The Cadogan Group


Can Power Sharing Work




By Bill Smith  (October 2005)

Whyte’s Idea

The concept of power-sharing as a solution to the political conflict in Northern Ireland originated with political scientist John Whyte of Queen’s University Belfast.  In a pamphlet called “The Reform of Stormont”, published by the New Ulster Movement in July 1971, Whyte argued that the Westminster model was not suited to Northern Ireland’s unusual political circumstances, since it could never provide an outlet for nationalist aspirations in a divided community. It gave the Unionist Party a monopoly on power “with consequent tendencies to complacency, arrogance, and at times injustice”; and excluded nationalist elected representatives from power, “with consequent tendencies to frustration, irresponsibility, and at times a hankering after violent solutions.”

Drawing on the experience of Switzerland and Austria, Whyte recommended the following changes:

·   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 Northern Ireland more democratic as to advantage “moderate” parties and factions in their losing struggle against "extremists”.


Heath’s Alarm

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, Whitehall rejected this as insufficient.

Other players also picked up the idea, including the SDLP, Alliance and the Northern Ireland Labour Party, whose interests it would serve, and the Irish Government. When Ted Heath had to make a radical move in the wake of Bloody Sunday the following January, the idea of “PR government” conveniently seemed to offer the new departure his critics had been demanding. He suspended Stormont and adopted all Whyte’s recommendations as Government policy. As the first Secretary of State, Willie Whitelaw worked hard to create the necessary conditions for a PR Government.



The first power-sharing Executive, comprising Unionist, SDLP and Alliance members, took up office in January 1974. Sadly for Whyte’s argument, it collapsed in disarray five months later. Some commentators have argued that this was due to the particular circumstances of the time: Unionists’ trauma over the dissolution of Stormont, Faulkner’s mismanagement of his Party, misperceptions about the proposed Council of Ireland, Whitelaw’s departure in November 1973, the sudden Westminster election of February 1974, or the defeat of the Heath Government in that election.

But many political scientists have argued that power-sharing is virtually impossible in Northern Ireland because of underlying structural factors in its political system: and that until these change, attempts to engineer and sustain a power-sharing government will fail. The empirical evidence from later attempts to revive the concept supports their argument: the failed Convention of 1975, the Atkins talks of 1979, the “rolling devolution” Assembly of 1982/6, and the promotion of power-sharing under the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.


The Explanation

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.

In Northern Ireland, neither side wants power-sharing within the UK as its preferred option. The SDLP and Sinn Fein want to end the Union. Unionists have variously preferred a return to the Westminster model at Stormont, full integration, or independence. In 1973, Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin – helped by intense pressure from the British Government – were able to convince Brian Faulkner that they were sincere about making power-sharing work: but the SDLP had never endorsed violence as a means to overthrow the constitution.

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 Northern Ireland from Britain as soon as possible. Many unionists suspect that Sinn Fein’s commitment to the 1998 institutions is a tactical ploy, which the party will abandon as soon as it sees a better opportunity to advance the republican project.

What is more, both communities are steeped in the norms of majoritarian democracy. Unionists want the same standard of democracy as at Westminster, while Irish nationalists insist that they are the majority on the island.


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 Northern Ireland there is a dual party system, characterised by intense competition between the two main parties on each side and only a small proportion of support for cross-community parties like Alliance. In 1973, there was intense and bitter hostility in the Unionist community between the supporters and opponents of power-sharing, as a result of which the Unionist Party broke apart. On the green side, the SDLP succeeded in establishing itself as the new voice of constitutional nationalism, but most republicans boycotted the election. In 2005, this internal fragmentation persists on both sides. Despite its remarkable electoral successes since 2003, the DUP has not yet established such overwhelming predominance that it can afford to risk losing the allegiance of an electorate which is dismayed at the Government’s repeated concessions to republicanism.

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, Northern Ireland’s political tradition has always been one of open and destructive hostility. From the 1920s to the 1960s, Nationalist leaders boycotted Stormont, and Unionists were happy to let them since they had refused to recognise the 1921 settlement. Worse, since the failure of the power-sharing experiment in 1974, a new, negative tradition has emerged of attempts to construct cooperative coalitions breaking down. Today’s DUP leaders know well the fates of Terence O’Neill, Brian Faulkner and David Trimble, three leaders who sacrificed their careers in the quest for rapprochement with nationalist leaders. The Unionist Party dumped Faulkner within days of the 1974 Executive taking office. Trimble held on to his leadership with great tenacity through a sequence of resignations and suspensions. In contrast, the two leaders of the “extremist” positions have survived all the turbulence: Ian Paisley has reigned supreme at the DUP since he created it in 1970, and Gerry Adams has played a key strategic role in the republican movement at least since he took over the leadership of the IRA in Belfast in 1972.

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 Union.


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 Dublin’s unambiguous support for the unification project. Their anxiety is reinforced by Britain’s declared indifference to the Unionand repeated concessions to republicans. Nationalists correspondingly resent Britain’s continuing military presence and criticise NIO Ministers for their apparent reluctance to act firmly against loyalist paramilitaries.


The Counter-argument

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 Union, or the harsh realities of electoral competition within each of the two communities.



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 Northern Ireland deserves better. The old Stormont was criticised for gerrymandering and other unfair practices, but it was arguably more democratic than the present pro-consular regime, since it at least gave one community - the majority - access to power. We are all disenfranchised now, unionists and republicans alike.

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.