Is Einstein right about Northern Ireland?


Last month Robin Wilson wrote a blog attributing Stormont’s continued instability to what he sees as Westminster’s inflexible approach to Northern Ireland’s constitutional arrangements. In this post Alan Whysall argues that there is limited hope that institutional reform will offer a way forward in present circumstances. Rather, the political climate in Northern Ireland needs to be changed, and the effort must come primarily from people there. 

Robin Wilson’s recent blog channeled the Einstein view of Northern Ireland’s current political difficulties: summed up in the proposition that the situation never changes, but that the remedy offered by London remains stubbornly the same.

A lot of the analysis is hard to dispute. There are serious underlying failings in the present system.

The immediate causes of disruption, to do with welfare and paramilitary activity, are being addressed in talks between the governments and the parties. It seems increasingly likely, with the DUP and Sinn Féin changing their rhetoric significantly, that a way will be found to resume ostensibly normal working – assuming that there is reassurance in the report on paramilitarism due imminently.

But the deeper flaws will remain. Wilson/Einstein believes that institutional change imposed from London may be the answer. But it is not clear that that can be done, nor that it would result in better-functioning government.

Many in Northern Ireland, disillusioned with their politicians, seem at present to put their faith in outsiders. This is probably misplaced. The answer ultimately needs to come from people within Northern Ireland itself: they alone can generate a change in the political climate.

There are some signs of this happening. But the governments – British, Irish and US – can in their different ways help bring this about by moving on the political debate on, and encouraging new people and new ideas.

Why have things gone wrong?

In a previous blog I outlined what had gone wrong in recent years. Why has it gone wrong? The remarkable structures of devolution in Northern Ireland indeed have something to answer for. The way the Executive is constituted means there is a lack of common purpose, and endless opportunities for obstruction; and the sectarian split in voting reduces the electoral sanction for bad government.

But the system was working a few years ago – after an imperfect fashion, but a great deal more effectively than anything else in recent history. Now, there are growing political flaws. There is continuing concern about paramilitary associations among the Executive parties. But that is only one instance of growing doubt among different parts of the political spectrum about the commitment of others to the settlement, indeed to the success of Northern Ireland. There seems to be increasing unwillingness to make sacrifices to keep the Executive together. Parties in it often seem to take little ownership of government responsibilities. The rhetoric is often negative and hostile. The British government, which is avowedly pro-Union (its Labour predecessor observed neutrality) is accused of partisanship by Sinn Féin. All in all, there is fragmenting political consensus, and increasing mistrust.

All this makes steps towards reconciliation harder. The government’s proposals for dealing with the past, produced following a remit in the Stormont House Agreement, are being disputed at present.

Meanwhile there has been little corrective contribution – constructive proposals, positive commentary – coming from outside the political parties. Business and academia for the most part have kept fairly quiet (perhaps fearing to displease the political class). There is not much of a civil society voice.

If politicians are unduly under the influence of narrow sectional interests within their own communities, it is not least because of the absence of countervailing pressures from other segments of society.

At the same time, key groups feel excluded from politics. That complaint is often made from loyalist communities, and has a serious impact on unionist politics. A new Loyalist Communities Council established this week may help change that.

But there is apparently also a large middle ground that has largely opted out – and the ‘garden centre Unionists’ may have been joined by some from the nationalist community.

There are some signs of change. There have been attempts in the recent past to form civil society movements. The Make It Work campaign probably had some positive influence late last year in persuading the parties that they needed to reach agreement in the Stormont House talks. Another one, the Civil Society Network, appears to be in the process of forming. But the impact so far is limited.

And there is a shortage of innovation, commentary, and challenge on public policy issues. Most political debate in the Northern Ireland media is about the continued institutional wrangles. Serious long term issues like the economy, sectarianism, and the implications of Scottish independence have featured little, and what debate there is lacks the facts and analysis to be well-informed (though a programme was announced this week to lead the debate on Northern Ireland and the EU).

The Executive is often ill placed to do public policy development well. This makes all the more serious the absence of external institutions such as think tanks that are found in other devolved capitals, and London and Dublin.

The prospects

The Northern Ireland devolved structures will remain precarious even if immediate pressures to do with welfare, budgets and paramilitarism are resolved. Further challenges will come up in 2016 – including the possibility of a Sinn Féin First Minister, if they are the largest party following the May elections (in legal terms this is without significant consequence, but an enormous blow to Unionist self-esteem); a referendum on ‘Brexit’, which could have consequences far more profound within the island of Ireland even than for the rest of the UK; and a continued austerity programme from London.

In fact the structures may well survive further challenges. There is great self-interest in that among the participants. In part personal – a return to direct rule would blight a good number of political careers. But it also suits the parties’ narratives. And there will be an election holiday between 2016 and 2019, leaving room for compromise.

But if the institutions survive, there is not much ground for confidence that they will start to deliver as well as they should. Unless the politics moves on, their survival may continue to dominate political debate, rather than any agenda for making Northern Ireland a better place.

What to do about this?

Robin Wilson favours renewed direct rule and then imposed restructuring, on the assumption that nothing will ever change under the present dispensation.

But that premise is surely unsound. Things have fundamentally changed for the better in two decades.

The move to constitutional politics, for all its flaws, has been accompanied by, and to a large degree brought about, significant advances. Violence for political purposes is massively reduced (though a significant threat that could disrupt a disunited politics). We have, through one of the more remarkable transformations in recent decades, policing with the consent of all parts of the community. Though the Northern Ireland private sector economy is seriously weak, it attracts significant overseas investment.

And Northern Ireland government has worked in effective partnership, at least between 2010 and 2012.

These gains are at risk if the frail institutional bonds that bind the Northern Ireland parties together are broken. There is sufficient mistrust and division that if partnership government fell, recrimination would for a long time be likely to replace reconciliation. Politicians wanting to find a way to resume power-sharing government would face serious challenge within their own communities. Those small numbers of people who still believe in the effectiveness of political violence would be likely to take new heart, further raising tensions. There is a real risk that if we ever return to direct rule, it might take a decade or more to move on.

Direct rule itself cannot be a long-term answer. No doubt at first, having no real need to be popular in Northern Ireland, the government could make necessary painful decisions that restored some order to the Executive’s business. But if direct rule might be at the basic level competent, there is no reason to suppose that it would be inspired. The British and Irish governments, with their other preoccupations, will not always find it easy to give Northern Ireland high quality attention. And the provisions of the Good Friday agreement giving the Irish government a role in direct rule could be highly contentious. Politically direct rule is unstable, because the public are likely to go on voting for approximately the same party line-up for Westminster, for Europe and for district councils, and those parties will be attacking each other (and the government), not working together. And it lacks any democratic legitimacy.

Can the system be improved through serious institutional change?

Some changes may be inevitable. Stormont’s legal autonomy in welfare matters, whilst financial arrangements mean that it is tied to the system in Great Britain, is an anomaly that probably needs to end to avoid further political friction.

Creating arrangements for an opposition at Stormont is sometimes spoken of as transformational. The Stormont House Agreement includes some provision to make it more attractive to the parties to decline their entitlement to Executive seats, and function in opposition mode. The hope is that this will develop constructive challenge to those in power. The fear is that it will lead the opposition parties to challenge those in the Executive when they engage in necessary compromise, of which indeed a good deal goes on anyway. The prospect of parties from different parts of the community coming together to offer an alternative government, which we look to oppositions for elsewhere, may be a long way down the line.

A private member’s bill now before the Assembly, introduced by the moderate independent Unionist John McCallister, would go further: besides setting out various ways of empowering parties that choose to oppose within the Assembly, it also offers the option of petitioning Westminster (the Assembly cannot do this for itself) to remove the concept of community designation from the Assembly, replacing it with a system of weighted majorities, which would necessarily change the way the First Minister and deputy First Minister are chosen.

Some would go further and change the way the Executive is constituted, so that it becomes a voluntary coalition, whose cross community composition would be guaranteed by a requirement for it to obtain the support of a weighted majority in the Assembly. This is the formal policy of the DUP, and of the Alliance Party. It has always been opposed by nationalism, especially Sinn Féin, which has seen it as a device to exclude them from government – as Peter Robinson himself acknowledged several years ago.

It would be highly desirable in itself to end the embodiment within the Northern Ireland constitution of a sectarian split which does nothing to facilitate the development of a more cohesive and multidimensional public life in Northern Ireland. But nationalism’s concerns are real. And given Sinn Féin’s size at present, it is hard to see credible cross-community government that does not involve them. Setting the threshold high enough to guarantee that they are in government, on the other hand, may mean that there is little real change.

And for Westminster to seek to impose this, as Robin Wilson envisages, is extremely difficult. The Good Friday Agreement was agreed by what was called ‘sufficient consensus’: support of representatives voted for by 50% of unionism and 50% of nationalism. And it was then submitted to the British and Irish parliaments, and referendums in both parts of Ireland. In considering changes to significant details, the government has set itself the condition that they must achieve ‘broad support’, which it has not precisely defined, but which is clearly something like sufficient consensus. The McCallister proposals are unlikely to reach such support – but we shall see if and when they are voted on in the Assembly.

A non-sectarian constitution must be the goal. But the pathway to it is voters voting for parties outside the binary divide – at the moment, they do not do so in any large numbers – or parties reaching out to cross the divide.

Changing the political weather

Something can be done. One of the things that inhibits political change in Northern Ireland is precisely the belief that change for the better is impossible – a sort of fatalism which is actually at odds with history, and which encourages people to turn away from politics, especially those that should be the motor of change.

There can only really be progress through the creation of a new political climate in Northern Ireland – by moving the political debate on to real questions of government. Some of these – about the economy, about public services, about building the ‘shared future’ to which almost all aspire but which remains an elusive concept – are pressing.

But in doing this it would be possible to start to develop a vision for what Northern Ireland could become. The absence of a compelling vision at present in the parties’ offerings is striking: it is expressed most forcefully in terms of discussions about Northern Ireland’s eventual constitutional destination, UK or Ireland, on which a decision is on any reasonable assessment many years away.

Northern Ireland has many advantages economically, socially (it always comes out high in the overall happiness ratings in the UK, despite its politics), indeed in being regarded by many in the world as a capital of reconciliation, though the reputation is becoming tarnished. There is an awful lot to build on, whatever one thinks is its ultimate constitutional fate.

Constructive politics could capture imaginations. But how to do this? Northern Ireland needs to generate its own salvation and its own leadership. That means new ideas, new people coming into public debate and ultimately, perhaps, into political activity directly, whether in existing parties or new ones. The reluctance to take part, to be heard, needs to be overcome.

There are, as set out above, signs of stirrings in civic society, but they need encouragement.

The UK government – and the Irish and US governments – have a role here in giving them that. That is not to say that they should seek to appeal over the heads of the political classes to amorphous new groups: that is unlikely to work. But they are well placed to broaden the political debate, and to involve and focus the efforts of wider society in Northern Ireland. Dialogue about politics in recent years, has become a government to politician affair, from which the public are increasingly distanced, and by which they are unimpressed. That needs to change.

This is a rather more active role than the government has sought in recent years – but much less effort than would be needed if the institutions collapsed.

The other change that would go a long way to facilitate better informed debate and indeed a new sort of politics would be a source or sources of public policy innovation and challenge. There is nothing at present in Northern Ireland that really amounts to a think tank (Robin Wilson heroically led one for a number of years, Democratic Dialogue, but it survives no longer).

It is easy to say that such institutions are necessary; much less easy to see how they would be established on the basis that they commanded respect across the community, with guaranteed independence, and technical backbone. And they would need that to make them credible and effective. But work needs to start.

Moving to a new politics in this way, and primarily through Northern Ireland’s own efforts (though government pump priming may be vital) does seem the only practicable way forward at the moment, and one that offers the best chance of safeguarding the great gains that Northern Ireland has made in recent years. Future blog posts will develop this programme.

About the author

Alan Whysall is a former senior civil servant who has worked on Northern Ireland for most of the last 35 years. In his retirement he has become an Honorary Senior Research Associate at The Constitution Unit, where he plans to do further work on Northern Ireland, together with Hilary Jackson and Brian Walker.

One thought on “Is Einstein right about Northern Ireland?

  1. Pingback: Northern Ireland’s ‘Fresh Start’ agreement will bring short term stability but does not itself resolve the underlying problems | The Constitution Unit Blog

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