The new Northern Ireland assembly will not overcome the old differences, says Kevin Rooney: it will institutionalise them
New deal, new divisions
Growing up in Catholic West Belfast, anti-Protestant jokes were met with a slap from the back of my father's hand. The non-sectarianism that I learned for the purposes of self-protection developed into a political conviction through my teenage engagement with republican politics. Reading the likes of James Connolly, Seamus Costello and other old left-wing republicans instilled in me and many others a conviction that the religious differences in Northern Ireland had been sustained by successive British governments. We learned that the British had often used similar policies of 'divide and rule' to maintain influence in former colonies seeking independence, and we were adamant that they would not succeed in Northern Ireland.
Despite repeated loyalist attacks on Catholic civilians, we refused to get drawn into a sectarian feud and continued to argue that Britain, not Unionism, was the problem. We believed that through ending partition we could also destroy the artificial barriers that kept Irish people divided.
Though many saw this as idealistic, it was in fact an entirely rational view. And we could not accept the alternative - that two communities would remain divided, in permanent conflict over their national identities. There is absolutely no natural or ethnic basis for the division between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. We are the same 'race', we speak the same language, we share the same history. The idea that we could share common goals as the people of Ireland rather than as Unionists or nationalists was an ideal well worth fighting for.
The much heralded peace agreement announced on Good Friday puts an end to that ideal, and promises to institutionalise the differences between Catholics and Protestants into the millennium. Worse, the same republican leaders who articulated the anti-sectarian views I have described are now at the forefront of popularising a politics in which difference is celebrated and where artificially created identities are presented as two traditions which should enjoy 'parity of esteem'. Britain is no longer to be pushed out of Ireland, it seems, but invited to stay as the referee between conflicting aspirations and the guarantor of equal treatment.
When Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party talk about an 'agreed Ireland', they express their newfound belief that there must be an accommodation of two fixed, immovable identities. The new peace agreement is not about overcoming the sectarian divide; it is about accommodating to the divisions in Irish society and creating institutions that reflect the permanence of these differences.
The main institution will be the new 108-member assembly at Stormont castle. Despite some nationalist fears that the assembly will be 'another Stormont' (the notorious anti-Catholic administration that ran Northern Ireland from 1923 to 1972, once described by its leader as a 'Protestant parliament for a Protestant people'), the new assembly will be a very different animal. It is introduced in 'The Agreement' as a body 'which is inclusive in its membership, capable of exercising executive and legislative authority, and subject to safeguards to protect the rights and interests of all sides of the community'.
The way that the assembly will serve to strengthen divisions rather than overcome them is shown in the requirement that all members must designate their identity. Members enter this assembly as representatives not only of a political party, but of a particular 'tradition'. 'The Agreement' states: 'At their first meeting members of the assembly will register a designation of identity - nationalist, Unionist or other - for the purpose of measuring cross-community support in assembly votes.'
Before all votes members will be asked to designate themselves as nationalist or Unionist, to ensure that the votes are cast on 'cross-community' lines. This sealing of sectarian divisions is dressed up as a necessary safeguard 'to ensure that all sections of the community can participate and work together'.
Closely linked with the freezing of different identities in law is the dangerous erosion of democracy in the new assembly. Given that all votes and decisions must be taken on a cross-community basis, the concept of majoritarian democracy is out. Instead almost all the parties with members in the assembly will be given a cabinet post. Voting procedures are also subject to a complex system of checks and balances which are supposed to ensure that all sides agree to any rulings.
The voting arrangements proposed for the new assembly bear no relation to the Westminster system of passing legislation with a simple majority. No legislation will be passed unless there is 'parallel consent', described in 'The Agreement' as 'a majority of those members present and voting including a majority of nationalist and Unionist designations', or a 'weighted majority', described as '60 per cent of members present and voting, including at least 40 per cent of each of the nationalist and Unionist designations'. So even though the Unionists are likely to form the numerical majority in the assembly, they will be prevented from dominating the legislative procedure in the way that Tony Blair's majority allows in Westminster.
Far from producing harmony, this anti-democratic system is bound to exacerbate tensions in Northern Ireland. At least under majority democracy issues can be settled one way or another. But the future for both communities in Northern Ireland is a constant round of compromises that will satisfy nobody.
While the politics of identity has become increasingly influential everywhere in recent years, this is the first time that a political institution has been established on the basis of it. The designation of politicians by identity and the abandonment of majority voting are a serious threat to democracy throughout the UK and Ireland. The fact that they have been broadly welcomed as an attack on Unionist hegemony rather than an assault on democracy is even more worrying.
Only a few years ago the debate about democracy in Northern Ireland concerned the denial of the rights of nationalists to form part of a majority in Ireland. Nowadays Gerry Adams would be the first to accept that such all-Ireland democracy is unacceptable to the Unionist tradition. Instead everybody agrees that Northern Ireland needs structures which reject 'simplistic' notions of democracy. In a pamphlet published by the influential think-tank Democratic Dialogue, Elizabeth Meehan, a well-known liberal academic, articulates the dominant view:
'The conditionality of majority rule upon the protection of minorities has been overlooked in the dominant understanding of democracy in Northern Ireland. Elsewhere, simplistic majoritarianism is under attack for its adverse effects - closing discussion and being susceptible to the suppression of legitimate minority viewpoints.'
The language of minority rights and pluralism is very seductive and has certainly helped to undermine any criticism of the new 'Agreement', but take away the fine words and you are left with an institution which is even more undemocratic than the old Stormont parliament. Tragically, today it is left to bigots like the DUP to point to the democratic deficit in the new institutions.
There are other worrying aspects in 'The Agreement'. A code of conduct for ministers states that they must 'operate in a way conducive to promoting good community relations and equality of treatment'. This clause will undoubtedly be used to restrict free speech and to reinforce the theme of the peace process - that strong opinions from intransigent politicians have been a major part of the problem in the past. Already the (tiny) minority Northern Ireland Women's Coalition has called for Unionist politicians to be prosecuted for undermining good community relations by their behaviour in the Northern Ireland forum.
Monitoring the work of the assembly will be an even less democratic body, the civic forum - unelected, with membership by government appointment. Northern Ireland secretary of state Mo Mowlam has already indicated that it will be a colourful assortment of minorities from women's groups, academia, community groups, etc.
The British government and its allies have imposed their will by reinforcing the divisions in Irish society. They have done so with such ease because the national struggle in Ireland had been roundly defeated. Rather than admitting to that defeat and stepping back from the imposed settlement, the republican movement has embraced a peace process based on celebrating difference. Sinn Fein will take its seats in the new Stormont. It will be there as the representative of the Catholic working class, and will argue for gaelic street names, the promotion of the Irish language and for the re-routing of Protestant marches. It is a far cry from the movement that described itself as the voice of the people of Ireland as a whole.
Growing up near to the so-called peace line which divided Catholic and Protestant communities in West Belfast, one survival mechanism was to make sure you could do a good impression of a staunch Catholic or Protestant as required. When stopped by menacing characters demanding to know your religion, the ability to reel off a Hail Mary or the loyalist theme tune 'The sash' without hesitation could mean the difference between life and death.
Today this depressing backward behaviour which many of us fought to destroy seems to have been elevated to the defining feature of Northern Ireland's new parliament. Instead of reciting the Hail Mary or singing 'The sash', politicians will 'designate' themselves as nationalist or Unionist. Some breakthrough.
Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998