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Consociational Theory, Northern Ireland's Conflict, and its Agreement 2.-What Critics of Consociation Can Learn from Northern Ireland

  • John McGarry and Brendan O'Leary

In the second of two articles the authors show what integrationist critics of consociational theory can learn from the case of Northern Ireland, namely, that consociation may be more realistic than integration, that a ‘grand coalition’ may have more virtue than the ‘minimum-winning’ variety, that consociations can be both liberal and democratic, and that PR-STV has considerable advantages over integrationists’ preferred electoral system, the Alternative Vote.

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2 McGarry, John and O'Leary, Brendan, ‘Five Fallacies: Northern Ireland and the Liabilities of Liberalism’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 18: 4 (1995), pp.837–61.

3 Exponents and critics can be found in Norman Porter (ed.), The Republican Ideal: Current Perspectives, Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1998.

4 Kevin Rooney, ‘Institutionalising Division’, Fortnight, (June 1998), p. 21.

5 Norman Porter, Rethinking Unionism: An Alternative Vision for Northern Ireland, Belfast, Blackstaff, 1996; The Elusive Quest: Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Belfast, Blackstaff, 2003. The latter was subjected to an exasperated review by the then leader of the UUP. See Trimble, David, ‘Words, Words, Words (review of Norman Porter's The Elusive Quest)’, Times Literary Supplement, 5220 (18 April 2003), pp.78.

6 Rupert Taylor, ‘A Consociational Path to Peace in Northern Ireland and South Africa?’, in Adrian Guelke (ed.), New Perspectives on the Northern Ireland Conflict, Avebury, Aldershot, 1994, pp. 161–74. Taylor approvingly cites Henry Patterson for the claim that the accommodation of the minority's national identity in the Anglo-Irish Agreement was a poor substitute for dealing with the ‘material basis of Catholic grievance’, p. 171, n. 13.

7 Rupert Taylor, ‘Consociation or Social Transformation?’, in John McGarry (ed.), Northern Ireland and the Divided World: Post-Agreement Northern Ireland in Comparative Perspective, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 47.

8 Joseph Ruane and Jennifer Todd, The Dynamics of Conflict in Northern Ireland: Power, Conflict and Emancipation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, ch. 11.

9 Taylor, ‘Consociation or Social Transformation?’, p. 43. Also see Douglas, Neville, ‘The Politics of Accommodation, Social Change and Conflict Resolution in Northern Ireland’, Political Geography, 17: 2 (1998), pp.220 and 222.

10 For Bew and Patterson's past anti-consociationalist views, see Paul Bew and Henry Patterson, ‘Scenarios for Progress in Northern Ireland’, in John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary (eds), The Future of Northern Ireland, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 217, and The British State and the Ulster Crisis, London, Verso, 1985, passim.

11 Donald Horowitz, ‘The Agreement: Clear, Consociational and Risky’, in McGarry (ed.), Northern Ireland and the Divided World, pp. 89–108; Robin Wilson and Rick Wilford, ‘Northern Ireland: A Route to Stability?, Democratic Dialogue’, (accessed 13 May 2003); Robin Wilson, ‘Belfast Agreement Power-Sharing Model Can Entrench Sectarianism’, Irish Times, 5 March 2003.

12 Donald Horowitz, ‘The Agreement: Clear, Consociational and Risky’.

13 For similar arguments from the experience of Papua and New Guinea, see Reilly, Benjamin, ‘Preferential Voting and Political Engineering: A Comparative Study’, Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, 35: 1 (1997), pp.119;Benjamin Reilly, Democracy in Divided Societies: Electoral Engineering for Conflict Management, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

14 Mitchell, Paul, O'Leary, Brendan and Evans, Geoffrey, ‘Northern Ireland: Flanking Extremists Bite the Moderates and Emerge in their Clothes’, Parliamentary Affairs, 54: 4 (2001), pp.725–42;Interested readers will find that Figure 2 in the second article (p. 33) has a printer's error that transposes the DUP and Alliance party vote-shares.

15 Ibid.

16 O'Leary, Brendan, ‘More Green, Fewer Orange’, Fortnight, 281 and 282 (1990), pp.1215 and 16–17;Brendan O’Leary and Geoffrey Evans, The Politics of Antagonism: Understanding Northern Ireland, London and Atlantic Heights, NJ, Athlone, 1993, p. 192; Brendan O'Leary and John McGarry, ‘Northern Ireland: La Fin de Siécle, the Twilight of the Second Protestant Ascendancy and Sinn Féin's Second Coming’, Parliamentary Affairs, 50: 4 (1997), pp. 672–80; Paul Mitchell, ‘Party Competition in an Ethnic Dual Party System‘, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 18: 4 (1995), pp. 773–96; Paul Mitchell, ‘The Party-System and Party Competition’, in Paul Mitchell and Rick Wilford (eds), Politics in Northern Ireland, Boulder, CO, Westview, 1999, pp. 91–116; Paul Mitchell, ‘Transcending an Ethnic Party System? The Impact of Consociational Governance on Electoral Dynamics and the Party System’, in Rick Wilford (ed.), Aspects of the Belfast Agreement, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 28–48.

17 For data on the turnout rate in Northern Ireland, see John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary, The Northern Ireland Conflict: Consociational Engagements, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 309, n. 47. Survey data ranging from the 1960s to the 1990s, and analyses are consistent in showing ethnic polarization – although they generally under-reported extremist preferences at the ballot box. See Edward Moxon-Browne, ‘National Identity in Northern Ireland’, in Peter Stringer and Gillian Robinson (eds), Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: The First Report, Belfast, Blackstaff, 1991, pp. 23–30; Karen Trew, ‘National Identity’, in Paula Devine, Richard Breen and Lizanne Dowds (eds), Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland, Belfast, Appletree, 1996, pp. 140–52; Mary Duffy and Geoffrey Evans, ‘Class, Community Polarisation and Politics’, in L. O’Dowds, P. Devine and R. Breen (eds), Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: The 6th Report, 1996–7, Belfast, Appletree Press, 1997, pp. 102–37. There are social bases to party competition within blocs, but they do not produce party support across blocs.

18 Shane O’Neill has observed that ‘even politically active feminists in Northern Ireland seek to be recognized as one of the national communities by women from the other traditions … most feminists freely acknowledge the political primacy of the national struggle … The same point might be made about activists in the gay and lesbian communities’. Shane O’Neill, ‘Mutual Recognition and the Accommodation of National Diversity: Constitutional Justice in Northern Ireland’, in Alain-G. Gagnon and James Tully (eds), Multinational Democracies, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 222–41.

19 Feargal Cochrane, ‘Unsung Heroes? The Role of Peace and Conflict Resolution Organizations in the Northern Ireland Conflict’, in McGarry (ed.) Northern Ireland and the Divided World, p. 153.

20 Taylor, ‘Consociation or Social Transformation?’, p. 43.

21 Kevin Boyle and Tom Hadden, Northern Ireland: The Choice, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1994, p. 33.

22 John Whyte, ‘Dynamics of Social and Political Change in Northern Ireland’, in Dermot Keogh and Michael Haltzel (eds), Northern Ireland and the Politics of Reconciliation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 115.

23 Analysts differ over whether consociation has been a consistent goal of UK governments. It is a nice irony that some anti-consociationalists think that it has been. Wilford refers to it as an ‘ideé fixe’ of British policy since 1972 (Rick Wilford, ‘Aspects of the Belfast Agreement: Introduction’, in Wilford, Aspects of the Belfast Agreement, p. 4). Another anti-consociationalist sees a continuing emphasis on power-sharing in British policy (Paul Dixon, Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2001, passim). By contrast, pro-consociationalists believe UK policy-commitments in this respect were intermittent and inconsistent (see O'Leary, Brendan, ‘The Anglo-Irish Agreement: Statecraft or Folly?’, West European Politics, 10: 1, 1987, pp. 532;

24 Paul Bew, Henry Patterson, and Paul Teague, Northern Ireland: Between War and Peace, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1997, p. 214.

25 Calculated from David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton, Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles, Edinburgh, Mainstream, 2001, p. 1496.

26 The discovery of a republican spy-ring in October 2002 led directly to the British government suspending Northern Ireland's consociational institutions. They have yet to be re-started. However, as we went to press (December 2005), it seems that the spyring may have been organized by British intelligence! Denis Donaldson, the Sinn Féin officer allegedly responsible for the espionage, admitted on 16 December to being a paid British spy. He stated that the alleged republican spy-ring at Stormont in 2002 was ‘a scam and a fiction. It never existed’. ‘Tale of Espionage Marks a “Bizarre” Turn in N. Ireland’, Washington Post, 18 December 2005. It appears that consociationalism in Northern Ireland is not only opposed by integrationists, but also by British intelligence.

27 Calculated from McKittrick et al., Lost Lives, Table 2.

28 Bruce, Steve, ‘Terrorists and Politics: The Case of Northern Ireland's Loyalist Paramilitaries’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 13: 2 (2001), pp.2748.

29 Calculated from McKittrick et al., Lost Lives, Table 3.

30 Rick Wilford claims that consociationalism is ‘a kind of off-the peg model’ of governance for divided societies, Wilford, ‘Aspects of the Belfast Agreement’, p. 4. Consociationalism has consistent principles, like good tailoring, but it has its ‘bespoke’ as well as its ‘off-the-peg’ variants.

31 Horowitz, ‘The Agreement: Clear, Consociational and Risky’, p. 94.

32 Patrick Roche, ‘A Stormont without Policy’, Belfast Telegraph, 30 March 2000.

33 Dennis Kennedy, ‘Evidence is Growing that Agreement Did Not Work’, Irish Times, 16 February 2000.

34 Jorg Neuheiser and Stefan Wolff (eds), Peace at Last? The Impact of the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland, Oxford, Berghahn, 2003, pp. 1–24; Stefan Wolff, ‘Context and Content: Sunningdale and Belfast Compared’, in Wilford, Aspects of the Belfast Agreement, pp. 11–27.

35 Patterson sees these policies as having more than a whiff of ‘appeasement’, though he maintains that the Blair government continued the policies of its predecessor, Henry Patterson, ‘From Insulation to Appeasement: The Major and Blair Governments Reconsidered’, in Wilford, Aspects of the Belfast Agreement, p. 181. He is, however, prepared to consider that the policy might work (ibid., conclusion).

36 Rick Wilford and Robin Wilson, ‘A “Bare Knuckle Ride”: Northern Ireland’, in Robert Hazell (ed.), The State and the Nations: The First Year of Devolution in the United Kingdom, Thorverton, Imprint Academic, 2001, pp. 79–116.

37 Mitchell, Paul et al., ‘Northern Ireland: Flanking Extremists Bite the Moderates and Emerge in their Clothes’, Parliamentary Affairs, 54: 4 (2001), pp.725–42;

38 Donald Horowitz, ‘Making Moderation Pay: The Comparative Politics of Ethnic Conflict Management’, in J. P. Montville (ed.), Conflict and Peacemaking in Multiethnic Societies, Lexington, MA, Heath, 1989, pp. 451–75.

39 It did, however, engage in ritualized protest, rotating its ministerial positions among its Assembly ministers. This led its critics to accuse it of accumulating and distributing pension rights among its members while depriving its constituents of effective ministers.

40 The Agreement, Government of the United Kingdom (n.d. 1998, Strand One, paras 14 (explicitly) and 3 (implicitly)).

41 The number of portfolios is now fixed at 10 in the Northern Ireland Act. In future the parties could decide, during a review of the Agreement, to require candidates for FM and DFM to state the number of executive portfolios that will be available – and then require the formation of the executive to follow immediately after the election.

42 See Statement by the Deputy First Minister (Designate), Northern Ireland Assembly (1999; 325, 15 July).

43 This pessimism was borne out in November 2001. Trimble and Durkan fell short of election by two unionist votes, despite securing the support of over 70 per cent of the Assembly. They were rescued only because members of the Alliance Party and Women's coalition re-designated from ‘others’ to ‘unionists’, permitting them to win a second vote, but allowing critics of the Agreement a good laugh at the nature of the ‘designation’ rules (see below for further discussion).

44 Our reasoning is set out at greater length in McGarry and O’Leary, The Northern Ireland Conflict, pp. 48–54, and McGarry, John and O'Leary, Brendan, ‘Stabilising Northern Ireland's Agreement’, Political Quarterly, 75: 3 (2004), pp.213–25.We think, on balance, our proposals are better for the stability of the Agreement than those apparently agreed to by the DUP and Sinn Féin in November–December 2004 (Proposals by the British and Irish Governments for a Comprehensive Agreement, available online at ). Had their changes been implemented, the FM/DFM and executive would have been elected, as now, under the concurrent majority and d’Hondt rules, respectively. Before the government could take office, however, the entire slate of ministers would have required the Assembly's approval under the concurrent majority rule. The effect would have been to extend the high threshold of support required to elect the FM/DFM to the entire slate of ministers, increasing the possibility of an impasse in executive composition. By extending the scope of the concurrent majority rule, the changes would also have increased the privileges that nationalists and unionists enjoy in the Assembly at the expense of ‘others’.

45 Wilson and Wilford, ‘Northern Ireland: A Route to Stability?’, p. 8.

46 The 1998 Northern Ireland Act prevents the committees from being chaired or deputy-chaired by ministers or junior ministers, The committees are required, where feasible, to be organized in such a way that the chair and deputy chair be from parties other than that of the relevant minister.

47 Brendan O’Leary, ‘Debating Consociational Politics: Normative and Explanatory Arguments’, in S. Noel (ed.), From Power-Sharing to Democracy: Post-conflict Institutions in Ethnically Divided Societies, Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005, pp. 3–43. O'Leary, Brendan, Grofman, Bernard and Elklit, Jorgen, ‘Divisor Methods for Sequential Portfolio Allocation in Multi-Party Executive Bodies: Evidence from Northern Ireland and Denmark’, American Journal of Political Science, 49: 1 (January 2005), pp.198211.

48 Paul Mitchell et al., ‘Northern Ireland: Flanking Extremists’.

49 It may be that AV's presumptively Horowitzian moderating effects materialize better in multi-ethnic political systems with no actual or potentially dominant group in given districts, but this situation does not obtain in Northern Ireland.

50 STV has been used in local government elections and European parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland since 1973 and 1979 respectively. Interestingly, the hard-line unionist Ian Paisley has been most successful in the three-member district used to elect Northern Ireland MEPs; in the more proportional five- or six-member local government constituencies the DUP has not fared as well until recently.

51 The corollary is that STV's positive effects apply to already-polarized and pluralized party systems in ethno-nationally divided societies. If there has been no prior history of ethnicized party polarization within a state, or of pluralization of parties within ethno-national blocs, the merits of its implementation may reasonably be doubted. This consideration identifies the key problem with Horowitz's electoral integrationist prescriptions: they apply best to forestalling or inhibiting ethnic conflict. They are not effective remedies for cases of developed, protracted and intense ethnic and ethno-national conflict.

52 Horowitz writes approvingly of the electoral system used for presidential elections in Nigeria in 1979 and 1983. Under its rules, the winning candidate needed the largest number of votes and at least 25 per cent of the vote in at least two-thirds of the 19 states of the federation, Donald Horowitz, A Democratic South Africa: Constitutional Engineering in a Divided Society, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1991, p. 184. Another problem with distributional requirements, which Horowitz recognizes, is that no candidate may pass the threshold. Since 1989, the rules for electing the Nigerian president have been made even tougher: the winning candidate now requires a majority overall and no less than one-third of the vote in at least two-thirds of the states in the federation. Kenya and Indonesia also have distributional requirements in presidential elections.

53 This argument in defence of STV and against AV is qualified: STV may not be appropriate for every consociation. But we submit it can help promote accommodative moves and consolidate power-sharing deals in ways that AV in single-member districts cannot.

54 Wilson and Wilford, ‘Northern Ireland: A Route to Stability?’, p. 6.

55 O’Leary, Consociation.

56 Dawisha, Adeed and Dawisha, Karen, ‘How to Build a Democratic Iraq’, Foreign Affairs, 82: 3 (2003), p. 45.

57 This fact has not stopped one critic of the Agreement's rules from asserting that d’Hondt does privilege certain identities. Peter Emerson, the director of the de Borda Institute, advocates the replacement of the d’Hondt rule for electing the executive and its replacement with PR-STV, so that ‘all assembly members could participate on an equal basis without using any sectarian labels’. The fact that d’Hondt treats all members equally and does not require them to use any labels, sectarian or otherwise, seems to have been overlooked. See P. Emerson, ‘Reforming the Belfast Agreement: Just What's at Stake?’, Belfast Telegraph, 23 September 2003. Another, unionist integrationist critic of the Agreement goes further, incorrectly asserting that the Agreement privileges particular parties. Apparently the ‘terms of the Agreement require members of Sinn Féin to be in the executive … [it] provides members of Sinn Féin with the right to be in the government’. Cedric Wilson, ‘Rejection of the Belfast Agreement is Entirely Compatible with the Unionist Commitment to “Equal Citizenship” ’, Belfast Telegraph, 28 October 2003.

58 Arend Lijphart, ‘Self-Determination versus Pre-Determination of Ethnic Minorities in Power-Sharing Systems’, in Will Kymlicka (ed.), The Rights of Minority Cultures, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 275–87.

59 O'Leary, Brendan, ‘Patten Report has Implications for All’, Irish Independent, 15 October 1999.

60 There are arguments for making the executive even more inclusive by extending its size. A larger executive, constituted by the d’Hondt mechanism, might give a seat to the Alliance or other small parties. Alternatively, the executive could be constituted by the Sainte-Laguë mechanism, which is more advantageous for small parties than d’Hondt. See John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary, Explaining Northern Ireland: Broken Images, Oxford, Blackwell, 1995, pp. 373–5.

61 For a recent polemic that critcizes consociationalism through caricature, see Dixon, P., ‘Why the Good Friday Agreement is not Consociational’, Political Quarterly, 76: 3 (July 2005), pp.357–67.The author maintains that consociationalists are ‘segregationists’ who ‘oppose contact’ between communities, support ‘separate but not necessarily equal’ development, are ‘hostile to democracy’; in short, they are exponents of apartheid, pp. 357–60. It is regretable how frequently name-calling replaces serious debate over consociation.

62 McGarry and O’Leary, ‘Stabilising Northern Ireland's Agreement’.

63 For an even more demanding site for consideration of these rival perspectives on deeply divided societies see our essays in Brendan O’Leary, John McGarry and Khaled Salih (eds), The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004: Brendan O’Leary, ‘Power-Sharing, Pluralist Federation, and Federacy’, pp. 47–91; Karna Eklund, Brendan O’Leary and Paul R. Williams, ‘Negotiating a Federation in Iraq’, pp. 116–42; and John McGarry, ‘Canadian Lessons for Iraq’, pp. 92–115.

1 The authors thank the editors of Government and Opposition, and its two anonymous referees, for their helpful suggestions. McGarry thanks the Carnegie Corporation of New York for funding his research. O’Leary thanks the Lauder endowment and a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship at Bellagio, and both authors thank the United States Institute of Peace.

Two errors appeared in our paper in Government and Opposition, 41: 1 (2006): ‘trust’ on p.61 should be ‘distrust’; the article cited in n. 45 appeared in the American Journal of Political Science, 49: 1 (January 2005), pp. 198–211.

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