Northern Ireland: how can power-sharing be revived?

Alan Whysall was a panellist in the session on Northern Ireland at the Unit’s State of the Constitution conference on 23 June. This revision of his talk draws on his paper for the Unit on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, and its accompanying blogpost. He argues that stable power-sharing can only return through good faith inclusive negotiation – which is not a part of London’s current approach – and a reinforcement of the foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

It is essential to bring all the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement institutions back as soon as possible: that unlocks the potential for political progress. Without the institutions, polarisation grows; the longer they are away, the harder ultimately the Agreement settlement is to sustain. And there is no alternative as a framework for the stable government of Northern Ireland.

Devolution still has wide popular support and the political class has a strong self-interest in restoring the institutions, if only because paying them not to undertake government is becoming unpopular. But there are big questions about how.

The government’s approach

Can the institutions be stably restored the government’s way? Setting aside for now judgements about the government’s approach, its integrity, or the extraordinary contents (breach of international obligations, vast delegation of powers to ministers) of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, this seems to me to be doubtful.

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Constitutional reform: then and now (1995-2020)

In the latest blog celebrating the Constitution Unit’s 25th anniversary, human rights academic and advocate Francesca Klug recounts how aspects of the constitutional agenda of the mid-1990s were realised, and what lessons we can learn about how to entrench its achievements, prevent democratic backsliding and stop erosion of hard-won rights.

When I was at school, I learned nothing about the British constitution, but one thing I did absorb was this: although we do not have a written founding document, our invisible constitution was apparently uniquely successful and therefore inviolable. However, during the 1980s, I gradually became aware that there was something a bit odd about this perfect constitution. In other democracies, many of the controversial or unpopular measures introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s governments – such as the ‘poll tax’ and broadcasting and book bans – could be challenged in the courts. In the UK, however, there was nothing citizens could do to overturn such policies, except take to the streets to protest or wait up to five years for another election. 

This powerlessness and lack of accountability was a major driver behind the founding of Charter 88 in 1988, led by Anthony Barnett and Stewart Weir. I was lucky as a relatively young activist to be asked to join its council. We called for holistic change: a democratic second chamber, electoral reform, devolution, freedom of information and a bill of rights. And we had one major overall objective: we wanted the people of this country to have more power over the decisions which affected them; what in today’s money might be called ‘taking back control’. We sought this not for its own sake, but as a means of making our society fairer. 

It took a little time, but this message started to persuade people at the highest levels of the Labour Party. John Smith succeeded Neil Kinnock as Leader following the Conservatives’ 1992 general election victory and the following year he gave a landmark speech to Charter 88, entitled ‘A Citizens’ Democracy. For the first time, he articulated a clear objective for wholesale constitutional reform. Its purpose, he said, was to ‘restore democracy to our people – for what we have in this country is not real democracy: it is elective dictatorship.’ The use of the term ‘elective dictatorship’ is interesting, as it partly echoed Lord Hailsham, a former Conservative Lord Chancellor, who had coined the phrase two decades earlier. Notably, in this speech Smith committed the Labour Party to the introduction of a human rights act based on the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which turned 70 years old this month. 

John Smith died unexpectedly the following year, but Tony Blair, despite some scepticism, largely kept faith with his predecessor’s commitment to constitutional reform. The precise objectives articulated by Smith, however, seemed to wither away and the purpose of the proposed policies became more obscure. In particular, there was no unified narrative to link them together and no sense of what might come next. 

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