“Nationalist, Unionist or Other:” The Poverty of Consociational Politics in Northern Ireland

When the Anglo-Irish Agreement [AIA] was signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garret Fitzgerald more than three decades ago, the IRA and Sinn Féin rejected its terms with Gerry Adams denouncing it as “the formal recognition of the partition of Ireland [which] far outweighs the powerless consultative role given to Dublin.” In the AIA the two governments made a commitment to taking “measures to recognise and accommodate the rights and identities of the two traditions”. Thus, in the words of academic Chris Gilligan, “instead of a universalist language of equality regardless of race, religion or ethnicity”, the AIA proposed to give recognition to people identified not as citizens but as members of two pre-ordained sectarian ‘communities’. The Sinn Féin position has changed considerably since the mid-1980s but the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 and the Assembly which developed out of it share the basic idea expressed in the AIA that, “a condition of genuine reconciliation between unionists and nationalists is mutual recognition and acceptance of each other’s rights”. Subsequent to the GFA, the structures and protocols which emerged out of this thinking included the mandatory identification of Stormont MLAs as ‘nationalist’, ‘unionist’ or ‘other’, and an enforced executive coalition in an assembly with sectarian veto rights.

The kind of system of government that was developed, known in academic circles by the clunky term ‘consociationalism’, was based on the belief that difference could be managed by a governmental elite made up of sectarian parties and that those in favour of a more radical integrationist approach to government naively deny the stubborn reality of sectarian difference. As John McGarry, one of the chief academic supporters of consociationalism, put it in 1995, “the problem with integrationist solutions is that they require a willingness to be integrated, and no such willingness exists in deeply divided societies… Many blacks in the United States are now coming to realize, ironically, that the separate but equal doctrine in ‘Plessey v. Ferguson’ is more attractive than the separate means unequal doctrine of “Brown v. Board of Education’.” This kind of ‘realism’ denies the common experiences of workers in capitalist societies as well as the opinion poll evidence in Northern Ireland showing consistent support for integrating or mixing in schools employment, housing and socially. Moreover, it fails to explain why politicians on all sides in the Executive endorse the same free market economics which materially disadvantage the working class majority. Academic Paul Dixon notes that, “those in poverty, often located in the most highly segregated areas, have suffered most during the recent conflict, yet have benefitted least from the peace”.

A different view of how to arrange things can be seen in the work of senior civil servant Jeremy Harbison, who in 2001 was tasked with producing a document reviewing community relations in Northern Ireland as part of its first Programme for Government.  As it happened, before the Executive could debate Harbison’s review, the devolved administration was suspended in May 2002 and for almost five years Northern Ireland returned to Direct Rule from London. When the devolved administration returned with a government dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin, the document was briefly debated and then shelved.

Crucially, the document states that, “[s]eparate but equal is not an option. Parallel living and the provision of parallel services are unsustainable both morally and economically. …the costs of a divided society – whilst recognising, of course, the very real fears of people around safety and security considerations – are abundantly clear: segregated housing and education, … and deep-rooted intolerance that has too often been used to justify violent sectarianism and racism.” While the Good Friday Agreement includes some gestures towards integration, the actual workings of government involve the consociational management of difference.

Consociational government aims to produce a kind of voluntary apartheid in which each ‘side’ chooses among representatives from its own political ‘community’. The parties which have ultimately benefited from consociational voluntary apartheid are the hardliners in the two sectarian camps. For Paul Dixon it is the DUP and Sinn Féin, “the most segregation-oriented parties, [who] continue to benefit electorally from continuing communal antagonisms and segregation.” In Derry in 2011 Sinn Féin’s Gerry MacLochlainn perfectly expressed ‘consociationalist’ thinking when arguing in favour of the erection of a new 170-metre long ‘peace line’ in Lisnagelvin. MacLochlainn told a Community Safety Forum meeting that “it is unfortunate that we have to put up these fences but there is a saying that ‘good fences make good neighbours.’”

It is hardly surprising that in the 1980s National Party Ministers in the South African Apartheid regime began to promote consociationalism as a more workable way of enforcing white rule.

Unionist commentator Alex Kane writes that when the GFA was signed, “there was a general optimism that time would result in the building of trust followed by broader co-operation”. An integrationist arrangement built around ideas of common citizenship could have led to greater co-operation but consociationalism has led instead to widening sectarian difference and political instability while doing nothing to redress inequality, poverty and economic uncertainty. The various existential crises that have beset the Stormont government since 1998 have highlighted the instability of the current system of government. As I write in November 2017, there is a strong possibility that the British Government will be forced to implement direct rule (as it did between 2002 and 2007) in the absence of any agreement over the implementation of an Irish Language Act.

In the midst of the current crisis political commentators cannot resist looking into their various crystal balls. For Alex Kane, “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this peace or political process is drawing to a close” and “the present institutions cannot survive”. Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, former IRA member and current critic of Sinn Féin, Anthony MacIntyre, argues that if Sinn Féin is to succeed, “in its pretence that a united Ireland of sorts [with Sinn Féin in government North and South] … can be put in place, it requires the apparatus in the north to be firing on all cylinders.” Irish News columnist Patrick Murphy argues that a replacement assembly is needed. He argues that rather than calling for an end to ‘institutionalised sectarianism”, Sinn Féin has used the current crisis to call for a fairer deal for Sinn Féin: “Thus it [SF] missed the opportunity to recognise -as republicans might be expected to-  that Stormont has also failed to deliver for unionists, particularly the working class. But there was no [Sinn Féin] demand for equality for the poor, the marginalised, the under-educated and those on hospital waiting lists.”

Quoting pertinent parts of the Good Friday Agreement, the now-shelved ‘Shared Futures’ document made some comments on inter-culturalism, which are relevant. According to the author, ‘if we follow these principles we cannot go far wrong’:

“First, everyone in Northern Ireland deserves to be treated as an individual, equal with every other (‘vindication of the human rights of all’) – not a mere cypher for a ‘community’. Second, each of us must mutually recognise our common humanity (‘achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust’) – rather than engaging in a perpetual and sterile battle for ethnic power. And third, the state must be neutral between competing cultural claims (‘promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level’ and encouragement of ‘integrated education – in its widest sense – and mixed housing’).”

If and when the Stormont Assembly is resurrected, unless it moves away from the separate but equal ideology of consociationalism it will continue to be riven by crises and will continue to do a profound disservice to the working class majority in Northern Ireland.

Justin O’Hagan is a member of the Workers Party of Ireland. He blogs at https://thisjustinsite.wordpress.com/