Why enforced powersharing is inherently unhealthy


INSIDE POLITICS:A system that betrays the centre ground in order to placate the North’s hardliners is wrong on every level, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

IN THE Seanad last Tuesday, Fiona O’Malley had the courage to echo the boy who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes when she queried the point of the interminable negotiations about the operation of the North’s political institutions.

It is now almost 12 years since the signing of the Belfast Agreement but the institutions established under it are still not working properly, despite constant repair and adjustment conducted under the aegis of the Taoiseach and the British prime minister.

It is surely time to ask whether the structures established on Good Friday 1998 and embellished by the St Andrews agreement of 2006 are capable of working at all. Even the most committed adherents of the agreement must be wondering whether it can ever deliver a society governed by normal democratic political rules, or if the agreement is actually an obstacle to their development.

O’Malley asked how the people in Northern Ireland would ever face up to their own responsibilities as elected representatives if the Taoiseach and prime minister rushed there every time a crisis developed.

“It exposes the inherent problems in the system of governance in the North of Ireland, the D’Hondt system, in that it rewards people from the extremes and does not reward people who bring together communities and serve all of the people within their communities. While we continue to prop up a dysfunctional system, frankly it will never work and there will be crisis after crisis.”

That is the nub of the problem. The Belfast Agreement enshrined a dysfunctional society’s sectarian divisions into governmental institutions. To be fair, there wasn’t any obvious alternative around at the time and the hope was that normal political activity would gradually evolve as the political representatives of unionism and nationalism shared power and developed some basis of trust in each other.

Instead, however, the opposite happened as suspicions grew and festered in the years after 1998. For that, Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair must take a large share of the blame. Having put an enormous amount of work into constructing the hugely complex agreement, they then proceeded to abandon the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists to appease their more extreme rivals.

It is worth remembering that neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP actually signed up to the agreement on Good Friday 1998. In the years that followed, handing them the reins of power became the overriding objective of both governments and that policy steadily undermined the authority and credibility of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party.

British and Irish ministers and officials naively calculated that once the extremes on both sides were cajoled into a powersharing structure, they would put aside their past bitterness and work together because neither of them could be outflanked on either the republican or loyalist side. It is now clear that betrayal of the centre ground in order to placate the hardliners was wrong on every level. Not only was the policy cynical and unscrupulous, it should have been obvious that it would never provide a durable long-term solution.

In the years after 1998, Sinn Féin perfected the art of spinning out the process time after time in order to get what it wanted, while marginalising the SDLP. It succeeded magnificently in those two objectives but the tinkering with the process became an end in itself. The party has not been nearly as successful in exercising power as it was in art of peace-processing. A byproduct of its interminable negotiating strategy was that the electorate in the Republic simply lost interest in its activities.

Another unintended consequence of its strategy has been that the bigots of the DUP learned the lessons only too well and proceeded to copy the Sinn Féin tactic of putting process before real politics. Each party has got what it deserved in the other but the people who live in Northern Ireland have to put up with the consequences.

It is even arguable whether the elevation of the two parties to the key role in government has succeeded in the objective of ensuring that they cannot be outflanked on the extremes. The murderous activities of the Real IRA are deeply disturbing. Even if the Provisional IRA has finally gone away, it seems that others are now filling their shoes.

On the unionist side, the DUP has been having some difficulties dealing with the outflanking movement being performed by Jim Allister and his Traditional Unionist Voice. It has clearly contributed to the hardline negotiating strategy adopted by the party over the past couple of weeks.

The huge plus for the Belfast Agreement is that it has led to a durable ceasefire from the Provisional IRA. That is, of course, an immensely important achievement. At this stage, though, questions must be asked about whether an unworkable political structure can be kept in place indefinitely.

There is no obvious political alternative to the current structure but it would surely be worth exploring ways in which the political system could be adapted to reward those who are willing and able to co-operate with each other, rather than those who want to fight the battles of the past over and over again.

The D’Hondt model of enforced powersharing – with everybody in government and nobody in opposition – is inherently unhealthy. If Sinn Féin and the DUP can’t, or won’t, operate it, maybe it is time for the two governments to resume full control of affairs in the North to give the parties time to cool off, without all the pay, perks and trappings of power. It might also give the governments time to listen to the views of the ordinary people of the North.

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