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Exposing the myths of power sharing 'existence'

(Patrick Murphy, Irish News)

Is power-sharing an impractical form of government or is Northern Ireland just ungovernable from within? Recent events at Stormont would suggest that both may now be the case.

There are three myths about power sharing. The first is that it already exists in local councils. This is untrue. What exists is the rotation of the posts of chair of the council and its various committees. This is a noble gesture but it does not influence the balance of power. It is no more than polite majority rule. Where it does not exist, there is impolite majority rule – and whereas politeness is always welcome, it is not the same as power-sharing.

The second is that it is just another form of coalition, no different, for example, from the Fianna Fail-PD coalition in Dublin. Again this is untrue. A coalition is a temporary alliance.

Power-sharing, as envisaged here, is not temporary: it is an ever-lasting constitutional arrangement, without which the assembly fails to exist.

A coalition government is challenged by an opposition. Under power-sharing, almost everyone is in a government party (even David Ervine) and there is no formal opposition party. Thus opposition to a specific government policy can come only from within that same government. It may be democracy but not as the rest of the world understands the concept.

The third myth is that power sharing worked in the last assembly. It did not. Take a simple example. When Martin McGuinness abolished the 11-plus examination, it was clear that his decision would have significant implications for higher education since it is mainly those who pass the 11-plus who go to university. But it appears that he did not consult, for example, the SDLP's Sean Farren, the then minister responsible for higher education. Certainly there was no evidence that higher education would be reviewed in the light of what McGuinness decided.

McGuinness had the right to act as he did (and he showed great courage in doing so) but his actions suggest that all 10 ministers had the right to act independently. That is not power sharing. That is the partitioning of power, which is a different process, whereby religious rivalry across the sectarian divide is surpassed only by party political, internecine strife within each sectarian camp.

This is not merely the lack of joined-up government. It is a fundamental flaw, which arises because one party (Sinn Féin) believes that the assembly is merely an interim step to the abolition of the state, while two others (UUP and DUP) believe that it represents a guarantee of the state's infinite existence. Thus one wants power to destroy the state, the others want power to preserve it.

Hence the key question: can parties share power if they have totally opposite views on the purpose of that power? It would appear at best impractical and at worst impossible – which is why this state may be ungovernable from within.

Thus Scottish first minister Jack McConnell's comparison with the Scottish parliament was inaccurate. There is no political grouping in Scotland telling its electorate that the parliament there is merely a stop-gap measure prior to breaking the union with England. He claimed that, like the Scottish parliament, Stormont could tackle sectarianism.

But he failed to recognise that the nationalist parties have now followed the lead of many unionists in claiming that civil rights are sectarian rights. Whereas the civil rights movement fought for the rights of all people as human beings, the major political parties now advocate rights for their own clan against all others. It is the fallacy on which the Good Friday Agreement is founded.

The problem is reflected in our assembly's hypocrisy. On their first day back members stood for a minute's silence for Michael McIlveen. He was a victim of sectarian tensions between those who wear Celtic shirts and those who wear Rangers shirts (while sporting the name of the same brewery on both).

Members then signed in and, under the rules of the assembly, they were required to register, not by political party but by their soccer shirts – nationalist, unionist or other. Like all hypocrisy, it was both galling and sad.

The British government has now officially recognised the partitioning of power by establishing seven new district councils, which will move us from local government to local ghettoes. Having misinterpreted our history, the Good Friday Agreement is now seeking refuge in our geography.

In the meantime events at Stormont continue. In terms of normal politics they appear to represent little more than the incompetent in pursuit of the impossible.

May 29, 2006

This article appeared first in the May 27, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News