Taking the World by Storm(ont): Power Sharing in Northern Ireland

By Ashley Reynolds
Home to one of the longest conflicts in post-WWII Europe, Northern Ireland continues to deal with the legacy of The Troubles and its resulting political consequences. The Troubles, which lasted from 1969 to 1998, caused
more than 3,300 deaths and 47,500 injuries across the territory. While several parties were involved in the violence, two main groups dominated the political landscape: nationalists, who believe Northern Ireland should be part of the Republic of Ireland, and unionists, who believe Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom.

The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, largely ended the violent conflict. This agreement established a consociational power sharing agreement which ensured both nationalist and unionist political parties would have a say in the governance of Northern Ireland. The new government, housed in Stormont, featured a shared executive office with one nationalist and one unionist leader sharing equal power. The minority party was granted veto power, and certain decisions required cross-community support from a minimum percentage of both unionists and nationalists. 

However, the agreement has not been perfect. Northern Ireland has still seen occasional outbreaks of violence, especially in the wake of Brexit. Most recently, journalist Lyra McKee was killed during rioting in Derry, sparking fears of renewed conflict. And the seemingly regular breakdown of government in Stormont has also called into question the long-term effectiveness of institutional arrangements in Northern Ireland.

Closing the Storm Shutters: Governmental Breakdown in Northern Ireland

The government in Northern Ireland has shuttered several times. As of May 2019, Stormont has not functioned for more than two years, making Northern Ireland the world record holder for the longest period without a sitting government.

Since the institutional configuration requires both nationalists and unionists to participate in power sharing, when one party walks away, the entire system collapses. This happened in January 2017, when a scandal emerged over the mismanagement of a renewable energy scheme. Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party, called for an independent inquiry into unionist First Minister Arlene Foster, but she refused. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness subsequently resigned, and Sinn Féin refused to replace him. Without a nationalist in executive office, the government effectively became defunct.

Westminster has not enacted direct rule from London, and despite subsequent elections, Stormont still cannot function properly. Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party have continued to clash on a number of issues, including same sex marriage and the Irish language, leading to widespread anger from both unionists and nationalists.

After Lyra McKee’s death and protests across Northern Ireland, attempts have been made to reestablish power sharing in Stormont. However, the leaders of Sinn Féin and the DUP have shown little willingness to make concessions.

Additionally, with Brexit looming, political parties in Northern Ireland continue to argue over the border and the potential negative effects it would have on peace in the region. The DUP does not support Theresa May’s proposed backstop, arguing it undermines the integrity of the United Kingdom, while Sinn Féin opposes Brexit altogether.

A Flawed Institutional Model for Peace?

Given the complex political situation, some are questioning the institutional arrangements on which Northern Ireland’s government is based. Consociationalism has always had a number of critics, and many of their points apply to the current breakdown of power in Northern Ireland.

Identities in Northern Ireland are deeply polarized and entrenched along nationalist and unionist lines. Typically, nationalists are Catholic, while unionists are Protestant. The school system is still segregated, primarily on the basis of religion. Just 5.5% of primary school children and 14.4% of non-grammar secondary students attend integrated schools. Consequently, youths in Northern Ireland often do not participate in cross-community education until university.

Critics argue that consociational power sharing agreements freeze identities by granting representation to predetermined groups that were party to the conflict, rather than encouraging individuals to form cross-cutting identities or allowing new groups to emerge. The parties to the conflict become institutionalized and difficult to change. Some claim that by maintaining existing divisions, meaningful long-term transformation of society becomes more challenging. In the case of Northern Ireland, society remains staunchly divided between unionists and nationalists, a division codified in the power sharing agreement.  This cleavage is unlikely to evolve in the short-term future.

This division also has implications on democracy itself. Individuals vote for politicians of their predetermined group and are less likely to vote for members of the “other” group regardless of particular views. Elites thus have incentives to freeze the conflict and perpetuate societal divisions in order to maintain power over their base. As one critic points out, “It has been questioned whether power sharing at all can be democratic. One reason for this is that power sharing emphasizes representation of certain target groups, rather than representation of ideas and ideologies.”

Hope for Power Sharing in Stormont?

Despite these concerns, proponents of consociationalism and the Good Friday Agreement have pointed out that little alternative was possible and that power sharing was the best path towards peace. And these individuals have concrete evidence to back up their claims: Northern Ireland saw a four-fifths reduction in conflict-related deaths in the first seven years of the agreement and the total elimination of police deaths due to political violence. Belfast, one of the major sites of the conflict, now holds status as one of the safest cities in the United Kingdom. This dramatic reduction in violence would have been unlikely without a power sharing agreement in place.

Defenders of consociationalism also point out that deeply held identities such as those in Northern Ireland were unlikely to change due to any proposed institutional reforms in the Good Friday Agreement. While the current arrangement does perpetuate divisions in society, it was unlikely that these divisions would somehow disappear in other circumstances.

That being said, the peace in Northern Ireland is not perfect, as demonstrated by the defunct state of the government. Frustration has manifested itself in the form of protests and satirical messaging. The Green Party and other alternatives to unionist/nationalist parties both made significant gains during recent elections, showing frustration with the deeply divided state of politics in Northern Ireland.

The breakdown of Northern Ireland’s government rests on political elites who see little incentive to cooperate with one another and reach across well-established cleavages. The people of Northern Ireland can continue to make their displeasure heard through their votes, protests, and activism. Westminster may also consider applying more pressure on the Northern Irish government to resume its operations. (However, this is currently unlikely due to the complex political situation surrounding Brexit and Theresa May’s need for support from the DUP.)  Citizens and elites may also consider other steps towards integration and long-term peace, including educational reforms to encourage cross-cultural cooperation among youths.

Ultimately, political solutions are only one aspect of peace. Long-term reconciliation must come from all facets of life, not just Stormont. Still, politicians must be held accountable for their failure to uphold the agreement that not only maintains the government, but also maintains the peace.

Ashley primarily focuses on human rights in politics and international relations. She takes special interest in human rights within the United States. Ashley holds bachelor’s degrees in Global Studies and English Professional Writing. She previously worked with the US Department of State, American University, and US News and World Report. She also contributed to the OHCHR report on potential human rights impacts of the African Continental Free Trade Area.