Northern Ireland’s devolved political institutions have been mired in crisis since the end of the summer: the Ulster Unionist Party announced its decision to leave the Northern Ireland executive at the end of August and this was followed by a failed attempt by the Democratic Unionist Party to have Sinn Fein excluded from the ruling executive.
This led to the first minister, Peter Robinson, along with other DUP ministers stepping down from their posts, (which left Arlene Foster as acting first minister). Since then the DUP ministers have repeatedly resigned and been reinstated for a few hours each week, while emergency talks have been taking place to resolve the political crisis.
The immediate trigger for this renewed wave of instability was the announcement by the police in August that the Provisional IRA was still in existence and that some of its members were suspected to have been involved in the murder of senior republican Kevin McGuigan – even though the organisation was not considered to be active militarily.
All of this has once again called into question the durability of Northern Ireland’s political institutions and more broadly, the viability of the peace process itself – and some international headlines have suggested that the crisis signals a return to political violence in the province.
Though well intentioned, recent critiques of the peace process in Northern Ireland are misconceived and in some cases imprecise in their representation of power-sharing arrangements in the province. For instance, Eammon McCann’s article in the New York Times is incorrect in arguing that the Good Friday Agreement assigns “every person in Northern Ireland to either the unionist or nationalist camp”.
Though it does reflect the unionist and nationalist political identities, the power-sharing agreement includes no fixed posts assigned to specific ethnic or religious groups – as is the case in Lebanon – nor are there provisions for equal numbers of ministers from each main community – as in Belgium – nor separate electoral rolls – as currently in South Tyrol or under the the 1960 Cypriot constitution.
To the contrary, in Northern Ireland membership in the executive is automatically determined by party strength, as has been the case for decades in Switzerland.
The logic of this flexible and predominantly liberal power-sharing is to allow moderates to challenge radicals while providing incentives for wider engagement in the peace process. At the same time, if the former are elected, an inclusive mechanism is in place to reflect people’s democratic choices. The Good Friday agreement has been fairly neutral and flexible as to its inclusivity, inviting both moderates and hardliners to work together. So far, political parties have been entitled to cabinet seats sequentially on the basis of their electoral performance regardless of their political stance.
No return to Troubles
Northern Ireland’s political system has encouraged extreme parties to moderate to an astonishing degree and has acted as a catalyst for paramilitaries to disarm. Sinn Fein now supports the police and rule of law, while unionists now accept power-sharing with Irish nationalists. While sectarian violence remains, it is a fraction of previous levels.
The Clinton administration and US senator, George Mitchell, did not “preside” over a doomed political process as wrongly argued in the New York Times. Their involvement, along with Irish-Americans more broadly, provided a political dynamic that a peaceful alternative to violence was possible.
Likewise, the fact that devolved institutions are experiencing a period of instability does not mean that the Troubles are back. Such hyperbole misunderstands that the structural causes of the conflict no longer apply. The exclusion of the Republican tradition from Northern Ireland’s political institutions that fuelled the conflict for decades is over.
Some observers of Northern Ireland’s political institutions might warn of the risk of tinkering with a complex and organic system which is not broken. In our work, we have adopted the middle road between admirers and critics of the Good Friday agreement, arguing for the adoption of additional, less formalised components within the existing structures, highlighting comparable arrangements from the Brussels Capital Region.
Needed: long-term thinking
Due to the automatic all-party inclusion mechanism in Northern Ireland, parties do not form long-term coalition strategies. This has been a critical weakness of the agreement. To overcome these challenges, the Brussels Capital Region uses a two-tier system allowing an executive to be appointed by political parties as in Northern Ireland, only after failing to form a cross-community coalition.
This will allow alternative options for political parties in Northern Ireland – either to negotiate coalitions with a shared program for the future (as in Belgium) or maintain their all-inclusive but less homogeneous cabinet (as in Switzerland).
Cross-community coalitions, when they emerge, are also more likely to enhance collective decision-making and to deliver on a shared platform. Parties in Northern Ireland will gradually develop long-term coalition strategies to avoid exclusion – while the “all-party inclusive executive” could be preserved but only as a default mechanism.
Admittedly, the absence of Northern Ireland-type arrangements for resolving deadlocks has left countries in similar situations without elected governments for prolonged periods, as in Belgium in 2010-11. Moreover, any changes in the coalition politics in Northern Ireland should be carefully timed and negotiated with the support of all major political parties.
Exclusive mediations and unrepresentative coalitions as advocated in the New York Times could increase rivalry and lethal violence. Lebanon, Iraq and the former Yugoslavia are just few among the many examples where significant minority groups have responded violently to attempts by others to ostracise them.
Recent events make it self-evident that Northern Ireland’s political institutions are in need of urgent reform in a manner that retains (and augments) confidence in them across Unionist, Nationalist and non-aligned communities. Our work is committed to assisting in that process and we would suggest that this is to be expected in a society coming out of violent conflict.
Political instability is an undeniable reality in Northern Ireland today, but this is a symptom of a society in transition – not of one going back to violence. The war is over but its legacy remains.