chapter  6
Ethnic party competition and the dynamics of power sharing in Northern Ireland
Pages 19

Since their first individual and joint publications on Northern Ireland in the late 1980s, John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary developed a diagnosis of the “Northern Ireland problem” which focused on the close interconnection between the endogenous and exogenous sources of conflict.1 In particular, they emphasized that at the core of the conflict is a clash of national identities, with Northern Ireland representing the territorial line of retreat of British and Irish state and nation building failures. Their diagnosis led to a clear and logical prescription: local inclusive power sharing, proportionality, respect for all national and other identities, and institutionalized mechanisms that link citizens to their preferred nation and state. They are not the first to see the wisdom of consociationalism for Northern Ireland or other divided places and they will surely not be the last since politicians do seem to reinvent this form of governance as a practical response to dangerous segmental division, something Lijphart calls the fundamental logic of consociationalism.2 There is no doubt, however, that McGarry and O’Leary have made the most sustained and imaginative contribution to adapting and developing internal power-sharing formats and procedures and harnessing these to a set of principles and mechanisms that hold out the best prospect of accommodating rival national aspirations. Entrenched ethno-national conflicts are almost by definition notoriously

difficult to “solve,” and despite current grounds for optimism, it is wise to remain cautious about the medium-term prospects for Northern Ireland’s complex power-sharing institutions. Consociationalism is difficult to love largely because it is not anyone’s first choice; power-sharing equilibria are difficult to establish and then sustain, not least because segmental partisans are

too often tempted to advocate maximalist demands in the belief that one more round of intransigence might deliver them more of what they desire. McGarry and O’Leary have tried to be hard-headed and realistic. Their prescriptions have not been premised on assumptions of “enlightened leadership” (even if on some occasions Northern Ireland politicians have shown elements of such leadership), nor have they been seduced by the mirage of the likelihood of short or medium term “transcendence” of segmental cleavages and national aspirations. Rather their approach has been based on the premise that it is better to strike a “fair bargain” between the democratic parties who represent the set of actually existing divisions and aspirations. Economic theories of organizations advise that bargains or “contracts” are

more likely to be honoured and self-enforcing if they can establish “incentive compatibilities” between the signatories. While this may be too much to hope for in bipolar conflicts in which the principal parties have sharply diverging national interests, the best that liberal-democratic constitutional engineers can do is to design political institutions which are “fair” to both sides; the institutions need to be flexible enough for all parties to reasonably believe that they can rationally pursue their interests. Inclusive power sharing is one of the few liberal democratic and non-coercive escape routes from zero-sum institutions. This is why eight parties signed up to the Belfast Agreement of 1998, and why even those who did not, currently benefit from the opportunities it provided. Whether or not one agrees with McGarry and O’Leary’s consociational

prescription for Northern Ireland (as it happens we do), perhaps the bigger point is that they did more than most to counter the long prevalent and debilitating view that the Northern Ireland conflict was “insoluble,” “organic,” and in the most famous rendition, “the problem is that there is no solution.”3 From their earliest publications on Northern Ireland they maintained that “there are multiple solutions,”4 and they then set about exploring them with first-rate historical and political-science tools. Implementing a good “bargain” has no doubt taken longer than they had hoped.