Northern Ireland Assembly Election of March 2017 and the Limitations of Pragmatism

In a deeply divided society such as Northern Ireland political developments tend to be filtered through a number of lenses and experienced at a number of levels – arguably to an even greater degree than is the case in other, less fractious countries.

Brexit has no doubt played a major role in mobilizing Northern nationalism, which has swung from one of its worst electoral results to one of its best in less than a year.

Of course, perceptions of the DUP’s governmental arrogance, as framed by Sinn Fein, and its purported unbound idiocy in supporting Brexit are related and perhaps analytically distinct causes.

But of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation and at the risk of indulging in provincialism, it may be helpful to look at the political landscape from the Northern Irish end of the lens.

This may allow us to see that Nicola Sturgeon’s push for a second independence referendum isn’t simply a product of anger and felt-betrayal at the May administration. It might also be seen as a typical separationist reflex.

The history of ‘constitutional’ nationalism in Northern Ireland, for instance, has been one of repeated attempts to destabilize settlement processes to its own advantage.

John Hume, for instance, left Brian Faulkner high and dry in his efforts at reforming Stormont in 1971 (over the shooting of two Catholics by the British army over which Faulkner had no power, and prior to the introduction of internment).

He and Garret FitzGerald pushed an ‘Irish dimension’ that unnerved not only Unionists but also his SDLP colleagues a few years later in the Sunningdale period and he turned away from talking with Unionists to cultivate a relationship with Gerry Adams and Provisional republicanism after the Anglo-Irish Agreement – again, to the dismay of his senior colleagues.

So, far from pursuing a vision of ‘harmony’ and ‘unity between people’ as one columnist has recently averred, the Humean approach was determinedly one-sided and, arguably, even myopic in its vision.

This is important for the current impasse at Stormont because the power-sharing institutions were largely modelled on Hume’s rhetoric and the push towards some kind of internal settlement – originated from Northern nationalism (albeit with the intention of transcending any agreement).

The consociational apparatus that transpired – in which power was actually divided and policed through a system of ethnic vetoes – in the 1998 Agreement has seemingly ground to a halt for some of the reasons outlined above.

But, again, to view events through a kind of Northern Irish lens rather than the framings of our political classes might suggest a certain inevitable fragility based on the limitations of pragmatism.

I understand pragmatism to refer to a way of dealing with problems with a degree of sensitivity, sensibility and realism. Perhaps more specifically or to use less contestable language: to approach issues in a practical fashion in preference to theoretical considerations.

It might be clearer still to suggest that pragmatism involves a desire to leave aside oppositional or incommensurable ideological differences to try to find areas of fluidity and understanding.

In some ways, this is what the 1998 institutions required: a regulation of relationships based on the awareness of difference and the displacement of (ideological) division (see, for instance, paragraph 2 of the declaration of support).

But what happens if that understanding itself loses its compulsion; what happens if politicians lose faith in the governing narrative of compromise?

From this, Northern Irish perspective, we might suggest that the paradox of consociationalism seems to be that institutions can regulate and/or manage conflict as long as they guarantee enough compromises.

Furthermore, the paradox might be that the division of power separates responsibility; and that this paradox reproduces itself until the deferral of responsibility outweighs the benefits – and deficits – of compromise.

Once the optics of compromise and the faith in displacement are lost, the understanding on which institutions are built becomes unsustainable. In other words, when the compromisers no longer believe in sustaining compromises the then fundamental power separation pulls apart.

As far as I can see, there are no alternatives being promoted. Perhaps none exist: And perhaps this is the ultimate (Northern Irish) lesson of Brexit – namely, that compromise, concession and belonging are ultimately transactional; and, especially, when it comes to separationist movements like Northern Irish and Scottish nationalism, they take precedence over any kind of kinship or historic affiliation or attachment.

The reason that no alternatives exist, however, may also be related to the possibility that, for both the DUP and the Tory government, pragmatism isn’t enough: emotion and even magical thinking are seemingly uppermost factors in political considerations.

But these too are, unsurprisingly, insufficient. As Linda Colley pointed out in her recent history of the various unions that make up the UK, the repeated failure of government to articulate a broad, ‘well thought-out and steady commitment to the whole – and a vision of what that is – as well as a recognition of and concessions to the component parts’ has meant that the UK has proceeded at various speeds since (at least) 1945.

When a feeling of alienation from that trajectory is coupled with separationist tendencies to try to continuously revise institutional settlements to tilt the playing field then everything is to play for and the rules of the game can be usefully ignored.

In other words, this, then, is the end of pragmatism, what follows is another matter.


  • “Perhaps more specifically or to use less contestable language: to approach issues in a practical fashion in preference to theoretical considerations.” I always thought that politicians were at their best when they pursued a worthwhile vision. Surely the notion of ‘making things work’ as distinct from trying to further one’s own political objectives is to opt for don’t-ask-me-I-only-work-here school of political thought.

  • chrisjones2

    Which is why this form of Government cannot work . There is no shared overarching vision of what we want to create. The policy differences are almost all defined in sectarian terms, not driven by an underpinning politiucal philosophy (beyond being opposed to themuns)_

  • Brian Walker

    Cillian, Great to have you here! You’re clearly no fan of balance, which is often a prominent feature of pragmatism. Balance between two points is not intrinsically neutral ; it depends where the two points selected are located.

    On the detail, the atmosphere had greatly degenerated and an ever lengthening backlog of grievance had built up. Faulkner’s puny attempts at reform, well meant and under pressure, took place in another world of remote Stormont. Few thought at the time expected that say, a parliamentary committee system for the SDLP would subdue the enrages on both sides – including the diehards demanding tougher security in his own party. Some in the infant SDLP to my knowledge opposed withdrawal from Stormont in 1971 after the shootings of Cusack and Beattie but Hume as the local MP was reckoned to have the moral authority to impose his will – not for the last time. It won’t be forgotten that the escalating violence had its own momentum which grossly inhibited political development. Even so 1973-4 was a considerable achievement which proved to fragile to last.

    This is not the place to develop it but I would argue that Hume kept seeking a balance between what he regarded as an asymmetrical situation whereby nationalists became even more squeezed by the weight of unionism supported by the UK government than by the old Stormont alone. Others of course saw it quite differently. He sought more leverage with what you call Humeism, first by drawing in the main Dublin parties and then by Hume/Adams and finally by the brief phenomenon of united nationalism.

    Consocialtionalism I observe to quite good as pressurising parties together but not so good at keeping them there – which is what you conclude I believe. Its weakness is that nationalism has the counter attraction of unity whereas unionism tried and failed to develop integration. This ceased to be even a theoretical option after 1997 with the birth of devolution for Scotland and Wales.

    Perhaps we are experiencing the natural slow rhythm of power sharing NI- style which will continue indefinitely ? Perhaps the consociationai squeeze will continue to work even if at a slower pace, with gaps? The historic compromise may well survive the gaps by default. In my view all the thrashing around about jointery and unionist -nationalist role reversal is displacement activity, solutions in search of a defined problem.

    The GFA contains all the dimensions necessary. The metro governments favour it because it keeps the place at arms length particularly for as long as NI is an outlier of the main parties in London and Dublin. Manifestly cross border Sinn Fein cannot deliver alone but they plainly have influence. If however the party system at Westminster frays further, unionism acquires a little more leverage and Northern Ireland becomes a little less exceptional.

  • mickfealty

    It’s interesting you see it in such hot zero sum terms Jude. Perhaps going into government and doing stuff asks the near impossible of the pure ideologue, stretched endlessly between Cuomo’s Poetry and Prose, or the contrary demands of popular protest and unpopular government.

    None of these tensions are absent in any form of government. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian today absolutely excoriates Theresa May for letting her Chancellor go to her bank bench dogs on the purist reason that his handling of a hike in NI contributions for the self employed broke their manifesto.

    Here the two parties who are outwardly loyal to the institutions set up under international treaty seem not to be able to find the means or the will to make them work because they seem unable to entertain even the modicum of pragmatism this incredibly rigid system – they both contributed to the design of – requires to make it work.

    It’s government by breakdown and it’s been distinctive feature from the get go. Part of the problem is it’s just that easy to ditch the whole thing and get rewarded for it. What if, as Chris Donnelly has continually argued on Slugger there was a way to develop pragmatic steps that built broad confidence in a nationalist led government that developed N/S relations to the point a UI became desirable?

    People used to deride the late Bob Cooper (I used to clean his windows, back in the day) for his tame engagement on employment discrimination. But within ten years of hard diligent work (and the law to back him) he had begun to turn that tanker round almost single handedly with his pragmatic approaches.

    But off course the ould tribal boots are well worn in and much more comfortable to wear.

  • Deeman

    NI doesn’t work. Chris has seen the light. Join the campaign for a border poll Chris.

  • the moviegoer

    Isn’t the problem fundamentally that NI is too small to have a government? Powersharing is not a solution to the conflict as much as it is a symptom of it.

    Carson warned against a parliament in Stormont and it only seems to have been set up as a counterbalance to the new Dublin parliament, to give both parts of Ireland the same prestige. It was never designed to be a country really so treating it like one perhaps requires too much of a suspension of disbelief for nationalists.

    Unionists don’t have the same problem pretending because the status quo is not neutral, it’s in their favour. It’s an extension of Britain.

    Perhaps with close to 50:50 representation joint authority is the right experiment to try now. If everything’s basically an extended gateway drug to a united Ireland, wouldn’t that give unionists the best indication of what to expect? Or even prove to be the most pragmatic permanent solution outside of a UI?

  • Nevin

    “So, far from pursuing a vision of ‘harmony’ and ‘unity between people’ as one columnist has recently averred, the Humean approach was determinedly one-sided and, arguably, even myopic in its vision.”

    Here are two brief snippets from John Hume’s Personal Views which give a context for John’s analysis:

    Anglo-Irish Agreement
    p44 … it made it implicitly clear that Britain has no interest of her own, strategic or otherwise, in remaining in Ireland and that Irish unity is a matter for those Irish people who want it persuading those Irish people who do not.
    p126 … such agreement between Unionists and Nationalists in Ireland should be much easier than it was fifty years ago

    The unionist aspiration that NI remains part of the UK doesn’t feature in his world; unionists are merely a tradition on the island, a misguided minority.

    His 3-strand analysis confused his SDLP colleagues. When I asked them in the early 90s where the relationship between NI and the rest of the UK featured some said Strand 1, others Strand 3. In his analysis Dublin would have spoken for the island in Strand 3 and Belfast would have had a devolved administration under Dublin control. His conception of ‘harmony’ and ‘unity between people’ was implicitly about minorities knowing their place in Catholic Ireland, the island.

    “he turned away from talking with Unionists to cultivate a relationship with Gerry Adams and Provisional republicanism after the Anglo-Irish Agreement”

    It’s my understanding that John essentially provided cover for Charlie Haughey during the evolution of the Redemptorist ‘Stepping Stones’ process. The 3-stranded 1998 Agreement is closer to my analysis than to John’s.

  • Df M

    Joint authority would be a recipe for future instability. Also with one state in the EU and another outside, the practicalities would be too messy.

  • the moviegoer

    Why would it be a recipe for future instability? The only hope for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU is joint authority.

  • eamoncorbett

    All but a couple of contributors to this site believe JA won’t work, some say it’s not in the GFA , some say it’s too complex , others argue ,who’ll pay what . Dublin is like it or not now deeply involved in the affairs of NI , just today Kenny was urging Trump to deploy an envoy and warning about deadlock in the institutions . I’m pretty damn sure he didn’t consult May on this in the same way that Ireland was sidelined on Brexit . With Nationalism and Unionism almost in a dead heat , the constitutional issue will loom even larger in the psyche of the people at the top . Unionism will undoubtedly resist any move to JA citing the GFA , but if the border remains the Rhinoceros in the Volkswagen and an obstacle to political progress , someday this issue will need addressing.

  • the moviegoer

    JA is the only pragmatic short-term solution. All other solutions aren’t pragmatic, they’re ideological, even if proposed by people who think they’re above ideology.

  • chrisjones2

    Im voting for Direct Rule though tonight Enda says he has been promised by Brokenshire that its is NOT an option. How can the Governmnet say that? Endless elections until someone blinks?

  • mickfealty

    I see the principle, I’m not sure how it works. What everyone seems to be missing something important from Cillian’s analysis, and that’s the corollary of ideological loggerheads is administrative consensus. Deadlock, non delivery. Not sure what leverage such non performers would have, one to define JA and two to see it delivered.

  • the moviegoer

    Jesus, Mick, speak English. You live in England, don’t you? And why not respond to my post rather than Eamon’s? I’m sorry for gloating about how wrong you got the election result. Honest I am.

  • eamoncorbett

    So how do you reconcile the differences between the 2 main parties if only one government has complete authority. Do you seriously believe that SF will just give up on their ambition and co-operate fully in a British controlled NI . That ain’t never gonna happen and eventually this situation has to brought to a head.

  • the moviegoer

    Administrative consensus is this. All tax collected in NI is put into a fund. That fund is divided equally between Westminster and Dublin. They put that back, plus their own contribution, into NI.

  • the moviegoer

    Because they don’t care about you. You’re not English. Prepare for Joint Authority, Chris. We will be countrymen soon. BTW, Enda is Trump’s new best friend! Farage who?

  • ted hagan

    The author seems to have forgotten somewhere along the way that John Hume is an Irish nationalist.

  • burnboilerburn

    With respect to you man, you are most definately one of those who is opposed to themmuns.

  • eamoncorbett

    A joint version of the Maryfield secretariat to oversee the workings of Stormont would be a start . The effect would be to solve contentious issues if the MLAs could not agree. If a hard Brexit is imposed I have no doubt SF will respond with obstructionist politics. The real problem with Northern politics Mick is, there isn’t really anyone in charge , the various legislators detest each other , the Brits are no more than biased referees.
    Whilst most people would vote to remain in the U.K. in any referendum,the simple fact remains when it comes to election time , Nationalists in particular vote for a party that puts Irish unity above the governance of Northern Ireland.

  • Starviking

    But not supposed to be a hard-line nationalist.

  • Starviking

    First, there are plenty of countries smaller than NI. Second, with the passage of time NI has become distinct from the South, which is one factor in being a nation.

  • the moviegoer

    NI has become nothing but a pain in the hole to everyone concerned. SF/SDLP will come out strong for JA if they’ve any guts. At 50/50 there is no excuse. FF/FG are talking about a united Ireland but they would love JA at half the cost. That’s unionists’ next obstacle. It is your only hope.

  • Starviking

    NI might be a pain in the hole, but as far as I’m concerned it’s our pain in the hole. I doubt RoI or Westminster want to go for Joint Authority, and IMHO JA would make the Fleg protests look like a walk in the park.

  • mickfealty

    That’s an accurate description of where we are right now, I have to agree Eamonn. Another way of putting Cillian’s analysis is is rigid parties cannot work such a rigid system. Nor can they tolerate a loosening of said system.

    Would people be happy for NI to be run as a joint colony in perpetuity? It would be enormous act of cowardice on the part of any elected representatives who would actually pursue such an arrangement.

  • mickfealty

    Gloat away! It’s your basic human right!! ? Now, what was it you wanted me to say in response to yours that I’ve not already said to Eamonn?

  • mickfealty

    Thus the key reason Stormont keeps collapsing?

  • mickfealty

    Now you’re just making stuff up!!

  • the moviegoer

    Define “our”. It’s JA now or a UI later. Your choice.

  • the moviegoer

    Which JA would solve. Surely the solution? The only obstacle is unionist psychology, but that will always be an obstacle to overcome no matter what is proposed. A border poll might be defeated now, but how would a JA poll fare? Everyone wins, no?

  • the moviegoer

    Why couldn’t that work?

  • the moviegoer

    If it’s joint it won’t be seen as a colony though. It will be a new arrangement. It would be the benchmark for pragmatism.

  • mickfealty

    You might not see it like that, but that’s what it would be. The evil genius of the DUP backing Brexit is that despite the short term instability it created, it will make this more difficult to achieve/concede.

  • mickfealty

    The onus is on you surely, to explain how that would work?

  • chrisjones2

    Keep on trolling my friend ………

  • mickfealty

    Yes, it’s only going to one place.

  • chrisjones2

    Not at all ….I want us all to live in a fair and open society and believe the UK offers the best option

  • chrisjones2

    …and Irish and English taxpayers will support that of course

  • chrisjones2

    Direct Rule with more and more control devolved to the Councils seems the only logical alternative and the central services contacted out to private companies . The assembly is expesnive and the reality if we dont really need it to deliver high quality servcies – its more often an impediment

  • eamoncorbett

    Nationalists and Republicans would be really up for that one.

  • Df M

    SF’s ambitions in the Republic will determine their conduct in NI in the medium term. Right now, there is no incentive to rush back into the assembly — SF’s strategy will be shaped by the Brexit fall-out.

  • Df M

    I think the time is too late for joint authority. Perhaps if both states were EU members but Brexit has changed all that. Irish and UK interests are not always aligned either – a nice concept in theory perhaps but JA in practice would be very difficult to operate.

  • Df M

    Coalition governments in an All-Ireland state would be much more fun and productive. Unionist/FG v FF/SF bloc perhaps.

  • Gavin Smithson

    I agree with Chris

  • Gavin Smithson

    Why don’t we think outside the box and become a province of Canada

    I’m being serious. Scrap all the parties and start fresh ones. No more unionism and nationalism. It’s all so dull

    Liberals and their obsession with splicing together incompatible people. The irony is that liberals believe in divorce on demand for everyone – except for unhappy peoples trapped inside an unhappy territory

    LOok at Bosnia’s government . Goodness me. What a dogs breakfast. WOuodnt it just be easier to redraw borders and give the Serbs to Serbia?

    Why the obsession with keeping such constructs alive. Unless we have forced population movements or a border redraws there will never be a happy NI either in UK or UI

  • Gavin Smithson

    I actually like your elequent posts. Don’t let others dumb you down. They can get a dictionary

  • the moviegoer

    Under JA, NI is not a foreign country to ROI. Brussels could not realistically object to allowing NI residents with Irish citizenship the same right to work, travel and study in the EU as ROI residents. Ditto for protections under EU law. Customs is trickier but in terms of rights JA would give northern citizens legitimacy within the EU.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Great analysis of Hume and the separatist tilt. He was a deeply frustrating man.

    Oh and I have enjoyed your work, Cillian. Your “Beginners’ Guide” to the Northern Ireland Conflict is best in class – outstandingly well observed and succinct.

  • Katyusha

    Sure. And Cork is distinct from Not Cork (the rest of Ireland), which is one factor in being a nation.

  • Devil Éire

    Brian has charitably referred to Mick’s style as ‘elliptical’. Journalism (and related activities) is full of want-to-be stylists who could do with re-reading Politics and the English Language. Orwell’s recommendations share a lot with guidelines on clear scientific writing, for good reason (particularly ii and iii below):

    i. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

  • Fear Éireannach

    Brussels does not object to Irish citizens working in the EU, regardless of any joint authority.
    We do not need complex joint authority, we need special customs status and enough joint authority to get that to work.

  • Fear Éireannach

    Just pay removal expenses so the Brtiish can go to the place they identify with. They can replace all the Eastern Europeans.

  • the moviegoer

    The main impediment might be that nationalists fear it would set a precedent for British involvement in NI after a UI vote. Neither side sees NI as a place in and of itself, they see it as an extension of Britain or Ireland, so the droll functionalism of working the institutions will never appease the nationalist mindset unless the cross-border aspect is shored up significantly. With the electorate approaching 50:50 and the “greening” of NI, some of that shoring up must inevitably involve a degree of constitutionally recognized Dublin involvement. Furthermore, even falling short of a majority for a UI, 50:50 electoral representation allows nationalists to use JA as a viable bargaining chip both with unionists and Westminster.

  • Gavin Smithson

    Disgusting sectarian post

  • Kevin Breslin

    I disagree, pragmatism is almost necessary now. Brexit forces unpalatable co-operation with feasible and tangible problems.