Belfast Agreement power-sharing model can entrench sectarianism

The agenda at Hillsborough was long: from the existence of paramilitaries, unionist willingness to share power, the British army…

The agenda at Hillsborough was long: from the existence of paramilitaries, unionist willingness to share power, the British army presence, devolution of justice, human rights, the Irish language everything except the central problem: the fact that Northern Ireland is a deeply divided society. And the peace process may be helping it to become more so, writes Robin Wilson

In an era marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall, Northern Ireland has accumulated, officially, 37 peace walls separating hostile communities - up from 15 in 1994. And the recent Northern Ireland Office consultation paper on community relations admits: "Northern Ireland remains a deeply segregated society with little indication of progress towards becoming more tolerant or inclusive."

Worse still, evidence from the Life and Times Survey on public attitudes shows a deterioration in intercommunal relations and diminishing optimism about the future (see graph).

A "blip" of polarisation after the Belfast Agreement might have been dismissed as the shock of the new. But five years, four suspensions and three polarised elections on, at best the agreement has had a neutral effect on communal division, at worst, it has unwittingly exacerbated it.


The agreement is based on the "consociationalist" model of power-sharing in divided societies:

a "grand coalition" of representatives of ethnic (in this case religious) groups;

a "mutual veto" arrangement for them;

autonomy for these groups from each other; and

a proportionate distribution of public employment.

The fundamental problem with consociationalism is that it is premised on the division it is supposed to solve: high wall make good neighbours!

If it derives from consensus (as it did in the Netherlands), it will tend to wither away to intercultural civility.

If it is a response to conflict (as in Belgium), it will tend to reinforce communal separation.

There are four features of the agreement which arguably have entrenched division:

the either-or constitutional choice between UK and united Ireland;

the single-transferable-vote electoral system for the assembly;

the requirement of communal registration for assembly members; and

the use of the d'Hondt rule for executive formation.

On the constitution, the "consent" principle - that Northern Ireland is part of the UK but only for as long as a majority there so desires - was also at the heart of the 1973 power-sharing propositions.

In essence, it was the basis of partition itself.

It does nothing to disentangle Protestantism from unionism or Catholicism from nationalism - hence the recent census results were treated like a sectarian rugby score (Protestants 53, Catholics 44). Yet after three decades of membership of the European Union, Northern Ireland is inextricably entwined in a "variable geometry" of relationships with the rest of Ireland, the rest of the UK, and the rest of Europe. Either/or "sovereignty" choices are now remote from reality.

The single-transferable-vote electoral system was also used in 1973 (and in 1921).

Single-transferable-vote requires candidates to secure only a minority of votes - in this case 14 per cent - to reach a quota. They can, therefore, succeed simply by mobilising their core constituency. There is evidence from other divided societies that a well-chosen system - the alternative vote (AV) is often cited as it requires candidates to secure a majority to be elected - can bring about more conciliatory electoral messages from more moderate candidates, allied to tactical voting in their favour from "the other side". In Northern Ireland, elections have become entirely communalised affairs and ethnic outbidding is rewarded by the system.

The requirement for communal registration - that all assembly members declare themselves unionist, nationalistor other - is the political equivalent of being offered a Celtic or Rangers top on arrival at Stormont.

It also renders the votes of the communal party members more equal than the "others" in decisions on controversial issues, when only nationalists and unionists really count. It would be highly unlikely that any secure power-sharing coalition would be undermined by issue-by-issue communal voting (ironically, there was no such protective provision in 1974). But a purely numerical weighted- majority requirement would not entrench communalist mindsets.

Finally, the arrangements for executive formation by application of the d'Hondt proportionality rule are unique in the world. They reduce the executive to a "holding company" for largely autonomous ministerial fiefdoms.

Collective responsibility is weak and the executive has failed to cement the mistrustful political factions. Moreover, by making the mistake common in ethnic conflicts of failing to distinguish inclusion in the "political community" from inclusion in government, the arrangements have left the assembly bereft of any effective opposition (all bar 16 MLAs belong to the four executive parties).

Requiring all parties aspiring to government to come to reciprocal arrangements, with executive formation dependent on assembly support, would shoehorn parties into accommodatory gestures, rather than engaging in the "blame game".

The agreement provides for its own review, four years from "when it comes into effect". That in official thinking seems to be tending to December 1999 when power was devolved formally and the parallel constitutional change took effect in the Republic. This would suggest a conference between the assembly parties and the governments in London and Dublin - the format for the review - in the autumn.

The review should focus on moving Northern Ireland from a divided to a "normal", civic society. It is thus important to engage not just political but also the sometimes leavening civic actors in the debate. Four reforms suggest themselves:

a refocusing from the procedure for constitutional change towards a new and positive statement of Northern Ireland's constitutional character, recognising that the region will exist for some time to come as a unique intercultural entity, while removing any barriers to the competences it may deploy in conjunction with its southern neighbour - thereby advancing reconciliation within Northern Ireland and in Ireland as a whole;

a reconsideration of the electoral system, to encourage parties to compete by moderating identity, or even to pool votes, rather than adopting antagonistic postures. AV plus a proportionality top-up would be one option allied to a more compact assembly;

removal of the requirement for communal registration, to allow cross-sectarian alignments to emerge, perhaps with a secular weighted-majority requirement for potentially controversial decisions; and

executive formation to be via inter-party agreement, with ministers having to secure weighted-majority support from the assembly (akin to the Swiss Federal Council), thereby rewarding conciliatory behaviour between/among parties that commits them to the wider public interest.

The goal would be to move from an agreement which made a Faustian pact with sectarianism for reasons of short-term realpolitik to a more stable and enduring architecture.

Whether that process culminated over time in the unification of Ireland or the rendering of the border as an immaterial line on a map could be safely left for others to decide.

Robin Wilson is director of the think-tank Democratic Dialogue and co-leader of a Northern Ireland research team monitoring the outworking of devolution in the region. A paper on policy options by Prof Rick Wilford and himself, on which this article is based, is available at

Source: Life and Times survey