Why further tinkering with the NI settlement could be politically dangerous

In the Irish News this morning Brian Feeney takes aim at those who, like Mark Durkan, have highlighted the ‘ugly scaffolding’ set in place (if modified by the St Andrews Agreement) as a key problem in the move towards settled politics.

He argues that “any political scientist worth his salt can recognise the north for what it is, an ethno political problem”. And from that axiomatic premise he continues, “the key feature of all such ethno political solutions, imperfect though they may be, is that each side is guaranteed a fair crack of the whip”.

He then goes on to warn ominously that the consequences for Unionism in trying to untie the strings attached at the signing of the Belfast Agreement, could be disasterous at some point in the future. It’s classic Prisoners Dilemma territor of the type we laid out back in 2003:

In a Prisoner’s Dilemma, two players are locked together in a game where, on each move, they choose either to ‘cooperate’ with each other or to ‘defect’ – a selfish and hostile act. If one defects and the other cooperates, then the former is highly rewarded and the latter gets nothing (the sucker’s payoff). If both defect, stalemate results and each receives very little (which is better than nothing).

If both cooperate, they each receive a middle reward. ‘Although there is mutual benefit if you both cooperate,’ Robert Axelrod explains in his account of the game, ‘as an individual player, it is rational for you to defect if you think the other player will cooperate (you get a high reward) and to defect if you think the other player will defect (you at least get a low reward). That is the dilemma.’

Mapping Northern Ireland’s politics onto the Prisoner’s Dilemma is straightforward. The big prize for unionists is the unqualified and unchallenged maintenance of the Union; for nationalists, the chance to move unchallenged to a similarly unqualified united Ireland.

But these outcomes are mutually exclusive and can be achieved only if one side pursues its goal ruthlessly while the other acquiesces totally, receiving only the sucker’s payoff. When both sides pursue their objective without regard for the other, stalemate ensues and both sides suffer.

Feeney’s warning is that the ennui (and in some cases, downright frustration) felt now by many of the losers in the peace process cannot be gamed out of by further tinkering with the rules.

So it’s more, “we are where were are”… rather than “if I heading towards good government then I wouldn’t start from..”

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty