As we approach the 20th birthday of Stormont’s current incarnation, it’s time to accept that power-sharing doesn’t work. If we really want devolution to work in Northern Ireland, we have to scrap the Good Friday Agreement.
Unlike most other modern democracies, Northern Irish party politics is not defined along left-right or socio-economic lines, instead, it has polarised between two competing nationalisms, namely Ulster unionism and Irish nationalism. Power-sharing relies upon the idealistic hope that these opposing nationalisms can work together, for the mutual benefit of their two communities. However we can never expect to see these ideologically-opposed movements selflessly collaborate in the spirit of the GFA. Power-sharing can never work.
The GFA, and the power-sharing arrangements which emerged out of it, were an attempt to resolve the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland. In this respect, power-sharing has had some success, as there has been a significant reduction in violence and paramilitary activity. However, many paramilitaries have not yet disbanded, and some have not disarmed. Most worryingly, alleged links between paramilitary groups and certain political parties have not yet gone away.
But power-sharing has failed to solve the underlying causes of the conflict, and it has not succeeded in eliminating the sectarianism present in Northern Irish politics and society. Talk of a ‘shared future’ has not manifested itself in a form other than empty rhetoric. There are now more peace walls in Northern Ireland than there were prior to 1998, less than 10% of our children are in integrated education, and public services remain segregated.
The power-sharing arrangements established by the GFA were put in place because of the mutual mistrust which existed between unionism and nationalism. Instead of attempting to break down the barriers between the communities, the GFA simply strengthened them. Power-sharing legitimises each side’s claim that the ‘other side’ cannot be trusted to govern by themselves. Power-sharing was developed to manage and de-militarise divisions in Northern Ireland, but not to overcome them.
Power-sharing institutionalises the idea that there are two mutually-exclusive communities present in Northern Ireland, and that political parties ought to buy in to this dichotomy. In the Assembly, nationalist and unionist parties’ interests are prioritised over those of ‘other’, cross-community parties. For example, two key elements of power-sharing, cross-community votes and Petitions of Concern, are based upon the assumption that unionism and nationalism will always be the largest power blocs in the Assembly. When issues come to cross-community votes in the Assembly, the votes of ‘other’ MLAs are effectively discounted. The system does not therefore lend itself to the creation and growth of post-conflict parties which do not express themselves in binary unionist/nationalist terms. This has been demonstrated by the electoral failure of parties which self-identify as being ‘cross-community’, such as Alliance, NI21 and the Green Party.
As a result of power-sharing, elections in Northern Ireland consist of two separate contests – one between the nationalist parties and the other between the unionist parties. Election after election has shown that most Catholics vote for nationalist parties, and most Protestants vote for unionist ones. There is a link between voters’ political affiliation and their religious, ethno-national and cultural identity, a link which existed throughout the Troubles, and a link which power-sharing has so far failed to break. If power-sharing remains the system of government in Northern Ireland, this link shall never be broken.
The unionist and nationalist parties know that, due to power-sharing, unionists and nationalists will always be in power. As the Assembly is not a traditional majoritarian parliament, there is no risk of either bloc not entering government. This results in complacency on the part of the unionist and nationalist parties. They do not need to reach out to voters in the other community, they do not need to build support across the electorate. They have no incentive to pursue and implement policies that will benefit the other community. And they can engage in potentially corrupt activities, knowing that even if they lose votes over it, they’ll still be entitled to Executive departments.
The result of having dual elections, one amongst nationalism and one amongst unionism, is that it enables the more extreme parties to dominate. It is increasingly in parties’ electoral interests to not co-operate, and to take a more hard-line approach with their Executive partners. That’s why, in the 2003 Stormont election, after just five years of power-sharing, the DUP and Sinn Féin replaced the UUP and SDLP as the largest parties. And it is why the DUP and Sinn Féin have continued to grow in dominance, despite countless allegations of corruption at the heart of the Executive, and their clear inability to co-operate.
The polarisation of unionism and nationalism affects the stability of the state in more ways than simply the current lack of an Executive. The major parties are increasingly combative not only on policy issues, but also regarding their interpretations of the past. Unionists condemn historical republican violence, and nationalists highlight the deaths caused by the state during the Troubles. But neither side will equate the violence committed by paramilitaries or state bodies on their ‘side’ of the conflict with the crimes of the other. Unionist parties insist that reports of state involvement in paramilitarism is overblown, while Sinn Féin still justifies the actions of the Provisional IRA. Whilst all the parties condemn present-day violence, their justification of historical political violence (both by state and non-state actors) is a threat to Northern Ireland’s current and future stability and security.
If power-sharing were to be abandoned, and replaced with a traditional majoritarian parliamentary democracy, there would be a chance of change. No longer would the binary unionist/nationalist identities be part of the Assembly’s standing orders, giving preference to parties which appeal to only one demographic. This would enable post-conflict parties to emerge, with a more nuanced and less divisive attitude to the border question. The post-conflict parties of this post-conflict Assembly would represent traditional political ideologies – conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism, and socialism – and it would not reduce all issues to a sectarian ‘green versus orange’ dispute. Coalitions would be formed out of choice, and therefore the system would encourage co-operation, unlike the current mandatory nature of the Executive, which presupposes that the parties are not capable of engaging in post-election negotiations.
Power-sharing imbeds Northern Ireland’s sectarian division and inter-community mistrust within the institutions of the Assembly. It does little to resolve parties’ differences, and does not facilitate the growth of non-sectarian, post-conflict parties. Under power-sharing, voters have moved towards the extremes of unionism and nationalism. Rather than moderating political debate, power-sharing has resulted in a growing divergence between unionism and nationalism and an increasing deficiency of inter-party co-operation. Power-sharing has strengthened the political dichotomy between unionism and nationalism in which parties are rewarded by the electorate for not co-operating with each other. The unhealthy link between voters’ community backgrounds and their political affiliations has not lessened, and there is little hope that power-sharing shall ever offer a cure. A forced coalition between two diametrically opposed ideologies, which cannot even agree if the state they are supposed to be governing should exist or not, will never produce stable governance.
If we are to ever see further political progress and evolution, a new, post-conflict and post-Agreement system of government needs to be established.
Jack is an 18-year-old political activist. He is a co-founder of Challenges NI. You can follow him on Twitter @JackODwyerHenry.
N.B. Any views expressed here are not endorsed by Challenges NI.