ not basing my thoughts on what Fleet Street writes but my own experience.

  • RedTurtle

    @New Yorker re democracy

    180 degrees wrong. The GFA arrangements are designed to specifically not be democratic, in the grossest sense and hence the sense that matters most. This is because republicans / nationalists would not accept normal democracy within a boundary that they consider artificial, gerrymandered etc. just as unionists would not accept a democracy bounded by what they would see as an artificial non-nation such as an all Ireland.

  • RedTurtle

    @Drumlins Rock

    as for comparisions to Bosnia, apart from Greenflag I dont think anyone really want more repartition.

    I wonder can we have all the republicans condemning the recent election in South Sudan and how the artificial statelet of South Sudan will inevitably fall etc.? (tongue in cheek)

  • Los Lobos

    Good debate guys, as one who lived in the USA for six years i would have to agree with New Yorker regarding the politics of NI. We think we have a democracy in this country – we don’t! What we have is a plutocracy – where people fear the politicians and each other. The ideology of “nationalism” (British and Irish) dominates the identity issue in Northern Ireland, hense real political discourse cannot get its head above water. This was specifically inbuilt into the GFA in order that we pretend that we are masters of our own destiny, nothing could be further from the truth. Any Government is only as strong as the oppositon that is hunting and harring them every day in the Chamber, that does not happen when all the major parties are in Government together. During the “troubles” when it was announced that someone had lost their life there was always that 3 to 4 second delay after his/her name was read out to see if they were one of ours. The same exists when election results are announced today, “was it one of ours who won”? Doesn’t matter if we like them or vote for them, the point is that the other side didn’t win. Thats how mature we are here in NI. We are professional at covering up our Sectarianism, we can chuckle together, pray together, even hop into bed together (politically speaking), however our underlining hatred of whatever we percieve “the other” to be is never challanged in any meaningfull way. It is never challanged because its what ths system needs. Can you imagine if we had a real Coaliation government? One that was elected on merit and not whatever flag they put on their election manifesto? No? Me either, it won’t happen, specifically because we don’t have democracy in NI, just con artists who have deluded themselves as well as most of the community that they have the walfare of their voters at heart.

  • Greenflag

    @los Lobos ,

    A bit late in your comment -Time moves on . At least in Northern Ireland despite their ‘nationality’ issues and the fact of diametrically opposed constitutional aspirations -both sides do at least recognise the ‘other’ as being in existence . they may not like each other or vote across tribal lines but they can share a joke and play a round of golf or have a quiet jar etc.

    On the other hand I read that one of the GOP candidates -the leading one in fact a Newt Gingrich has decided that the Palestinians don’t exist anymore .

    I guess it’ll only be a matter of time before Gingrich concludes that there is no such people as Northern Ireland people nor Irish people nor British people nor Germans etc etc as we are all Europeans just like the Palestinians are just Arabs like the Saudis , Omanis ,Iraqis , Morroccans etc etc .

    Jesus wept 🙁

  • Mary Anna

    There is real peace now lol stormont NI. The dictators rule and the fascists don’t want to hear the truth – got what they wanted power greed and control over the most vulnerable – now the sinners both sides have shared expenses- between Sin/f sociopaths and DUP =don’t upset the provos All is sweet NI after blowing the nation to bits- wrecking families destroying trust- but the so called second class citizens are building their empires- Nazis have not gone away ye know!

  • New Yorker

    Los Lobos

    How true when you state “We are professional at covering up our Sectarianism, we can chuckle together, pray together, even hop into bed together (politically speaking), however our underlining hatred of whatever we percieve “the other” to be is never challanged in any meaningfull way.” For an outsider it is very evident that that is a major feature of life and, more so, politics there. It may be that the politics are behind most of the people in terms of separation of the two major communities. However, unionists will never vote for SF and republicans will never vote for unionists. The only parties with any possible claim to be cross community are Alliance and, in a very small way, SDLP. So, it might be that there is an opening for a truly cross community party that is merit based and is not imprisioned by 19th century doctrines of republicanism and unionism.