chapter  13
12 Pages

Sunningdale for slow learners? Towards a complexity paradigm


Séamus Mallon’s famous comment that the 1998 Belfast Agreement in Northern Ireland should be regarded as “Sunningdale for slow learners” amounts to more than an earthy witticism.1 It was primarily intended as a reminder to the opponents of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP, Mallon’s party) that, unlike them, it had been supporting forms of power sharing fairly consistently during “the Troubles.” However, on a much deeper level, it also points to one of the most significant issues in contemporary democratic theory, namely, the paradigmatic nature of conceptions of democracy in specific contexts and the path dependence that they can enshrine. Complexity theory has emerged in recent years as a significant interpretation of contemporary democracy at least in part due to its interpretation of path dependence.2 It is a theory that suggests that political decisions – and the structures and policies that they establish – create paradigms which future political actors must interact within and engage with if they want to establish a new paradigm. In Northern Ireland then, the path to the Belfast Agreement was not one whereby most political actors became slowly convinced that the SDLP and others involved in the 1974 powersharing initiative had been right all along. Instead, rather than adhering to the notion of a Damascene conversion of the erstwhile antagonists in

Northern Ireland, complexity theory suggests that the Sunningdale initiative helped to establish a prism through which many dominant interpretations of Northern Irish politics have since been filtered. The work of John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary has been part of the

dominant paradigm and has played a significant role in its reproduction. This chapter does not challenge their arguments on that level for it is difficult to oppose the pragmatic logic that a form of power sharing or consociationalism was the only game in town during the peace process. Instead, I want to oppose the narrow dichotomy that has emerged between those who support and those who oppose the Belfast Agreement and its aftermath. I want to suggest that the dominance of consociationalism as the major interpretive mechanism in Northern Ireland might have foreshortened the range of possibilities in assessing what democracy in Northern Ireland might look like. In short, I want to investigate the implications of complexity theory in Northern Ireland and the constraints on the democratic imagination that might emanate from the dominance of consociationalism. In other words, I do not oppose consociationalism per se as a pragmatic response to the need for political accommodation in Northern Ireland. However, I do want to challenge its impact on how democracy might be conceived differently – especially as consociationalism is likely to be superseded as an appropriate form of political organization at some time in the future where contextual circumstances are different. McGarry and O’Leary are correct to emphasize the biodegradability of consociations,3 but they neglect the pathdependence argument of complexity theory and the fact that the strategy of consociationalism is itself a part of a trajectory established before and after Sunningdale.4