The Trouble with Northern Ireland - the Belfast Agreement and Democratic Governance

01 May 2006

Wilford - The Trouble with Northern Ireland

The political situation in Northern Ireland is a far cry from the euphoria of the aftermath of the Belfast agreement of April 1998. The incidence of paramilitary violence, which had gradually re-emerged after the ceasefires of 1994, continued to increase after the agreement, and only fell back after the suspension of the associated institutions in October 2002. Expectations of reconciliation were also dashed, as intercommunal polarisation and other manifestations of intolerance not only disfigured the society but placed the power-sharing institutions at Stormont under increasing strain until they finally collapsed. Efforts by London and Dublin to revive the institutions established after the agreement, in 2003 and 2004, were unsuccessful.

This paper is an aspect of the work of Democratic Audit Ireland, a joint project between the think tanks TASC in Dublin and Democratic Dialogue in Belfast. They have been utilising assessment the template set by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance to assess objectively the state of democracy in Ireland, north and south. That template defines democracy as having two aspects: 'popular control' and 'political equality'.

Using that definition, the Belfast agreement can be subjected to an assessment that is neither 'unionist' nor 'nationalist' but based on universal norms. Indeed, in Northern Ireland's divided society, unionist politicians tend to focus exclusively on democracy as popular control ('majority rule'), nationalists on political equality ('minority rights'). In this regard, the agreement has tended to place these competing constitutional claims side by side, offering unionists the majoritarian 'consent principle' and nationalists the egalitarian 'parity of esteem'. This has allowed the conflict to be pursued -- albeit for the most part less violently -- if anything with more alacrity than before.

The way ahead is to transcend these counterposed positions by defining a new, sui generis constitution for Northern Ireland which would satisfy seamlessly concerns for accountability and equality. This would replace the 'either/or' antagonism of unionism and nationalism by a 'both-and' alternative. Rather than Northern Ireland being of uncertain constitutional location, it would clearly have a federal relationship with the rest of the UK and a confederal relationship with the rest of Ireland. Within a UK context, a new assembly would accept there would be some powers which would be retained at Westminster, but where it could come to agreement with the Oireachtas through the North/South Ministerial Council it could act in any policy domain. It would also adopt an engaged relationship with the institutions of the European Union.

This proposal goes with the 'cosmopolitanism' which informed the recently published policy framework on community relations for Northern Ireland, A Shared Future. This philosophy may be more appropriate to 21st century Ireland than civic republicanism, while building upon it. The latter may thus be seen as a politics to be transcended, rather than to be celebrated in military fashion or airbrushed from history.

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