Deirdre Heenan / May 2022
Almost twenty-five years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, decades of peace, but also of volatile, divisive government, have led to both praise for and criticism of the historic peace accord. On the one hand it is credited with ending the seemingly intractable conflict in Northern Ireland and its impact on power sharing is irrefutable. Notwithstanding these significant achievements, detractors suggest that the Agreement has reinforced and embedded sectarian political divisions and runs counter to a liberal democracy. At the core of the Good Friday Agreement is the acceptance and legitimatisation of the existence of two irreconcilable ethno-national communities- Unionist and Nationalist. These are viewed as fixed, autonomous, and equally valid. But this is self-evidently not true. The rise of the non-aligned ‘others’ in the middle ground, most notably the Alliance party means that rather than two divided blocs in NI, there are three minority communities.
The 1998 Agreement established a power-sharing system of government, based on a consociational model of democracy, designed for societies emerging from conflict, or those with the potential for conflict. It is characterised by the rejection of a majoritarian model of government, such as the one that ensured the unionist dominance of the North’s devolved government from 1922 to 1972. Typically, the features of this system include, a proportional representation voting system, allocation of ministerial portfolios on a proportional basis, the absence of an opposition and a government that operates on the basis of consent, in this case through a mandatory coalition.
Given the propensity for gridlock and collapse, coupled with an appalling lack of delivery in key public policy issues such as health and education there is increasing public frustration with this system of governance. The most recent collapse of fragile the power sharing Executive has nudged the debate on scrapping the mandatory coalition from the margins to the mainstream. Getting Stormont back up and running is of little intrinsic value if it is not coupled with fundamental political and structural change.
Understandably, within nationalist quarters there is concern that any changes might undermine and unravel the prized peace agreement. Michelle O’Neill deputy leader of Sinn Fein has repeatedly stated that her party is not interested in any renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement and has ruled out changes. The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood has also refused to be drawn on the need for systemic reform. Vehement opposition to the Good Friday Agreement has resurfaced during toxic Brexit and Protocol debates. The TUV and DUP antipathy towards it and the recklessness of this British government, explains the lack of appetite for a reassessment. However, the Agreement was not written in stone, but rather should be viewed as a living breathing document, subject to regular review and amendment.
The stop-start nature of devolution in Northern Ireland has meant that the focus has been on maintaining rather than enhancing the structures. Consequently, review and reform, slipped down the political agenda. Contrary to popular opinion, substantial institutional reform is, and has already been possible without renegotiating the Good Friday Agreement. For example, the reduction of the Assembly from 108 to 90 MLAs, the establishment of a new executive department and the creation of provisions for an official opposition. Whilst the principles and values underpinning the Good Friday Agreement such as power sharing, constitutional consent, mutual respect are immutable, how they are realised must be open to debate. The structures imagined in 1998, may not be the most appropriate in 2022.
Is there a viable alternative? Could a voluntary coalition be the solution to creating an effective government? It seems likely that a straightforward voluntary coalition would be rejected on the grounds that it could result in one community being excluded from power. Some type of qualified voluntary coalition with minimum cross community requirements could represent an acceptable replacement. This type of arrangement could facilitate the emergence of a more cohesive coalition, with an increased emphasis on collective responsibility. Parties could choose to opt out of government to sit in opposition, providing much needed accountability and meaningful parliamentary scrutiny.
The past two decades have been a switchback ride of broken promises, collapse, sectarian stand-offs, leaving despairing voters- according to every recent poll-deeply unimpressed and disillusioned. The mandatory coalition forces unwilling partners into government, partners who neither trust nor respect each other and cannot agree on a shared vision. Rather than allowing an Executive to be created voluntarily, it is imposed using a set formula. To-date Executive level politics is not so much about sharing power but is more a contest for ministerial influence, in order to advance the rights of one’s respective community.
Mandatory coalition limps along because ultimately, we think this is as good as it gets. A choice between bad government or no government. Is a coalition of the willing not worth serious consideration? Answering these questions is not about undermining or altering the fundamental spirt, values or principles of the Good Friday Agreement, but rather ensuring that they are realised. With political will, enhancements and change are possible. As we move inexorably to yet another post-election talks process, it may be time to move beyond tinkering at the margins and acknowledge that the current system of mandatory coalition is not fit for purpose.
Clinging to a dysfunctional system is neither sustainable nor desirable.