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Northern Ireland: Weaponizing a Peace Agreement | Insight

A monumental election may lead to paralysis as terms designed to foster peace and cooperation are wielded in power politics.

The Briefing: Northern Ireland’s historic election.

  • Three types of Northern Irish political parties
    • Note: Northern Ireland is a small portion of the 'island of Ireland' and is part of the United Kingdom, while the Republic of Ireland is an independent nation
    • Unionists: those who want closer ties to Britain; more English descent, Protestant; largest party is Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)
    • Nationalists: those want more independence from Britain, unity with the Republic of Ireland; more Irish, Catholic; largest party is Sinn Fein
    • Non-aligned: those in the middle, wanting compromise or status quo
  • How this one turned out (the results)
    • For the first time, Sinn Fein won the most seats in Stormont, the Northern Irish Parliament (27 of 90)
    • DUP fell from 28% to 21% of the popular vote, its worst showing since 1998
    • The non-aligned Alliance Party more than doubled its seats to 17
    • Sinn Fein will get to appoint the First Minister, or executive of Northern Ireland
  • Is Irish reunification next?
    • Short answer, no.
    • Sinn Fein explicitly tabled calls for immediate reunification in its campaign
    • N.I. is still majority Protestant, and unionists still maintain majority support
    • In fact, the DUP may prevent Sinn Fein from forming a government at all

The Big Question: What’s next for Northern Ireland?

You may be wondering how the DUP, with fewer seats in Stormont and less of the popular vote, could prevent Sinn Fein from forming a government. The answer lies in the unique and tenuous structure of Northern Irish politics.

For centuries, Ireland has been a hotbed of discontent and agitation against British occupation and involvement in the island’s affairs. In the early twentieth century, Westminster finally caved and created an independent (majority Catholic) Republic of Ireland in the south. The northeast portion of the country, mostly populated by Protestants and others who wanted to remain a part of Britain, remained attached to the United Kingdom, becoming Northern Ireland. The challenges, however, didn’t end there. The often-abused Catholic minority of Northern Ireland and their southern compatriots continued to agitate for a united and independent Ireland—stretching from the 60s and reaching a fever pitch in the 90s: a violent period known (oddly diminutively) as “the troubles.”

In order to bring peace to the region, both parties finally came to terms with a power-sharing arrangement called the “Good Friday Agreement.” Over time, this arrangement has been supplemented by new components and modified, but a crucial enduring component is Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive. It works like this. The largest unionist party and the largest nationalist party each get to participate in government. The bigger party appoints a First Minister—the head of government—while the other appoints a Deputy First Minister. This way, if the DUP is the biggest, they get a First Minister, but Sinn Fein gets a Deputy.

Now, however, the DUP is refusing to appoint a Deputy First Minister, effectively vetoing the formation of a Sinn Fein-led government. Outwardly at least, their issue isn’t with Sinn Fein—who have very clearly put talk of reunification on the back burner, to their credit. Instead, the DUP and other unionists seek reforms to or the elimination of the Northern Irish Protocol that Boris Johnson negotiated to conclude Brexit, creating a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

As a result, the country’s politics have ground to a halt. While there’s a great deal more detail both in the history of Northern Ireland and in the unionist-despised protocol negotiated by Johnson, this election clearly signals the return of the country’s perennial dilemma. How can Northern Ireland strike a balance between power-sharing and democratic functioning?

The Theory: The pitfalls of power-sharing.

In 2013, Professor Donald L. Horowitz delivered the prestigious annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World.  His address was titled “Ethnic Power Sharing and Democracy: Three Big Problems.” Unsurprisingly, he touches on the example of Northern Ireland directly, and his ideas are very helpful in understanding the current situation there. It’s pretty accessible (and you can watch it on YouTube here), but this is the short version.

First, it has to be acknowledged that any kind of power-sharing in a divided society is an immensely difficult thing to achieve. Horowitz notes that between 1980 and 2010, 78 countries experienced this kind of division and instability. Only 20 reached power-sharing agreements, and only four to six achieved some reasonable stability.

As such, it’s hotly debated what “works,” and there are two main schools of thought. Consociationalism believes in establishing rigid guarantees for the power and participation of every relevant group, while centripetalism argues for institutions which incentivize voluntary cooperation and compromise between groups. You can think of Northern Ireland as an example of consociationalism, with power-sharing guarantees to both unionists and nationalists.

After the extraordinarily difficult step of agreeing on a set of power-sharing institutions, there are two core challenges to maintaining power-sharing agreements: degradation and immobilism. Consociational agreements like Northern Ireland’s tend to suffer from immobilism, as stubborn actors can exploit the rigidity of the system to stall government action, not unlike is happening now. In Horowitz’s own words, “The result is a system frequently immobilized with respect to the very questions the agreement was made to settle.”

Centripetalism, however, is no silver bullet either. A lack of strong guarantees often results in a slow degradation of power-sharing, as the majority group erodes inclusivity to increase its power. Horowitz cites the example of Malaysia, where power was shared willingly between Malays and non-Malays like Chinese, until over time non-Malays were slowly excluded from meaningful political participation.

The Takeaway: Crisis may be the only way.

These are big obstacles, but Horowitz offers two examples where they seem to have been totally overcome, where a consociational system eventually transitioned into a stable and generally productive centripetal system: Austria and the Netherlands. In both cases, long-standing religious divisions were addressed through power-sharing guarantees and agreements, until over time the countries secularized, and those formerly crucial divisions lost their salience.

In this way, time seems to be the only remedy, but even that isn’t likely to work in Northern Ireland. The divisions there are indeed religious, and the country seems to be secularizing, if slowly. However, these divisions are also ethnic, between English and Irish, and they’re loaded with almost a millennium of historical baggage of oppression and resentment.

The only other way forward suggested by Horowitz for countries like Northern Ireland is crisis. After all, in crisis, the kind of paralysis experienced because of power-sharing becomes intolerable. Proofs in practice of this in Ireland may be the two world wars, which calmed some internal divisions. It was thought by some that Brexit could be the crisis to drive Northern Irish politics into overdrive. Now, unfortunately, it seems instead it’s merely perpetuating dysfunction.

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