Under the current institutions, political conflict is here to stay

Craig Harrison writes for us on the current political instutions and the inability of policy-makers to find solutions to key problems

The continuing impasse over welfare reform perhaps provides the most recent example of what ethnic politics can descend to, but it is by no means the first demonstration of this, and will certainly not be the last. What we should consider is the role the overarching political institutions in Northern Ireland play in producing these kind of disputes, and how different things could be under a new system.

When a consociational (or power-sharing) system was introduced in the Good Friday Agreement, few doubted it was necessary; indeed, it is highly unlikely a deal would have been struck at all had it not been for guarantees that both unionist and nationalist parties would gain representation. Nearly two decades on however, and it is high time we began to question just how compatible the power-sharing system is with a genuine transition toward the normalisation of politics.

By design, the institutions in Stormont produce a political culture divided on ethnic lines. When it is mandatory for political representatives to categorise themselves as either ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’ in the Assembly, this encourages and reproduces an ‘us versus them’ mentality, where politics is essentially conducted on Protestant-Catholic grounds.

Those parties who do compete on a cross-party platform are also disadvantaged by the system. When votes are taken in the Assembly that require cross-community support – including the election of the First and deputy First Ministers and other important issues – the votes of those who designate themselves as ‘others’ don’t carry as much weight as those of ‘unionists’ or ‘nationalists’.

In the institutions at Stormont then, we have a system that both privileges the adoption of sectarian labels and disadvantages those who refuse to conform to the identity politics that makes Northern Ireland such a unique political arena. If the end-goal of the peace process is the normalisation of politics where cross-community parties compete on tickets unrelated to traditional dividing lines – as it surely should be – then consociationalism seems to inhibit rather than help this.

If this all seems merely theoretical so far, examining most major political events in Northern Ireland shows how a divided political culture can manifest itself. Note, most obviously, the impasse over welfare remove, with unionist and nationalist parties on opposing sides of the argument, slinging mud. Also note Gerry Kelly’s controversial 2015 General Election leaflet, which provided a diagram on the Protestant and Catholic composition of North Belfast, and encouraged Sinn Fein supporters to help “Make the Change” from DUP control.

Politics in Northern Ireland is far from normal, and as long as the rules of the game encourage representatives to think of themselves as unionist or nationalist, Protestant or Catholic, it is difficult to see how it ever can be. We can’t suggest that disputes are solely caused by the consociational institutions, but bickering and conflict are certainly egged-on under a system that encourages political separation instead of efforts to find common ground. What remains to be seen is whether we can ever move toward a system that encourages integration, what this would look like.

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