chapter  16
14 Pages

Debating the Agreement: Beyond a communalist dynamic?


The core of the so-called Northern Ireland problem has always centred on Ireland’s partition and border. The partition settlement of 1920-25 set up and enshrined Northern Ireland’s particular relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom; and the politics of preserving or opposing the border became the central fault-line of local politics. In effect, this ensured the institutionalization of communalist politics characterized by Protestant/ unionist domination and Catholic/nationalist subordination for a half century after 1920. Principled, and frequently idealistic, attempts to displace or circumvent this dynamic remained politically marginal and were powerless to prevent its translation into prolonged and violent conflict after 1968. In an important sense, the Good Friday Agreement recognizes the durability of communalist politics and division in an entity that has now existed for almost 90 years. The key question here is whether the Agreement has the potential to transform, or at least dilute, the dynamic that has driven politics in Northern Ireland since its inception resulting in almost 30 years of sustained political violence. In other words, does the Agreement offer a sufficiently radical reconfiguration of the original partition settlement to now promote such an outcome? Most of the academic debate over the Agreement has centred on whether

its main consociational, power-sharing thrust (Strand 1) offers a way of transcending the zero-sum territorialist politics of two antagonistic communal blocs, or whether, alternatively, it simply embeds them more deeply within a new political framework. At the most general level this is a debate over the priority to be accorded to collective (or group) rights vis-à-vis individual rights at a political level. McGarry and O’Leary have long been among the foremost advocates of

consociationalism as a means of managing and resolving ethno-national conflicts. In the first chapter of this volume they offer a comprehensive and trenchant assessment of the issues, they frame the debate as one between those favouring accommodationist, including consociationalist, approaches

as opposed to integrationist approaches that reject according political rights to collectivities in favour of enhancing the citizenship rights of individuals. They provide robust rebuttal of the many “integrationist” critics of the Agreement, while also critiquing many of its consociational friends.1 Here they represent themselves as consociationalists who are liberal rather than corporate, revisionist rather than traditional. Crucially, however, they argue that, in the Irish case, consociationalism is insufficient in itself, and, that to succeed, it must be lodged within a wider binational framework (as in Strands 2 and 3 of the Agreement), if the competing national claims crystallized in Northern Ireland around partition are not to lead to future instability and recurrent conflict. It is beyond the scope of this commentary to address all the complex and

nuanced arguments assessed by McGarry and O’Leary. Here I have avoided engaging with the detailed debates over the precise design and implementation of consociational agreements although these are clearly important. Some of this debate over the design and operation of consociational arrangements has tended to miss the wood for trees. The “wood” includes the overall political and economic framework (most of it non-consociational) in which the power-sharing elements of the Agreement (and other consociational arrangements) are lodged. In what follows, I identify some of the areas where McGarry and O’Leary’s analysis is more theoretically and empirically convincing than that of their critics. Their strengths are partly due to their appreciation of the history (largely implicit here) of the Irish case. Their adversaries on the other hand, in concentrating on the comparative significance of the Irish case, fail to acknowledge sufficiently its specific historical trajectory. Subsequently, however, I identify some weaknesses or gaps in the debate evident in both the McGarry and O’Leary analysis and that of many of their critics. These stem from determinedly antimaterialist positions – in other words, a reluctance to acknowledge that “identities” – religious, ethnic, or national – have substantial material dimensions.2 This position precludes a full recognition of the material inequalities that threaten the Agreement and also the changing material circumstances which may in fact sustain it. In other words, it inhibits more comprehensive analysis of its medium-and long-term prospects. Finally, in the last section, I offer some tentative conclusions about the Agreement and its likely prospects.