A Return to the Centre: by Stephen Farry

A Return to the Centre by Stephen Farry

The outcome of the Northern Ireland Assembly Election does not provide much hope for the speedy restoration of the political institutions.

The scale of the swing to the two extremes may have come as a surprise to some, but was in fact quite predictable.

The principle cause of this result is the institutionalised sectarianism within the Agreement. Rather than trying to create a new political culture in which all parties seek to work in the common interest, the Agreement has entrenched a system of intra-ethnic competition within two separate Unionist and Nationalist polities.

The extremes on either side have been able to exploit the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality either by arguing that the perceived moderates on each side have been selling out ‘their community’ or by claiming that they can negotiate a ‘fairer deal’.

The sectarian voting rules in the Assembly create ‘winner takes all’ fights within both Unionism and Nationalism to see who is entitled to claim the top two Executive posts, and a claim to an effective veto over policy outcomes.

Despite the inclusive rhetoric of the Agreement, there was an underlying, though misplaced, assumption that a UUP-SDLP axis would dominate forever. We now have a radically different context.

It is was difficult enough for the present structures to work under the previous balance of power, never mind the current one. Within the context of the forthcoming Comprehensive Review (something scheduled by the Agreement, and not merely a product of the latest crisis), some changes to the political structures are now inevitable if the Agreement is to survive.

However any such alterations must be consistent with the Agreement’s underlying principles. Such fundamentals include: human rights, equality of opportunity and equality of citizenship, entrenchment of the Principle of Consent, power-sharing devolution, accountable north-south structures, and commitments to democracy and non-violence.

Basically, the thrust of institutional change can go in one of two ways.

First of all, it is theoretically possible to design political structures to allow the DUP and Sinn Fein to co-exist within the same government without actually having to deal directly with each other. This could be akin to the greater County Council model that many commentators suspect the DUP to favour. This model would create an even weaker form of government than the present approach, and would not be a recipe for long-term peace and stability. Furthermore, both historical and more recent international experiences show that it is difficult, if not, impossible to govern from the two extremes, bypassing the centre ground.

The much better approach is to spurn the temptation for a short-term fix, and to create political institutions that can give the center-ground the opportunity to reassert itself. Rather than the rigid consociationalism of the Agreement, greater emphasis should be placed upon more integrative forms of power-sharing.

Any political structures must address the deeply divided nature of Northern Ireland, yet they must be sufficiently flexible to allow for positive change in our political culture, and eventual movement towards a modern liberal democracy.

Instead of the present ‘shotgun marriage’ involuntary coalition, we need an Executive that is formed following negotiations between the parties, and is capable of adhering to collective responsibility. Crucially such a coalition must be capable of achieving the support of a weighted-majority (rather than the simple majority used in most liberal democracies) of members of the Assembly to ensure a cross-community membership. The introduction of government v opposition politics would also deliver some necessary accountability.

Today, the reality is that Sinn Fein will inevitably be one of those parties that could move in and out of government and opposition – something not yet contemplated in the Republic. Neither are such structures designed to exclude the DUP, who similarly could be in or out of government depending upon the nature of any involuntary coalition that could be negotiated.

At present, the communal designations and the associated voting system entrench divisions, and breach the important democratic principle of equality of votes among political representatives. Those who designed this system may have seen it as an important safeguard, but the reality today is that the system gives both the DUP and Sinn Fein an effective veto on decision-making.

Sectarian designations should be abolished, and the voting system amended, with a weighted-majority of around 65% used on key decisions that require cross-community support.

However, it is important than discussions do not focus exclusively on political structures, but address the wider problems in society that create the context for the current political impasse. The deep divisions in Northern Ireland society, and the associated community relations problems were neglected in the Agreement.

For some, the Agreement is about managing separate but equal communities through some form of ‘benign Apartheid’. However, no matter how skilful, conflict management cannot be constantly maintained.

The alternative lies within the articulation of a vision of shared society, and turning this aspiration into practical reality through necessary policy changes, and the securing integration where it does occur. While more and more people are voting for the tribal based parties, there is neverthless growing evidence that increased numbers are refusing to align their identity with Unionism and Nationalism – c14% in the 2001 census – and of overwhelming support for mixed workplaces, schools, and neighbourhoods.

Ultimately, there is no guarantee that any set of political structures will be workable, but there are certain institutional designs that are much more likely to be successful. No set of checks and balances can compensate for a lack of trust among parties, and a willingness both to accommodate each other and to work for the common good.

If some of the above changes had been introduced back in 2001 maybe the swing to the extremes could have avoided. It would have been so much better to implement them under the previous balance of power. Today, the challenge is even greater, but far from impossible.

Dr Stephen Farry is the General Secretary of the Alliance Party.

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