Northern Ireland is an interesting “anomaly” in the political setup
of the United Kingdom
. Every other constituent part of the United Kingdom has a political
system which has the potential to return single-party governments, with
coalitions occurring as a result of electoral choice rather than constitutional
necessity. This is not
in Northern Ireland
. This essay seeks to explore whether a form of government
exists in Ireland.
As will be shown, “consociationalism” is so unique
that one cannot depend solely on textbooks to define it, or define examples
thereof, and thus, this essay seeks to show that one should consider a
practical example – that of Northern Ireland -
since practice differs from theory.
As Lijphart (2004) suggests, it is immediately obvious that
deep societal divisions create a great problem for democracy. He states that
there are two essential aspects to consociationalism: power sharing and the
autonomy of each constituent group. He defines power sharing as the idea that
all groups involved should participate in making decisions. This is especially
true at the executive level. He defines group autonomy as two groups being
autonomous in their own affairs, especially education and culture
. Robert Dahl also states that
all of the significant leaders of a plural society should be involved in
decision making, and that there should be a power for decisions about
subcultures to be taken by the leaders of that particular subculture
(Dahl, 1989). This essentially recharacterises
Lijphart’s statements above.
It could be argued that consociational democracy is the
epitome of compromise. Bentley defines compromise as the process whereby groups
with mutual interests interact
Consociational governments are usually comprised of such groups (or groups from
various parts of society joined together by one uniting feature), joining for
the good of the country.
In the context of Northern Ireland, McEvoy posits that
consociationalism is how interethnic conflict can be managed
. This could be borne out through
O’Leary’s statement that inclusion of radical parties in Government seeks to
moderate, whilst their exclusion puts the stability of power sharing at risk
(McGarry & O'Leary, 2004)
Finally, Lijphart sets out four elements that are necessary
for a consociational democracy to remain in place:
The ability of elites to
accommodate divergent interests and demands within their own culture.
The elites must be able to
transcend cleavages and cooperate with elites from other cultures within
The elites must be committed to
maintain the status quo and improve its coherency.
The elites must understand the
results of political fragmentation.
This is based on Lijphart’s secondary definition of
consociational democracy as a process whereby a country with a fragmented
democracy develops a stable democracy
2008). Lijphart’s definition has been unquestioned, and thus it is his
defintion used throughout this essay.
to Northern Irish Politics
Before embarking on the substance of this discussion –
whether the Government of Northern Ireland is consociational in nature – it is
worth examining the context of politics in Northern Ireland.
The Belfast Agreement (commonly known as the Good Friday Agreement)
created three “strands” of Government. They are the Northern Ireland Executive
and the Northern Ireland Assembly; cooperation between Northern Ireland and the
Republic of Ireland through the North-South Ministerial Council and related
bodies; and cooperation between the
Governments of Great Britain and the Republic of
Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are required – upon
taking their seats – to designate themselves as members of one of three
categories: “unionist”, “nationalist”, or “other”. “Unionists” wish to remain
within the United Kingdom. “Nationalists” are those who would favour Northern
Ireland joining the Republic as one country. This is important because in some
matters of importance (such as election of the Presiding Officer of the
Assembly), cross community agreement is required – i.e. agreement is needed
from both the unionists and the nationalists
The Northern Ireland Executive is also representative of
this idea of general intercommunity; the post of First Minister of Northern
Ireland must be held by a person from the largest party according to community
designation, with the post of Deputy First Minister going to the second biggest
party by community designation. For instance, in the current executive, the
Democratic Unionist Party (the DUP) is the largest party by community
designation, therefore Peter Robinson, a representative thereof, is the First
Minister. Since Sinn Fein is the second biggest such party, Gerry Adams is the
Deputy First Minister
Ireland a Consociational Democracy?
In this section, it is necessary to take the elements of
consociationalism explored above, and attempt to apply them to Northern
Ireland. This part of the discussion begins with the proposition that Northern
Ireland is a consociational democracy. In examining the effects of the Belfast
Agreement – which set up the current Irish political system – on governance in
Northern Ireland, Paul Mitchell has stated that Parliamentary democracy, as is
commonly defined, is not known in Northern Ireland
. If this is so, then the Belfast Agreement has
surely failed. Yet, it appears that the Belfast Agreement has broadly achieved
what it set out to do; restore some form of government to Northern Ireland. To
explore this further, Mitchell has given the classic definition of a
parliamentary democracy as executive accountability to the legislature, by and
through procedures of no confidence
. However, Northern Ireland is not a classic parliamentary
democracy, as Mitchell states that neither the diarchy of the First and Deputy
First Ministers, nor the entire Executive, can be dismissed en masse, for
whilst the Assembly can remove a single minister by votes of no confidence, the
party from which he comes will nominate a replacement for him. Therefore, due
to the nature of the Belfast Agreement, consociationalism (or power sharing) is
built-in and unavoidable.
Within the Assembly itself, consociationalism is ingrained.
For certain key decisions, there must be intercommunity agreement, obtained
through one of two measures – either “parallel consent” or “weighted majority”.
This arises because of a rule under the Standing Orders of the Assembly that
requires members to designate themselves as part of one or two “communities”:
nationalists, or unionists (see above for a fuller description). Failure to
make such a designation automatically leads to the Member being designated as
“other”. Mitchell states that in order for something to pass the Assembly
through the parallel consent procedure, there must be an absolute majority
voting in favour from both communities. The less onerous “weighted majority”
procedure requires that there should be 40% of votes from each bloc in favour,
and 60% of all the votes overall
Lijphart refers to the need for a “grand coalition”,
asserting that one of the primary characteristics of consociational democracy
is that all of the leaders of various populations in a society should work
together to govern the country
It appears that the Northern Irish Government is a “grand
coalition” as described above. The Northern Ireland Executive works on a
Tonge’s description, it appears that the Northern Irish executive is almost
certainly a “grand coalition”; he describes the Northern Irish Executive as
being created from members of the Northern Ireland Assembly depending on the
D’Hondt method of selection
Due to the need for cross-community representation, and the nature of how
D’Hondt works, representatives from both major sectors of society in Northern
Ireland (Catholics/republicans, represented by Sinn Fein, and
Protestants/unionists, represented by the Democratic Unionist Party), will be
included in the Government. Therefore, the first element of Lijphart’s
definition of consociational democracy is met.
Lijphart then goes on to state that government should be by
mutual veto, as described above, or concurrent majority (where there is a
majority in both communities). Lijphart actually subdivides this concept into
three sub-concepts: the mutual veto itself, proportionality, and segmental
autonomy. These are all apparently interrelated
, and thus will be explored in turn.
The mutual (or minority) veto is provided in order to allow
each individual interest group involvement in the Government to protect itself.
Of course, as Lijphart points out, the problem with the minority veto is that
it can lead to tyranny by minority – that is, the minority will continue to
veto the majority. Of course, this can backfire as each separate constituent
community has its own veto; meaning the veto could be used in turn against the
. It is arguable
that the “mutual veto” exists in Northern Ireland. More often than not, the
Northern Irish Government has collapsed (or had its powers withdrawn by the
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland) because the various parties have
disagreed with each other – or vetoed one another. Indeed, Northern Ireland’s
longest suspension of Government occurred in 2002 after Sinn Fein refused to
power share – effectively vetoing the government – due to an alleged IRA spy
ring in which they were implicated
Broadcasting Corporation, 2002)
The next concept falling under the heading of “mutual veto”
is the idea of proportionality. Jurg Steiner defines this as all groups
influencing a decision in proportion to their numerical strength. This means
that when parties have a numerical advantage, they wield more influence over a
. This is
evidently present in Northern Ireland. As explored above, the Northern Irish
Executive is proportional by design – one must recall that the Executive is
drawn from all parties on a “cross-community” basis. However, whether or not there
is numerical representation when making decisions is a different matter. Whilst
up to three ministers of the Executive can request a cross-community vote, this
in no way represents proportionality as defined by Steiner, since the quorum
for such cross-community votes is seven ministers, considering the fact that
there are six unionists, five nationalists and two “others” (Alliance Party
members). Thus, there is not much in the way of proportionality by numbers.
Therefore – for the moment – it is best for us to say that there is no
conclusive evidence as to whether there is, or there is not, proportionality as
defined by Steiner in Northern Ireland. Since this is an element required of
consociational democracies, we cannot now wholly say that Northern Ireland is
consociational. Nevertheless, we continue examining the other elements of
A third subhead of Lijphart’s discussions of mutual veto is
“segmental autonomy”, which he describes as the minority governing its own
. Lijphart is
stating that when there are decisions to be made that affect a certain segment
of society, that segment should be left alone to make the decisions. The
exception to this rule occurs when there are decisions to be made on matters
that are of mutual concern (such as, in our case, who the Government is). This
does not appear to happen in Northern Ireland. For example, whilst peace lines
constructed by the British Army during the British occupation of Belfast
(Lauber, 2008) divide Belfast, this does not mean that the nationalists and
unionists are autonomous in themselves. Considering how the Northern Irish
Government is established (see discussion above regarding mutual veto), and
since Belfast City Council is elected under a traditional first past the post
electoral system (albeit from multimember constituencies), there is no
possibility for any form of consociationalism in this regard.
Lijphart suggests that federalism may also be a potential
means to achieve consociational democracy
. This would not work in Northern Ireland. The British
constitutional arrangement for Northern Ireland is unwilling to countenance a
possible federalism as is known in the traditional sense of the word (save some
semi-federalism in the division between local and regional government).
Thus far, a conclusion appears that Northern Ireland is not
a consociational democracy. However, it can be assessed further. Lijphart goes
on to discuss favourable conditions for consociational democracy. He states
that in order for consociational democracy to work, the following factors must
A commitment by leaders to
Commitment to maintaining the
unity of the country.
Willingness to cooperate with
their counterparts from other segments of society.
Leaders must be able to maintain
the support of their followers.
Examining Northern Ireland, one can see that thus far, the
leaders of Northern Ireland have committed themselves to working towards
democracy, through the First and Deputy First Ministers’ negotiating power
sharing deals after every election, or when new powers are devolved to the
(British Broadcasting Corporation,
. For the same reasons, it appears that the Northern Irish
Executive is quite committed to maintaining the country’s unity. Due to the
power sharing, leaders of Northern Ireland evidently cooperate with each other,
and, finally, they manage to maintain the support of their own followers.
Everything explored above leads to another strange
conclusion. Perhaps, the consociational requirements and the favourable
conditions described by Lijphart are not a blueprint that can be applied to
every situation; it may depend on the constitutional setup of each individual
country. For instance, the Belfast Agreement premises that there be a “grand
coalition” of sorts (described above), and a mutual veto. These are but two of
Lijphart’s requirements for consociational democracies. However, as we have
seen, the remaining elements are not met, since they are not envisaged in the
Belfast Agreement. Therefore, in theory, consociational democracy in Northern
Ireland should fail, but it does not. There are still the favourable conditions
described above to consider; as has briefly been shown, these are fulfilled.
Returning to the assertion made at the beginning of the
previous section, “Is Northern Ireland a Consociational Democracy?”, it was
posited that consociational democracy exists in Northern Ireland, and so it
does – but not according to Lijphart’s requirements for consociational
democracy, especially when considering his devotion of an entire section of his
book to describing why Northern Ireland is not consociational
. For the reasons set out
above, we disagree, and therefore, conclude that consociationalism depends more
upon whether states meet the “favourable conditions” set out above (with some
influence from Lijphart’s definition), rather than Lijphart’s definition alone.
For all the reasons set out above, it is quite evident that Northern Ireland
appears to be a consociational democracy – though not a traditional one.
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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY).