Modern Irish History & Politics-Good Friday Agreement (1998) & Consociational Theory

Subject: Political
Type: Informative Essay
Pages: 11
Word count: 2786
Topics: Political Science, Ethics

Northern Ireland Conflict-Background Issues

The Northern Ireland conflict was a multifaceted conflict that involved issues related to civil rights and the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The conflict bordered on whether Northern Ireland should unite with the rest of Ireland or it should remain as part of the UK. The small island of Ireland is divided between the Republic of Ireland and UK. However, under the constitution of the Republic of Ireland, articles 2 and 3 still hold a claim of the northern island region. The conflict between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland dates back to the 17th century after the colonisation of the Northern Ireland region by English and Scottish Protestants (Barton & Roche, 2009). The rest of the island remained predominantly Catholic. The conflict emerges from the strife between Protestants and Catholics with the former opting to remain as part of the United Kingdom where the majority Catholics in the south were unionist, laying claim to the Northern Ireland region (Barton & Roche, 2009). The conflicts soared for three decades between the 1960s and the 1990s as more than 3000 lost their lives as the paramilitary unionists (loyalists) and the paramilitary nationalists (republicans) fought a bitter violence referred as “The Troubles” (Barton & Roche, 2009). The conflict ended with the ceasefires of 1994 and the coming into the place of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.  

The Good Friday Agreement was a major step towards the peace process where it set a devolved government authority for Northern Ireland which accommodated the nationalists and the unionists in a power-sharing agreement (Tonge, 2000). Despite the Good Friday Agreement, important issues in Northern Ireland have not been addressed fully, such as the segregated education systems, annual contentious marches and parades as well as the peace walls that separate the Catholic and Protestant housing (Hayes & McAllister, 2013). The differing identity of the Irish people is the pivot of the Northern Ireland conflict. These divisions have become entrenched along national, religious and political identities. The national identities refer to the association of the protestants with territorial alliances viewing themselves as British while the Catholics associate more with Irish nationality. In regard to political identity, there are unionists that are largely protestants and the nationalists that are predominantly Catholics (Hayes & McAllister, 2013).

The Belfast Agreement (1998), as a consociational settlement, is anchored on and encourages an ethnonational group-based understanding of politics that is Northern illiberal – with the result that the space for a more deliberate form of democracy around a common citizenship agenda is foreclosed (McGarry & O’Leary, 2004). This was underlined by the outcome of the Belfast Agreement of 1998 that, despite the intention of the international policymakers, has continued to reinforce ethnic divisions and the simmering of the Ireland conflict (MacGinty, Muldoon, & Ferguson, 2007). The prevailing perspective is that the post-conflict institutions are built on the implicit assumption of the nature and the saliency of the ethnic divisions that supersede transformations. Ultimately, there is the assumption of intransigence which is critically dangerous to the Belfast peace accord since it seeks to legitimise the ethical divisive discourse and related manoeuvres made by ethnonationalist leaders to justify their push for conflict, militarism and secession (MacGinty et al., 2007). The Belfast Agreement has continually ordained the ethnic lexicon with the effect of institutionalising the division that led to the conflict in the first place.  

The Belfast Agreement has been interpreted as a vaporous and uneasy settlement which reinforces the institutionalisation of the political, national, and religious divisions (McGarry & O’Leary, 2004). The accord camouflages the reality on the ground and the sectarian allegiances that persist to this today. The Belfast Agreement is founded on the cons model for societies that are characterised by religious, social and linguistic cleavages. It is a form of constitutional engineering. It envisions that a democracy can become successful through power-sharing settlements in a divided society. Through the structuring of various institutions, a grand coalition of representatives is formed between the political social groups based on a mutual veto arrangement when dealing with vital issues (Taylor, 2006). 

At the end, the power-sharing agreement seeks to bury the realities that exist of political, social and cultural sectarianism. However, opponents of the consociational model have argued that the constitutional engineering may be a tool for propagating the very divisions that the power-sharing it seeks to disentangle (McManus 2017). Instead of removing the divisions, the consociational model enshrines the obstinate and mutually exclusive ethnonational groups in Northern Ireland as categorised under Protestantism and Catholicism. These ethnonational groups have distinct cultural norms, practices and norms. The Belfast Agreement and the resultant model do not offer room for the one community approach to politics. This makes the ethnonational division to persist in Ireland’s political system, although proponents have argued that consociational approaches can be effective in a society such as Northern Ireland since they assume ethnosectarian divisions are exclusive and primordial rather than being relations as posited by opponents of the Belfast Agreement. The agreement nonetheless has served to cast the division in Northern Ireland in “marble” due to its presumptive and inscriptive nature which can be argued to be retrogressive.  

As noted in Nolan (2014), Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society largely due to the legacy of the conflict and the sectarian divide that has continuously been propagated by the attributes of the Belfast Agreement. This leads to outbursts of violence due to contentious issues such as the Orange Order parading and the hoisting of national flags over public buildings. One of the prevailing aspects of the simmering conflict in Northern Ireland attributable to the Belfast Agreement is the Othering processes. The Othering processes have remained the main shapers of the political and cultural inclinations in Northern Ireland leading to in-group and out-groups within an ethnic context. The Othering process makes communities to be blind or unable to view their community as being responsible for the past conflict but instead views the conflict as having being instigated by the other communities (Nolan, 2014).

The Othering and the development of the conflict in the Northern Ireland society are sustained by the divisions that have been institutionalised in the peace process culminating in the Belfast Agreement of 1998. This is due to the extent to which the conflicting communities have come to perceive each other and their ability to continue possessing these perceptions in the transition from the conflict. As noted in Marsella (2005), codifying and embedding diversity and differences between groups has the potential to sow provocation and sustained conflict in a society. They tend to become part of the belief system in a community, embedding further the culturally constructed perceptions of the ‘Other’. The perceptions that shape the divisions in the society include the perception of danger to group identity and well-being, perceiving ‘Others’ as evil, threatening, and dangerous and lastly, perceiving one’s community as moral, self-righteous and that one religion as good by virtue in history and identity (Marsella, 2005). 

The Belfast Agreement is necessitated by the consociational institutions such as the Northern Ireland’s Assembly and a power-sharing executive that are often unworkable. However, the consociational institutions are sometimes absolved from blame and the conflicts that are blamed on the failure of the British government and Republicans to agree on steps for decommissioning, justice reforms, as well as demilitarisation and policing reforms. The case of consociation and the politics of Othering in Northern Ireland have been aided by the segmented society in Northern Ireland that embodies divisions that are not conducive to consensus (Horowitz, 2001). 

The four key traits that embody consociation as applied in the Northern Ireland case include the power-sharing between coalition parties, segmental autonomy, proportionality, and the mutual veto that protects and allows minority segments of Northern Ireland society to protect their interests. The consociational democracy that is practised in Northern Ireland can be summed up as the antonym of majoritarian democracy (Horowitz, 2001). The proponents of consociational democracy argues that there cannot be effective majoritarian democracy in Northern Ireland due to its segmentation. The features of consociation allow for hegemonic control as a mode through which a segmented society is stabilised. The hegemonic control in a consociational democracy is achieved through coercive domination and the co-option of the elite such that the latent divisions that exist between segmental groups are muzzled. However, consociational democracy may be ineffective in stabilising segmented democracies. The consociational system may face the risk of disintegration as has happened in Cyprus or Lebanon. There must be sufficient backgrounds for consociational systems to thrive such as the multiple balances of power that must exist between segments in the segmented society. Where there is no segmental group that has a majoritarian advantage, consociational systems may thrive (Breen-Smyth, 2008). In addition, where there is a multiparty system, the consociational system is effective in stabilising such society. In addition, a society made up of a relatively small population may facilitate cooperation which is prerequisite for an effective consociational system. 

The Othering prospecting continues to drive divisions in the Northern Ireland society by looking at the Other in a lesser way while regarding one’s culture as superior of the Other (McManus, 2017). Othering can be regarded as a sociological process that keeps the Irish historical divisions in a continued resonance acting as a source of social stratification and social closures. Othering is not just a one-dimension process for competing groups within the Irish society, but a perspective that is transmitted between generations through the negative perceptions of others, derived from historical stereotypes. Any action perpetrated by the Other is viewed through the lenses of giving credence to the negative perceptions. However, there are contradictions that lie at the centre of the Othering process, where each group considers itself as morally superior by virtue of identity, history and religions and seeks to enshrine this as the normality (Breen-Smyth, 2008). This superiority complex seeks to undermine Others and reinforce the perceived threat that Others pose to the in-group identity, religion and history. 

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Due to the perceived threat posed by Others, liberalism is downplayed as the in-group security becomes more important. The Othering process is also capable of drawing populism in a huge proportion of the population by marshalling the in-group beliefs, leading to the generation of the in-group chauvinistic brand of national expression in stark contrast to the civic and liberalism the groups claim to profess. As noted in Nolan (2014), despite the peace agreement nearly two decades ago, there are still sectarian divisions that continue to fuel ethnic tensions and violence such as the Orange Order parades. The Orange Order parade highlights Othering where the Protestants group continues to view the Catholic community as a threat to Protestantism in Northern Ireland (Barton & Roche,2009). The Orange Order perpetrates and continues to view the perceived threat of Catholicism in Ireland through the commemoration of events that mark the protestant persecution. Here, the actions of Others continue to sustain and give credibility to negative perceptions about Others. The historical actions of Others continue to reinforce the sense of Otherness and the threats it poses to in-group identity, nationality and religion. 

The coming to an end of the four-decade military conflict through the peace agreement of 1998 did not bring to an end the perception each of the conflicting groups had on each other (Richmond, 2010). While two models of promoting peace in Northern Ireland were fomented, that is the integrationists and the consociational approaches, the latter was adopted. It can be argued that the consociational method has not been effective in reaching to lasting peace; rather it has reinforced the divisions that have existed in the Ireland society. Unlike the integrationist model which encourages a bottom-up approach to the advancement of peace, consociational methods allow divisions to thrive along religious and political lines (Taylor, 2006). Consociational democracy, unlike the integrationist approach, does so for the greater inter-group contact in resolving potential conflicts which have the potential to obscure sectarian barriers in the society (Barton & Roche, 2009). The integrationist approach allows for conflicting groups to reach a compromise, and since it is a bottom-up approach driven by the civil society, it can help in exerting pressure on politicians to reach political settlements (Dixon, 1997). 

The consociational method to the promotion of peace is a top-down framework that features political solution at the elite level. It lies on the premise that the masses are in most cases apolitical.  The consociational democracy in Northern Ireland has relied on the political institutions as the means of sustaining stability by ensuring all significant segmental groups in Northern Ireland society are included in the power-sharing scheme. As argued in McGarry and O’Leary (2004), the consociational democracy is inadequate in addressing divisions in a segmented population such as in Northern Ireland.

It can be adduced that reaching a peace deal in 1998 cannot be equated to reaching peace. The Good Friday Agreement created fragile peace since political intransigence, sporadic civil disturbances and public disaffection continue to demonstrate a pattern of inconclusive peace-making (Mac Ginty et al., 2007). The consociational oriented peace agreement did not address the underlying sources of conflict in the Northern Ireland society; rather, it was clustered around technocratic ‘box-ticking’ approach where the main agenda was to witness the quantifiable change in good governance while ignoring the divides in the society (Barton & Roche, 2009). Like many contemporary peace-making processes, the Good Friday agreement of 1998 is inclined more towards the constitutional and legalistic aspects, quelling direct conflict while not curbing indirect conflicts between opposing groups. 

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On a critical look, the top-down approach of consociational democracy fails to realise ‘real’ peace since it bears the weakness of addressing an affective and perceptual aspect of peace-making in the Ireland society (Breen-Smyth, 2008). Reconcilliation and intergroup cooperation have not been fully realised in the Northern Ireland society since the Good Friday Agreement came into place two decades ago. Distrust and negative perception continue to stand in the way of achieving peace and harmony in the society as opposing groups. Although the Good Friday agreement has stalled potential direct violence, it has not offered transformative peace where the underlying sources of conflict and segmentation in the society are addressed (Taylor, 2006).  

To conclude, the Good Friday Agreement did not seal the divide since its consociational approach has continued to propagate the continued allegiance to opposing identities and the rejection of integration in the Northern Ireland society. Religion continues to be a factor used in the categorisation of the society. The agreement demonstrates failure since it has had no significant impact on intercommunal identities in the post-agreement era. The top-down approach at the political meta-scale has failed to promote attitudinal change in perception of identity. Instead, it is the religious and political identity in the currency for the power-sharing scheme that has been installed in consociational democracy in Northern Ireland. The agreement legitimises the already existing divisions through the power-sharing agreement, increasingly enshrining polarised voting patterns which continue to act as fodder for the simmering conflict. 

Concisely, the political violence in Northern Ireland, otherwise referred as “The Troubles”, led to the Good Friday Agreement. It was a complex conflict in the struggle between two groups that differed in their national, cultural and religious identities. Due to the consociational democratic approach to peace-making, Northern Ireland is still characterised by instability between the Unionist parties and the nationalists. The fragility of the peace deal has threatened the stability of Northern Ireland such as the killing of a former IRA member that precipitated in the arrest of Sinn Fein leader. The recent developments such as Brexit has demonstrated the weakness of the Good Friday Agreement, leading to the question of Northern Ireland’s status within the UK in the long-term.

Both segregationist and integrationist support the Good Friday Agreement (1998) in Northern Ireland for varied reason. The segregationist prefers the consociation since they believe the political elite are best poised to build settlements through a top-down approach. On the other hand, the integrationists believe that the communal factions will only be integrated through power-sharing such that peace is consolidated. Since the consociational democracy believes that contact between conflicting factions is a source of conflict, it furthers communal segregation, further entrenching divisions in the Northern Ireland society. The continued identification of assemblies as either nationalist or unionist, segregation in social activities, education, and in housing further reinforce the divisions in the society. Integrationists have favoured power-sharing as a framework of facilitating contact between conflicting groups. Arguably, Consociationalism has since re-forged rather than resolved the political, national and religious divisions in Northern Ireland society.  

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