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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  • Andrew Gallagher

    The trick is to keep the safeguards, but reweight the incentives so that parties are encouraged to reach across the divide for both members and votes. Here’s one I wrote earlier:


  • tmitch57

    In 1998 I spoke with Lord Alderdice, the newly-minted Assembly speaker and former Alliance leader, who was very critical of the whole architecture of the GFA settlement. I disagreed with him as I thought that it merely recognized political reality. But as American academic political scientist Donald Horowitz noted it gave no incentives for change by not rewarding those who voted for moderate cross-community parties like the Women’s Coalition and Alliance or even moderate sectarian parties like the SDLP and the UUP. Instead the settlement encouraged ethnic outflanking in which parties and politicians would attempt to gain advantage by being more sectarian than their rivals within their own sectarian camp. Naturallly Sinn Fein and the DUP proved more adept at this approach than did the SDLP and the UUP, as the latter two parties favored cooperation with the other side and power sharing.

    To correct this situation legislation should be introduced in the Assembly and Westminster that requires all parties participating in the Executive to gain X percentage of votes from the Other side of the sectarian divide. This would serve to house train both Sinn Fein and the DUP and give more of a chance to their more moderate sectarian rivals and to the cross-community Alliance Party.

  • chrisjones2

    or limit the number of petitions of concern to say 6 per party per session. That would force some real politics into the system

  • chrisjones2

    Cut the pay and expenses by 10% every time a POC is deployed. Now there is a real incentive

  • Kevin Breslin

    Don’t blame the system, blame the politicians and indeed the electorate. There’s been changes to the GFA by the DUP and Sinn Féin, and these have been moved to council level. People vote for alternatives, change happen. Look at Stephen Agnew … getting a Children’s Bill through the house.

    Look at the ugly scaffolding introduced to local government that wasn’t there before RPA. Let’s grow up a bit and realise to some major extent this is what the people want otherwise they’d vote for everything the cynics say they are not getting from the politicians, rather than waiting for systems, parties and the political climate to change.

    Here’s a radical way around this problem to deal with the conflict.

    Argue, Debate, Compromise, Take joint responsibility, Take joint action … as you would in any coalition or indeed within a one party government.

  • Nevin

    “Under the current institutions, political conflict is here to stay – Craig Harrison writes for us on the current political institutions and the inability of policy-makers to find solutions to key problems”

    Pearse put it more succinctly a century ago:

    .. while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.

    Talk of policies is an irrelevancy so long as there’s no agreed constitutional arrangement. Nationalist politicians will continue to poke unionists in the eye re.Northern Ireland and each other in the eye re.Ireland [the state] – and unionist ones will continue to poke back.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    I like your sense of optimism but I think this is an expectation that is only borne out by the exception rather than the rule. My instinct and experience of the wee six is that when left to its own devices it is ineluctably drawn into inflicting a protracted implosion on itself until the grown-ups intervene and restore order (or even introduce more mayhem). I have held the view for some time that the GFA and its institutions have run their course. It was of its time because we were a war weary people who had a hunger for something else. Nearly 20 years later it should not be unthinkable to consider scrapping it and replacing it with another something else.
    Within a new structure, forces can be set up that necessitate integration and more importantly the profound psychological change that impels the population to more confident, mature, constructive, optimistic and flexible thinking even incorporating the C word you mention: ‘compromise’.
    Harrison is correct when he says that “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”. Furthermore this imagined “mutual respect” or “letsgetalongerist” model allows for a lot of opportunisitc passive-aggressive behaviour and endless propaganda victories. It all serves to entrench many into an already intransigent and fearful position.
    After moving back here 5 years ago, my own sense of the problems of the post GFA generation was confirmed by several astute observers, namely: there are kids who are more bitter than many of those that survived the worst of the conflict. This has to have come about for a reason.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    We can also hope for DUP & SF to continue the wider and habitual self destructive behaviour of NI. If they should decline electorally then we either get a political vacuum, presenting us with an opportunity to replace the project with something more reflective of where we are now or simply that parties closer to neutrality on the spectrum take their place. Ultimately these 2 parties have no long term future unless they radically re-invent themselves.

  • tmitch57

    Maybe that’s the best that can be done at this point in time. But if they ever decide to scrap the whole system they might want to consult Donald Horowitz of Duke University Law School before they institute a replacement system. He has definitely found the weaknesses of consociational approaches.

  • aquifer

    PRSTV is a queer and perverse system. When the status of the whole NI constituency is the only political question, the requirement for proportionality should apply to it, not to individual sub-constituencies. e.g. There should be a top-up so that the numbers of members reflects the overall strength of their parties.