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North has to be run by consociational system

(Brian Feeney, Irish News)

In the midst of all the huffing and puffing in the Stormont executive last week the prize for the most fatuous observation went to the leader of the NIO's front party David Ford.

He told a Sunday newspaper: "In any normal society a row like this between ministers would lead to a constitutional crisis."

The technical term for this kind of comment is a statement of the bleeding obvious. He reinforced this inane remark by blaming it all on "the bizarre nature of government".

First of all there isn't a government at Stormont, though all those very important ministers would love you to think so.

If there were a government they could implement a 10% corporation tax, join the euro, establish an army.

No – what we have got up there is an administration, which doles out the annual block grant from Westminster, which is now around the £10 billion mark.

Secondly, the arrangement is not bizarre. It is based on a theory called consociation.

The chief architect of the theory in recent years, Arend Lijphart, received an honorary doctorate from Queen's University a couple of years ago. Why would that be?

Would it perhaps be in recognition that his theories have had some relevance to the north's problems? Do any of the MLAs know that the system the people voted for and that they are operating is based on Lijphart's theories?

It doesn't sound as if they do.

Unionists in particular keep hankering after a 'cabinet' with collective responsibility.

They complain about a forced coalition, they hope that the present arrangements will be temporary. Some of them, especially the NIO's front party, keep talking about creating an opposition.

None of this is going to happen. Why? Simply because the north is not a normal political state, not least because a substantial proportion of the people living here don't agree it is a state.

Lijphart's way round such difficulties in divided societies was to create a 'consensus democracy' involving the major factions.

Consensus democracies require oversized coalitions that can't infringe on any community's rights and which run the place by as broad a super-majority as possible. Ring any bells?

Lijphart in his 1999 book Patterns of Democracy cites 36 countries using consociational criteria. Hardly bizarre or unusual, unless you think the only system that has any validity is the British two-party system, which emerged to cater for a completely different society.

Now, is there any danger someone will come clean and tell unionists that is the system and that it can't change without a referendum and the consent of the British and Irish governments which are parties to the Good Friday Agreement?

The arrangement is the price unionists have to pay for making themselves so objectionable over the 50 years they had a free hand here.

It is exactly the same penalty the Christians of the Lebanon had to pay for trying to exclude the Muslims.

The Lebanon was created to preserve the diminishing minority of Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon, just as the north was devised to preserve the diminishing minority of unionists in Ireland.

The Lebanese system requires there to be a Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, an Orthodox deputy prime minister and a Shia Muslim speaker. The seats in parliament are also divvied up 50-50 Muslim-Christian, with seats for the various Christian and Muslim sects. Same with the cabinet.

This version of consociationalism is called confessionalism. You can be sure there are people in the Lebanon who call it bizarre and who are saying: "If this was a normal society, blah blah blah."

But it ain't and never will be because of the population mix, just as this place ain't and never will be, which is why it has to be run by a consociational system.

So let's have arguments about the workings of the system that exists, not pointless wailing for a system which does not exist here and can never operate in this place.

All of which is another way of saying the big battalions in the executive have just handed out a sharp lesson in political power to the minnows.

It's crude and it's brutal but it's the way this system works. Watch and learn.

October 25, 2007

This article appeared first in the October 24, 2007 edition of the Irish News.

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