Northern Ireland: what Einstein would have said

A "peace wall" in Belfast/Wikimedia

Events in recent weeks in Northern Ireland, including
a feud in the IRA in Belfast and tottering power-sharing institutions at
Stormont, have highlighted once more that, far from being a ‘post-conflict’
society with an ‘historic’ peace agreement, it remains a region in
pre-post-conflict mode where history isn’t over just yet.

This is not, however, due to the ‘ancient
hatreds’ often projected on to this complex canvas by the simplifying gaze of
superficial observers. Indeed, as the all-too-similarly dysfunctional nature of
post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina and Lebanon demonstrates, it is the consistent
application of this stereotyping perspective by representatives of the
‘international community’—the most powerful states with a regional
investment—which is the real problem, regardless of the fine-grained variety of
the cases in point. For it leads, as in all three related agreements—Belfast
(1998), Dayton (1995) and Taif (1989)—to the same outcome.

The first step is a conceptual hoovering up of
the unique individual diversity of the populace into communal tribes—Protestants
and Catholics; Serbs, Croats and ‘Bosniaks’; Maronites, Sunni and Shia Muslims—failing
to recognise the fundamental difficulty, as the late Italian political
scientist Norberto Bobbio pointed out, that every democratic constitution is based
on the individual citizen. The inevitable victim of this Realpolitik is universal norms: every human-rights convention,
including those enshrining minority rights, requires the individual to be the
rights-bearer; and the rule of law is meaningless unless state institutions are
impartial among diverse citizens. Yet what has really brought violence to an
end in another divided society, the Basque country, is that the Spanish state
has foregone the human-rights depredations of the earlier ‘dirty war’ and ETA
paramilitaries have been effectively, and legitimately, arraigned by the
justice system.

Having thus discredited all civic,
non-nationalistic forces in favour of a male-only, ethnic oligarchy, the second
step—this is where the agreements come in—is a hothouse negotiation which
throws these ethnic cartels into government with each other. Since the
negotiating parties have no commitment to the common interest and the public
good, they treat politics as the continuation of war by other means and ensure
deadlocking vetoes are built into the resultant pacts. By contrast, their
uninterest in economic and social divides offering alternative political cleavages means they fail miserably to
provide basic public services—as, in
, with the current ‘You stink’ protests in Beirut, over the
inability of the government there to stop rubbish piling up in the streets.

Government by cartel, with no universal
language and no public purpose, inevitably fails to work—indeed even sometimes
to exist. The 2010 election in Bosnia only issued in an actual state government
15 months later. And it took four and a half years after the first
post-agreement power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland collapsed—over
a previous IRA manifestation—before it was re-established in 2007.


But the superficial Westminster view of
Northern Ireland—that its decades of ‘troubles’ stemmed from the ‘men of
violence’, rather than a socially conservative (and certainly masculinist)
culture of intolerance, of which paramilitary violence is a symptom—has meant
successive governments have found themselves repeatedly validating Einstein’s
definition of madness: doing the same thing repeatedly in expectation of a
different outcome.

The British and Irish governments hope that
yet-further talks among the Northern Ireland executive parties will lead to a
renewed willingness to remain in government together, perhaps through the
revitalisation of a body like the Independent Monitoring Commission, set up in
2004 to reassure political Protestants (aka ‘unionists’—though they show no
interest whatever in British political life) that the IRA was going out of
business. But even before the latest killings—and this is not to diminish their
viciousness nor the concern that more may yet follow—it was evident that
Stormont was facing a slow-motion car crash over the inability of the parties
to agree on a range of issues dividing them along the critical sectarian

These did not only include the continuing
visceral battles over Protestant-communalist parades and Union flag-flying (in
a manner which happens nowhere else in the UK except on neo-fascist marches).
There is also the wider issue of healing the trauma of the recent past. On this
the representatives of small-C Catholic paramilitarism (aka the ‘republican
movement’—although no party in democratic Ireland recognises its legitimacy)
are fully aware of Orwell’s 1984 dictum ‘who controls the past controls the
future’, particularly with the centenary of the Easter rising looming in 2016.

And on top of that comes the impasse over
‘welfare reform’, including the cap on benefits for large families. Opposed by
the left in Britain on obvious egalitarian grounds, even this suffers a
sectarian skew in Northern Ireland, with political-Protestant support for the
Tories, despite the predominantly working-class demography of Belfast and
Derry, explicable only by unspoken prejudices about Catholics having large
families who ‘sponge off the state’.

So, at best, further talks will lead to another
shaky deal which cobbles together the power-sharing executive once more,
malfunctioning as ever… until the next crisis blows up. Actually, at this
point, it would be better for the British and Irish governments to recognise
the merits of reculer pour mieux santer,
with an interim period of renewed direct rule and a public deliberation over
the way ahead. Admittedly, that would not allow them to disengage from Northern
Ireland once more as quickly as they decently can but it could allow of a
long-term, stable solution.

The fundamental challenge in ethnically divided
societies is to engineer constitutional arrangements which enshrine both
aspects of democracy (as defined by the standard-setter, International IDEA):
popular control and equal citizenship. That the former can be simplified to
‘majority rule’ and the latter to ‘minority rights’ means that parties from
demographic ethnic majorities and minorities line up in predictable ways.
External brokers have to act in impartial fashion to make sure both features are
embedded in democratic constitutions so that, over time, trust is built, ethnic
cleavages become of reduced significance and others, such as on socio-economic
lines, acquire greater salience. These arrangements need to be buttressed by
full adherence to the rule of law and
international human-rights standards—including because ethno-political majority
parties tend to counterpose the first to the second and vice versa for their
minority opponents.


The Belfast (or Good Friday) agreement
was put together in a few days and then heavily spun, in typical New Labour
fashion. Not only did it lack even the ambition in the Taif accord of the ‘abolition of political sectarianism’, three key flaws in the main
components of the architecture unwittingly embedded it. Each was motivated by the vital aspiration—as with the
more publicly and prudently drafted arrangements of the 1974 power-sharing
experiment, sadly truncated by a strike led by Protestant paramilitarism—to
transcend the monopoly of Protestant ethnic power which had characterised the
first half-century of Northern Ireland’s existence from 1922. But each was
poorly thought through in the week leading to Good Friday in 1998, when a draft
was finally presented by the two governments to the parties and subject to
last-minute haggling.

The three critical
errors were:—

(1) The electoral system: the
single-transferable-vote (STV) method was carried over from 1974 without
reflection, as if it were the only proportional alternative to first past the
post. Yet the more common, additional-member system was to be introduced in devolved
Scotland and Wales—as the then taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, conscious of the
clientelist failings of STV in Ireland, had unsuccessfully urged upon the then prime minister, Ted Heath, in the early-1970s deliberations. Heath wrongly
insisted STV would help ‘the moderates’: in fact, in a divided society,
multi-member STV constituencies incentivise ethno-political entrepreneurs to
pitch for the narrow core vote they need to reach the quota for election (just
17 per cent in six-seat constituencies, as for the Northern Ireland Assembly).

AMS, while sustaining
proportionality via the regional top-up, would at least encourage competition
in heterogeneous constituencies for cross-communal majorities. It is an
unadmitted fact, including by the party itself, that all three of the Catholic SDLP’s
Westminster seats are secured through such tactical (Protestant) voting. AMS
would also favour the emergence of new forces, such as the Greens, currently
confined to one assembly seat but able to make gains through regional lists,
and—most importantly—put real pressure on the parties to remedy, via
prioritisation of list candidates, the appalling under-representation of women
in Northern Ireland politics.

Spot the woman: the Ulster Unionists leave the Northern Ireland executive. Demotix / Stephen Barnes. All rights reserved.

(2) Assembly decision-making: to prevent
ethnic-Protestant majority voting, as under the old Stormont, the agreement
introduced a system of communal designation, under which members of the
legislative assembly (MLAs), once elected, were required to register as
‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’ (or, as a residuum, ‘other’). This was to allow
that a ‘petition of concern’ of 30 of the 108 members would require that, to
pass, a substantive motion would need to attain not just an overall majority
but the ‘parallel consent’ of majorities in each of the communalist blocs. This
provision—not even aired when the 1974 system was being planned, it being
assumed the executive parties would vote together—has not only had the
insidious effect of entrenching sectarian mindsets (all but one of the
‘unionists’ have so far been Protestant, all but one of the ‘nationalists’
Catholic). In addition and perversely, though pressed by the SDLP in the 1998
talks, it has been most used by the Democratic Unionist Party—the only party in
the assembly big enough to be able to secure a petition of concern on its own—to
hold a Canute-like line against modern social legislation, such as on sexual

Meanwhile, progress on
the Northern Ireland bill of rights envisaged in the agreement has been stymied
by political Protestants. Yet political Catholics have demanded provision in
any such bill for communal ‘parity of esteem’, even though this is unworkable
because all rights conventions require a potential individual who can vindicate
her rights, as well as a clearly defined right as the object and a clear
addressee of whom it can be demanded. Such a bill could quite straightforwardly
build on the European Convention on Human Rights by incorporating the
minority-rights Council of Europe standards—the Framework Convention for the Protection
of National Minorities and the Charter for Regional or Minority
Languages—thereby rendering them similarly justiciable.

(3) Executive formation: The cursory,
secret talks on how a power-sharing government would be formed in April 1998
were in sharp contrast to the extensive discussion of this core issue in
1972-73. Indeed, a paper presented to the Ministerial Committee on Northern
Ireland by the secretary of state, William Whitelaw, which included five options for executive formation,
specifically ruled out a government with party representation proportionate to
that in the assembly—as in the Belfast agreement—on the unsurprisingly
prescient argument that this was ‘likely to encourage intransigence and face us
with a group who have nothing in common and have no intention of working
together’. It was clear at the time that, in Dublin as well as London, the
balance of argument was favouring a secular weighted-majority requirement for
the executive to be established—although in the end Heath opted for a ‘you, you
and you’ alternative which the government effectively controlled.

A weighted-majority
requirement could provide belt-and-braces protection on top of a bill of rights
but the key constitutional stipulation would be that, after an election, those
parties willing to share power should be mandatorily required to agree a
cross-sectarian coalition—political Protestants have suggested a ‘voluntary’
coalition, of which political Catholics are understandably suspicious—with
those unwilling to join such a coalition forming an opposition to hold the
executive to account. This is the only way to make elections meaningful in
Northern Ireland, where historically-high turnout has been plummeting, since
citizens cannot currently ‘turf the scoundrels out’. It would mean a devolved
government that operated with collective responsibility and It would also allow
initially small opposition parties, on the left for instance, to play a
meaningful political role.


None of the suggested
reforms raises any ideological issues, because of their impartial character.
But none of these constitutional flaws is going to be discussed, never mind
addressed, in the talks stewarded by London and Dublin, which will follow a
by-now dog-eared agenda. Yet a transformative outcome at such talks will always
be debilitated by the parti pris
nature of the participants.

Fixing the broken
architecture will in any event require amendments to the Westminster
legislation under which it operates. This offers a route to progress the
parties cannot veto—and indeed was the route pursued, via a green paper, a
white paper and an act, in the run-up to 1974. A proper public debate on what
such legislation should contain—a debate in which the Irish government could be
a full partner—could bring not only much-needed structural reforms but also
stimulate the emergence of new, secular political agents in the region.

Northern Ireland’s
citizens need to be given the chance to become architects of their future,
rather than prisoners of their past. But they need the help of the UK and Irish
governments to do so.

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