The Two Governments and political parties have much work to do if the Leeds Castle Talks are to be an even limited success.
Talks over the past nine months have made little progress. Those involved have talked around the issues, with little or no effort to draw the competing visions and proposals together.
At the very least, the Governments need to be in a position to table draft proposals to the parties in Kent, which can form the basis of negotiations. Otherwise, I fear that there will be more unfocused posturing that achieves little.
In the negotiations, there is a danger of two quite distinct processes becoming confused. The first is the attempt to restore devolution that began in the aftermath of the suspension of October 2002, and carried through last year’s Assembly Election. This requires sufficient confidence-building measures from Republicans, and commitments from other parties, notably the Unionists, to allow the restoration of the political institutions.
The second process is the actual Review of the workings of the Agreement, which formally commenced in January 2004. It is necessary that reforms are made to allow its full implementation, and to ensure that the institutions are placed on a stable and secure footing. Success in the first regard may provide a sense of euphoria that will lead to other important issues being neglected. A quick-fix may place a premium on restoring institutions without any consideration of the long-term prospects for those institutions.
There is a certain over-optimism that a deal is not only now possible but can actually hold. The basis for this belief is that any deal including the DUP and Sinn Fein would be more secure, as both have the ability to bring anything else crashing down either politically or through violence. Both the UUP and SDLP were constrained as they were constantly looking over their shoulders. The irony is of course that that both these parties put in place a system of institutionalised sectarianism that made it inevitable that they would be outbid by their more hardline rivals.
A more realistic perspective is to recognise that while both the DUP and Sinn Fein have moderated to some extent, they remain parties on the relative extremes of the Northern Ireland political spectrum. The lessons of international history are that it is extremely difficult to create and sustain a political process on such a basis.
We must not underestimate the problems ahead. Both parties have built their electoral success on representing segregated constituencies, and have interests in preserving their power-bases. They regularly garner votes through demonising others. In particular, unless there is a meaningful attempt to overcome the ingrained patterns of division and to build a united community from the bottom up, disputes over matters such as parades, policing, symbols and who gets more funding are likely to provide plenty of issues for these parties to have major rows over.
These realities suggest that it will be difficult to make a deal involving both of these parties. Furthermore, even if a deal is made, it will be very difficult to sustain it, unless there are some fundamental changes in approach.
At present, I fear that not only have the lessons of why the Agreement has not worked so far been ignored, but that these problems are actually going to be exacerbated.
For some, the Agreement was about managing institutionalised differences through some form of benign Apartheid — supposedly separate but equal. No matter how skillful, conflict management cannot be maintained indefinitely.
Under the last Assembly, there wasn’t really any collective responsibility within the Executive, let alone a shared vision working towards common goals.
There was not even a single political culture, but rather two divergent cultures, with the leading party in each expected to work with their equivalent on the ‘other side’.
What was called ‘power-sharing’ was a little disingenuous. It would be much better described as power distribution or sharing out the spoils.
Parties were placed into government on the back of the relative size of their mandate without any incentive for co-operation or moderation. Under the vagaries of the d’Hondt distribution, parties claimed almost exclusive control over some Ministries in return for relatively little say over others.
There was no collective responsibility in the Executive. Certain matters may have been discussed around the Executive table, and even some general understandings reached between the Executive parties, but there were several examples of backbenchers in Executive parties opposing measures proposed by Ministers from other Executive parties. The one office that was expected to provide some sense of collectivity — the Office of the First Minster and Deputy First Minister — became a recipe for institutional gridlock, when UUP and SDLP Ministers could not agree.
The DUP do appreciate the limitations of the current system, but are pushing the wrong solution.
They are determined to avoid being elected to top office in a joint ticket with a member of Sinn Fein. This is too much like sharing power with them.
The DUP seem to wish to handle the issue of accountability through transferring responsibility to the Assembly as a whole. This would have the power to put any Ministerial decision on hold unless it is confirmed by a majority vote in the Assembly.
By contrast, Alliance would allow Ministerial decisions to stand, unless there was a weighted cross-community majority to reverse them.
Northern Ireland could very easily end up with a government where Sinn Fein and the DUP merely co-exist within the same government without having to deal with other.
The answer is surely to put in place genuine collective responsibility within the Executive. Ministers are first accountable to the Executive, and then accountable individually and collectively to the Assembly.
Ministers would continue to service their own Departments, but major decisions would be the responsibility of the Executive as a whole, to ensure consensus on difficult issues. It is only within this context that the Office of First and Deputy First Ministers could be decoupled.
Furthermore, this model is the only safe means to facilitate the devolution of the politically sensitive areas of policing and criminal justice.
David Ford is the Leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. This article first appeared in the Irish Times.