Has the model of the GFA itself resulted in the impasse?

Paddy Wilson is a Postgraduate student at Queens University Belfast and a member of the Workers Party. 

On Monday, David McCann gave his assessment of the political impasse between the former parties of the Executive and made the pertinent point that;

“when debating whether its’ a failure, let’s compare it to the alternatives, not the Almighty.”

Outside the remits of any deity, the GFA is a creation of people. I don’t believe that any system or solution that we create will be perfect and the GFA certainly isn’t. So, I’m taking the approach David advocates. Let’s consider the GFA and compare it to an alternative.

The particular power-sharing theory offered by the GFA is that of Consociationalism. Developed by the political theorist Arendt Ljiphart, he advocated a ‘Grand Coalition’ of parties, with mutual vetoes for competing groups in a society. These parties would be elected by proportionality and decision-making was to be made at the level of ‘elites’, those deemed to be the leaders of the competing groups. Finally, there would be ‘segmental autonomy’ for the groups, allowing self-rule in certain areas, or even federalism.

These aspects are born out in the GFA. Mandatory coalition with d’Hondt selection of ministers creates the Grand Coalition, PR-STV ensures proportionality, secret negotiations around the various agreements since GFA are conducted entirely at elite level and the example of ‘Shared Learning’ in NI is an example of segmental autonomy.

None of this was new thinking in 1998. Indeed, the solution offered to NI has not radically changed since the Whitelaw’s green paper “The Future of Northern Ireland” in 1972. It discussed the various options to increase the participation of “the Northern Ireland minority” in the political system. It makes reference to strong committees with chairs assigned proportionately, as we have in the Assembly, and provides several options for sharing executive power, with article 60.b ‘Proportional Representation government’ being the solution chosen.

There were many variations, amendments, successes and defeats for this model but throughout Sunningdale, The NI Constitutional Convention, the Assembly of 1982-86, the Brooke/Mayhew talks and the Forum talks, the substance of what was on offer never changed. For 46 years, we have tried to apply the same basic solution to NI. It is foolish to ignore the successes of the GFA, but the political process has stalled again. Does the problem lie with the model?

Criticisms of the Consociational model are best outlined by Paul Dixon. He describes the elite leadership aspect as “constitutional engineering from above”. The segmental autonomy and proportionality of elections encourage segregation of Nationalists and Unionists. The parties, with the small exception of those who designate ‘Other’, compete to secure the vote of their segregated community. Those who most valiantly defend the interests of that community usually win. It also promotes a restriction, rather than an expansion of democracy. As Dixon explains;

“Consociationalism requires … the full control by the parties of recruitment of candidates; the insulation of elites from their constituents and secrecy.”

So what is the alternative? Both Dixon and Robin Wilson have advocated a ‘bottom-up’ Civic and integrationist approach to counter the top-down segregationism of our present model. This was briefly implemented in the watered down and later prorogued Civic Forum present in the GFA. However, if given the appropriate resources and powers, a democratic forum gives voice to churches, trade unions, community groups, as well as the political parties.

It would take the discourse out of the exclusive realm of politicians and encourage wider political participation. It would help with increasing contact between communities and people who live feet from each other but remain fearful because of sectarian one-upmanship stoked by our present arrangement.

Representation could be ensured for women, BAEM, LGBT+, youth, pensioners and other under represented people in society, alongside Nationalism and Unionism. Programmes could and should be funded to further encourage integrated education and to counter ‘revisionist’ histories that are created in both communities.

This sort of work goes on already, it just needs to be elevated and promoted. An example was provided in the Irish Times recently. It interviewed women coming together in a cross-community group in the Shankill Womens’ Centre. One of the women summed it up;

“It’s not fair. We put our trust in them and all we get is one-upmanship. I think it suits the politicians to push a them-and-us thing. We get along. Why can’t they?”

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.