Making the Agreement Work Better: article

Making the Agreement Work Better 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 of Unionism and Nationalism 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 for Northern Ireland in which all parties compete over a common agenda and seek to work in the common interest, the Agreement has entrenched a system of intra-ethnic competition within two separate Unionist and Nationalist polities.

In 1998, the Agreement was presented as a win-win for all sections of the community. Today, it is seen in zero-sum terms, with a gain for one side being portrayed as a loss for the other. The extremes on either side are 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 institutionalise this competition, through setting up ‘winner takes all’ fights within both Unionism and Nationalism to see who is entitled to claim the top two posts of First And Deputy First Minister, or to claim an effective veto over policy outcomes.

Those who may wish to associate with the fragile cross-community centre are enticed to vote tactically, out of fear, in order to prop up the perceived moderates on each side who are deemed to be under threat from extremes.

The almost miraculous performance of Alliance in retaining all of its six seats stands in brilliant defiance of this underlying logic.

There is a certain inevitably that the DUP and Sinn Fein will intensify their dialogue, first indirectly and eventually directly. They may even try to reach some form of accommodation. However, the notion that the real deal will eventually be done between the extremes on both sides is both misplaced and naïve.

Both historical and more recent international experiences show that it is impossible to govern from the two extremes, bypassing the centre ground. Weimar Germany began to fall apart in the late 1920s, because the shift in opinion in favour of the Nazis on one side and the Communists on the other made it impossible for stable government to be formed. More recently, the Middle East peace process is faltering due to the hard-line positions of both the Israeli Government and the Palestinians.

Despite the inclusive rhetoric of the Agreement, there was an underlying assumption that a UUP-SDLP axis would dominate, albeit one that ignored the factors that would make such an outcome short-lived.

We now have a radically different context. The change in Nationalism is structural. The past five years have simply accelerated the gradual overtaking of the SDLP by Sinn Fein that has occurred over the past twenty years. The final death-knell for the UUP-SDLP axis occurred in October 2002 when the SDLP ruled out backing an exclusion motion against Sinn Fein for continual breaches of Republican pledges on non-violence. From that point on, it seems that the Governments and Trimble Unionists accepted that Sinn Fein would be the principle representative of northern Nationalism.

However, the electoral change within unionism is cyclical, and reflects a protest vote over the implementation of the Agreement rather than necessarily a definitive hardening of opinion.

Within the context of the forthcoming Comprehensive Review (written into the Agreement), some changes to the political structures are now inevitable, provided that any such alterations are consistent with its underlying principles.

These 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.

Theoretically, it is possible to design political structures to make it possible for the DUP and Sinn Fein to co-exist within the same government without actually having to deal directly with each other. Such measures may be superficially attractive as a short-term fix, but would not provide long-term peace and stability, never mind the strong and effective government Northern Ireland needs to address a large number of issues that have been left on the backburner.

It would much preferable to take the opportunity, provided by the Review, to strengthen the political centre, rather than playing into the hands of the extremes.

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 European liberal democracy. While there is no guarantee that any set of political structures will be workable, there are certain institutional designs that are much more likely to be successful.

Rather than a Balkanised involuntary coalition, we need an Executive that is formed following negotiations between the parties, is capable of adhering to collective responsibility, and has the support of a weighted-majority of members of the Assembly to ensure a cross-community membership.

In the past, such structures may have been designed to exclude Sinn Fein. 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.

There is also a need to strengthen the power of the Assembly Committees. These were supposed to fulfil a major policy-making role, and also to provide a check on the power of Ministers. They have fulfilled neither function to date.

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

North-South structures were the most controversial element at the end of the Multi-Party Talks, but have been the quiet success story of the Agreement. They need a higher profile, and there is a strong case for seeking to develop co-operation even further.

Many of these ideas are nothing new. Alliance has been advocating them throughout its history, and they were the corner-stone of our proposals to the 1996-98 Talks. Indeed, they are reinforced by a growing body of academic opinion.

Furthermore, while more and more people are voting for the tribal based parties, there is a growing evidence that increased numbers are refusing to align their identity with Unionism and Nationalism – c14% in the 2001 census – and that there is overwhelming support for mixed workplaces, schools, and neighbourhoods.

Earlier this year, the British Government finally produced a consultation paper on community relations, entitled A Shared Future. While weak on policy specifics, this document essentially rejected the notion that the divisions in Northern Ireland could be managed through some form of benign Apartheid in favour of a vision of a shared and integrated Northern Ireland.

It is crucially important that efforts to bring the people of Northern Ireland together at the grass-roots level are intensified. Community relations considerations must be mainstreamed throughout all policy decisions. The Government must accelerate this review of Community Relations, in tandem with the Comprehensive Review of the Agreement.

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

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