Monday 2 October 2006

Power Sharing and the Good Friday Agreement

The northern political parties have been given until November to resolve their differences in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. It would appear that the prospects for success are being deliberately down-played so as not to raise public hopes too high and thereby place inordinate pressure on the talks participants.

The DUP are making the issue of republican criminality a sticking point. They see this as the main obstacle in the way of government in Northern Ireland. Irrespective of the validity of their concerns, others will see their stance as somewhat akin to 'cutting off the nose to spite the face'. Why hand terrorists and criminals the veto on progress? But also, it could perhaps be discerned from comments made by Martin McGuinness at the most recent Sinn Féin Ard Fheis that his party too is equally prepared to take a hard-nosed approach:

"... even if it [i.e. the Good Friday Agreement] falls we are confident that ... its substance has been secured as the minimal threshold for anything that might replace or supersede it."

So the question is does the Good Friday Agreement remain a viable framework for a peace settlement or is it in need of serious overhaul? I would suggest that the failure of the Good Friday Agreement to date to provide for democratic institutions in Northern Ireland, as set out in Strand One of the agreement, represents not so much the failure of politics. Rather this failure is the outcome of the type of politics which Strand One seeks to impose.

There is in fact an inherent flaw in the Good Friday Agreement, though it could be argued that it was a necessary flaw to ensure that some form of agreement was reached way back in 1998. At the time of its negotiation the key challenge was to hasten an end to armed conflict, civil and sectarian strife. And it can be said that the Agreement has made considerable progress in this direction. The failure has been in the area of establishing democratic government in Northern Ireland. My own view is that as long as those measures set out in the Good Friday Agreement which basically seek to institutionalise division - nationalist vs. unionist - act as the prerequisite for agreement, stalemate will be inevitable. This may or may not be what the two governments have in mind in their recent joint statement where they mention that: "consideration could be given to proposals for the implementation of the Agreement, including changes to Strands 1 to 3 in the context of a commitment by all involved to participate in a power-sharing Executive".

Is it only in Ireland that the cart is continually put before the horse? Instead of political divisions and party allegiances emerging organically out of political life these become a pre-condition for political life itself! Similarly instead of democratic politics being the mechanism to resolve fundamental differences the emphasis is placed on resolving fundamental differences before democratic politics can be instituted!

I would suggest a few simple amendments to the existing Good Friday Agreement which could enable formation of government in Northern Ireland whilst also safeguarding commitments to cross-community co-operation. Firstly the notion of Assembly members registering a designation of identity (nationalist, unionist or other) should be scrapped. Obviously political allegiances would continue to play a role but they would have no formal sanction. Secondly the appointment of First Minister, Deputy First Minister and other official positions should be by the direct election of the assembly as a whole. This could be by simple majority, or weighted majority if such a safeguard was deemed necessary, but again without regard to political designation. This would enable deputies to take office solely on the basis of their mandates and not on the basis of having 'sold out', or having 'done a deal with the enemy'.

Parties and political allegiances are historical transients by nature. We should remember the advice of US president and constitution-maker, James Madison, handed down almost 220 years ago: "In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce".

10th April, 2006

A version of this post was published as a 'Letter to the Editor' in the Irish Examiner newspaper of 14th April, 2006.

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2006

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