Northern Ireland has become more politically stable but little progress has been made in overcoming the underlying divisions


The Northern Ireland Community Relations Council’s fourth Peace Monitoring Report, written by Robin Wilson, was published in September. Brian Walker offers an overview of a wide-ranging report in which it is concluded that Northern Ireland has become more politically stable but that too little progress has been made in overcoming the underlying divisions.

‘It was all going so well’, lamented an anonymous Northern Ireland civil servant in response to the Brexit referendum result, fearing for the cohesion of the power sharing partners in government who had just been presented with a new theme to divide them.  While the DUP supported Leave and Sinn Féin were for Remain, the region’s voters had breached the sectarian boundaries to support Remain by 56 per cent to 44 per cent. But with the overall result for Leave, the Irish border was suddenly thrust back into politics, just after an Assembly election in which the constitutional issue had barely figured. Now external threats of as yet uncertain severity are looming for the province, as they also affect the future of the Irish border and the British Union.

The outworking of Brexit is one of the causes of potential instability identified in the compendious fourth Peace Monitoring Report published by the NI Community Relations Council. Written by erstwhile Constitution Unit associate Robin Wilson, who contributed regularly to our devolution monitoring reports in the first decade of devolution, it ranges far more widely than purely ‘peace’ issues to constitute a uniquely comprehensive ‘condition of Northern Ireland’ report from 2014 to the present. As such it provides indispensible background. The report is more analytical than prescriptive, much less prophetic, but the direction of travel is clear. For inspiration it relies heavily on comparisons with international best practice which are generally locally ignored, but on which the author is an acknowledged expert.

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Northern Ireland: What Einstein would have said

The latest crisis in Northern Ireland looks like yet another déjà vu. It’s not that the situation never changes but the remedy offered by London remains stubbornly the same, writes Robin Wilson.

Events in recent weeks in Northern Ireland, including a feud in the IRA in Belfast and tottering power-sharing institutions at Stormont, have highlighted once more that, far from being a ‘post-conflict’ society with an ‘historic’ peace agreement, it remains a region in pre-post-conflict mode where history isn’t over just yet.

This is not, however, due to the ‘ancient hatreds’ often projected on to this complex canvas by the simplifying gaze of superficial observers. As the all-too-similarly dysfunctional nature of post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina and Lebanon demonstrates, it is the consistent application of stereotyping perspectives by representatives of the ‘international community’—the most powerful states with a regional investment—which is the real problem. In all three related agreements—Belfast (1998), Dayton (1995) and Taif (1989)—it has led to the same outcome.

The first step is a conceptual hoovering up of the unique individual diversity of the populace into communal tribes—Protestants and Catholics; Serbs, Croats and ‘Bosniaks’; Maronites, Sunni and Shia Muslims. This fails to recognise the fundamental difficulty that, as the late Italian political scientist Norberto Bobbio pointed out, every democratic constitution is based on the individual citizen. The inevitable victim of this Realpolitik is universal norms: every human rights convention, including those enshrining minority rights, requires the individual to be the rights-bearer; and the rule of law is meaningless unless state institutions are impartial among diverse citizens.

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The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: A Model for Export?

New book by Robin Wilson

The water crisis in Northern Ireland before Christmas, which saw queues of citizens plaintively bringing plastic containers to standpipes, presented the region to the world’s media as akin to a third-world country. It brought home starkly how the restoration of devolution in May 2007 does not mean it is finally a ‘done deal’ which can now (conveniently) be neglected once more in London. The trouble is partly that the governance arrangements, an impenetrable palimpsest of endless successive behind-closed-doors negotiations, are simply dysfunctional–no opposition in the assembly, no collective responsibility in government and a system of mutual vetoes which brings only inertia. And it is partly that power was consciously to be transferred (even in advance of elections to that effect) to two parties identified in a recent , authoritative text as within, and marginally outside, the family of the populist radical right—whose affiliates are elsewhere deemed governmental pariahs.

Yet, ironically, Northern Ireland has, at least until recently, been presented as a political model for export to other ethnic troublespots: Barack Obama appointed George Mitchell to his ill-fated middle-eastern mission in the belief that the former Stormont talks chair could work the same magic with Israelis and Palestinians. So why the region’s ‘peace process’ has not realised expectations—paramilitary violence too has been on the rise again—is of wider public interest. I’ve tried to offer an explanation in The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: A Model for Export?, based on archive research in London and Dublin on the early 1970s power-sharing experiment, interviews with senior officials associated with the Belfast agreement of 1998 and a comparative look at power-sharing in Macedonia and Bosnia. And I try to chart a political route out of the morass in which Northern Ireland remains—fundamentally from a society where it is assumed superficially that ‘ancient hatreds’ remain in play and that therefore communalism is the only  realistic politics to an evidence-based alternative recognising that the (diverse) individual citizen is the only unit of a democratic society.