Is it time to give up on power sharing as a bad job ?

A couple of weeks back I wrote about whether or not the time had come for Alliance to adopt a constitutional position (TL;DR – it hasn’t). As is typical of articles that touch on the constitutional issue, there were quite a few comments, most of which spectacularly avoided the point and tended to rehash boring talking points and clichés from the 1970s. But there were several fair remarks which merit further discussion, so I thought I’d start with the most interesting one. 

The suggestion is as follows : given that the NI state has now existed for over 100 years and we still haven’t been able to make it work, isn’t it time that we give up and pursue Irish unity instead ? If Alliance is about power sharing, and power sharing does not work, shouldn’t it throw in the towel and join in with the nationalists and pursue the one guaranteed route back into the EU ?

As a matter of opinion, it is perfectly legitimate to believe this. But I think that the underlying assumptions of the question need to be challenged. 

Firstly, while the NI state has existed for over a century, power sharing has not. It was attempted in 1974, reworked in the 1980s (getting nowhere) and fundamentally revisited in 1998 to create the system we now have. As most of us know, since then we’ve had stop start government, as various factions have pulled the plug on sharing power for different reasons. 

The idea of power sharing is simple, and may well be simplistic – by getting the factions to jointly administer the state, you create buy-in and foster the conditions for genuine partnership which can lead to the breakdown of old enmities.

It has worked in part. nationalism and unionism accept that they need to work together; and the peace has mostly held. However, what it has not delivered is good government.

Thus far, the political parties have proven resilient to their general incompetence in administering this place, and those of us who wish to provide an alternative have failed so far to persuade the public to vote differently. The DUP and SF remain popular despite two decades as the first and second largest parties in the state. Collapsing power sharing, alongside diversions to pointless tribal obsessions such as the question of who gets to be First Minister or whether or not a tin of baked beans should be checked on its way into Northern Ireland, have served to divert the public’s view from the general lack of delivery and the deteriorating state of public services.

The structures which currently exist cannot deliver sustainable power sharing. Alliance argued this during the talks that led to the Agreement in 1998 and has continued arguing it ever since. The consociational model, based around compulsory coalition, means that there is no incentive for parties to actually work together. Lack of active interest from the British government, who have failed to find ways to incentivise participation in government, has exacerbated the problem. 

I don’t accept that these failings mean that power sharing cannot work. They do not prove that powersharing has been tested to destruction.

My second observation about the question is the underlying premise that after a period of time an idea that has been shown not to work should be abandoned. But this isn’t how people manage their beliefs in the real world. All of us have our political ideals and fundamental views. We don’t just abandon them when they appear to be unpopular or struggle to rise to the challenge of events. I do not accept that an idea should be abandoned just because there has been unsatisfactory progress on implementing it. My belief that power sharing is needed to solve our problems here is not contingent on popularity or someone else’s definition of success.

The third matter I’d like to address is the presumption in the question that Irish unity is an alternative to power sharing. I don’t think it is. 

None of us know what a united Ireland will look like if or when it ever happens (not least because those who want it have assiduously avoided getting into this aspect of the debate), but I believe that Stormont and most of its structures will – and must – remain, at least in the short to medium term. Anyone who tells you that absorbing Northern Ireland into an all-island state will be straightforward or non-contentious simply does not know what they are talking about. 

There are practical reasons for this – Northern Ireland’s legal system, healthcare, education, taxation, local government and so on have all diverged from those of Ireland somewhat since partition and will need to be administered locally until there has been time and space to reform them. 

But there are also political reasons. Unionists have a case that they should no more accept direct rule over NI from Dublin than nationalists were willing to accept direct rule over NI from London. If the debate starts getting properly serious, I fully expect Alliance to make this point. More significantly, I also expect that the British government will not only require that power sharing continues following reunification, but that east-west consultation bodies continue as well, where Whitehall ministers and civil servants will be able to monitor and co-operate with the devolved legislature. Since as a matter of law Northern Ireland has almost two million British citizens, it stands to reason that the UK government will consider itself to have a duty of care to protect their interests. 

Irish unity is likely to start out as little more than a transfer of sovereignty from London to Dublin. As with, for example, East Germany, the law will continue to have effect subject to the Irish constitution, the will of the Dáil, and any provisions the two governments see fit to add in the reunification treaty. Aside from these top level changes I expect everything else to remain as it is until there is agreement on how to merge Northern Ireland into the rest of the Irish state.

Those who expect Irish unity to lead to old structures and limitations being dramatically swept away are in for disappointment. This is one of the many aspects of the debate that the phoney “civic conversation” conspicuously avoids. Indeed, some time ago I saw a leading civic nationalist figure express the view that Irish unity would create the conditions for a University at Derry to be progressed. The implication was that Stormont was some kind of a barrier to things that nationalists want which will not be present following reunification. It’s a short step from there to “let’s get rid of Stormont so that we can do whatever we want”.

(for the record, I am not against a university at Derry; I trust the Sinn Féin Economy and Finance Ministers will bring forward the necessary policy and funding proposals to make it a reality)

Finally, and perhaps most significantly at all, the idea that power sharing should be abandoned as a bad job has no acceptance among the nationalist electorate, aside from a handful of anti-agreement independent nationalist councillors. This is not to say that nationalists prefer power sharing to reunification – of course they don’t – but it is clear that nationalists do not support giving up on power sharing to focus on building the case for unity; they want to see devolved government working. It is no coincidence that Sinn Féin ended its boycott of devolution after a series of elections in 2019 where their vote share fell to historic lows. Its most successful campaign in recent history was the 2022 assembly election, where it sought and secured a mandate for vice-president Michelle O’Neill to become “first minister for all”.

I hope we can put to bed the idea that Alliance or anyone else are likely to abandon power sharing in favour of a focus on Irish reunification any time soon. Powersharing has been Anglo Irish policy since the 1970s. It remains policy today, and it will continue to be policy well into the future, including after Irish reunification if it ever occurs. It’s time that nationalism internalised the reality that it is in everyone’s interests including its own that we all step up and take seriously the need to reform Stormont and make it fit for purpose.





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