CAN POWER-SHARING WORK IN NORTHERN IRELAND?
By Bill Smith (October 2005)
The concept of power-sharing as a solution to the political conflict in
Drawing on the experience of
· proportional representation at parliamentary elections
· all-party specialist committees to oversee Departments
· 50 % more MPs to make up the new committees
· a new method of selecting members for the Senate
· Proportional Representation in Government
The last was the most radical: Whyte envisaged a government in which all major parties were represented in proportion to their strength in Parliament. He recognised the dangers of deadlock and complacency arising from the absence of a challenging opposition, but argued that these would be more than offset by the opportunities which his proposals would create for opening up the administration to new talent and developing collaborative working practices across the community divide.
Whyte openly acknowledged that his proposals were intended not so much to make
A few weeks after the publication of Whyte’s pamphlet, the introduction of internment created an upsurge in violence and disorder; alienated the broad Catholic community from Stormont; and generated damaging national and international criticisms of the British Government. Alarmed, Home Secretary Reginald Maudling and his advisers started searching for new ideas for a political initiative which would silence their critics and bring “moderate” Catholic leaders back to the negotiating table. They discovered Whyte’s article, and by September had committed themselves to work for an “active, permanent and guaranteed” role in government for nationalist elected representatives. Technically this fell short of power-sharing, but when Prime Minister Faulkner accepted Whyte’s first four recommendations and agreed to include some Catholics in government as long as they accepted the constitution,
Other players also picked up the idea, including the SDLP,
The first power-sharing Executive, comprising Unionist, SDLP and
But many political scientists have argued that power-sharing is virtually impossible in
From his extensive international research on the governance of divided communities, Professor Arend Lijphart – possibly the world’s leading expert on the subject - has identified a set of criteria necessary for power-sharing to succeed. Now further from being satisfied than in 1974, they are as follows:
A commitment by the political leaders of the two communities to maintain and improve the political system.
Now, Sinn Fein is already the largest green party and expanding. Far from maintaining and improving the constitution, its most prominent leaders have made enormous personal sacrifices over the past 35 years to destroy it. While Sinn Fein Ministers led their Departments conscientiously in the 1999 Executive, the party makes no secret of its impatience to detach
What is more, both communities are steeped in the norms of majoritarian democracy. Unionists want the same standard of democracy as at
Cohesion within each community.
The leaders of each community must be able to cooperate and compromise with each other without losing the support of their electorates. But in
The DUP has gained this ground by taking a more vigorous stand than the UUP in defence of the Union, but could lose it just as quickly if it appears to be softer on republicanism than its rivals (and if the UUP pulls itself together). On the nationalist side, Sinn Fein overtook the SDLP at the 2001 local government elections and has since steadily increased its vote, but like the DUP it has not yet achieved such an overwhelming lead that it can afford to appear soft on the Orange enemy.
A tradition of cooperation between the leaders of the two communities.
On the contrary,
Even when the 1999 Executive was operating, its members were unable to agree on fundamental issues: the two “moderate” parties could not bring themselves to support each other at election time, advising their voters instead to give their lower preference votes to other parties with the same stance on the single most salient issue, the
A common external threat.
Not only has there been no common external threat, but there are two perceived threats which have further reinforced the division. Unionists feel threatened by
Tony Blair and his advisers might argue that Northern Ireland’s political elites have a strong incentive to cooperate with one another, since they will not otherwise get any power at all; that however far apart they may appear now, a tradition of cooperation will gradually emerge once they start to work together; and that since the 1998 Agreement, there is no longer any good reason for either community to feel at risk from the other or from external parties.
Such points do not give us any reason to believe that a revived power-sharing executive could long survive the tensions created by Sinn Fein’s relentless impatience to end the
If my analysis is correct, the British Government is presently pursuing an unattainable “solution”. It may be that Ministers and officials know this, but are convinced that Direct Rule with a political process itself comprises the best they can do at present: as long as the guns are quiet, they need not worry unduly about the continuing democratic deficit.
But after 33 years, surely
There may be no one final solution, but the task of winding down the conflict will be done better and faster if we can have at least have some authenticity about what is possible and what is not. This applies especially to the participants in the peace process, Sinn Fein and the British Government. Only when they admit that power-sharing can’t work under current conditions will they be free to apply themselves seriously to the task of devising a better, more workable alternative.