Thursday, May 12, 2005


Democracy in Northern Ireland

One problem about democracy is that we can trace two partially overlapping yet partially conflicting ideas about what it is really about.

One theory is which I would term "representative democracy" suggests that the prime feature of democracy is representation of all of the groups in society. The purpose of a set of democratic institutions is to give as far as possible all groups in society representation in the institutions of governance. This theory is keen on proportional representation, coalition governments and on mechanisms to ensure the widest possible diffusion of power within those institutions.

A second theory which I would term "liberal democracy" looks at the key feature of democracy as being the accountability of the government to the people. This theory tends towards a more majoritarian conception of government because it regards the right of the people to dismiss our government as being of key importance. This theory tends to regard legal rights and constitutinal limitations on government powers as being the mechanisms to protect minority groups.

The constitutional orthodoxy in Northern Ireland since 1973 has been towards a representative model. The aim of successive British governments (and latterly Irish governments too) has been to produce a set of constitutional mechanisms that guarantee that parties from both sides of the community end up in the executive regardless of the election result.

I would suggest that this constitutional orthodoxy is a major source of our difficulties. There are a legion of divided societies on this planet yet only a few have gone down the line of entrenching communal positions in the executive. Lebanon and Cyprus are the two main examples, unfortunately before their respective civil war and near civil war. It is my opinion that the reason why it is so difficult to create a power sharing constitution in Northern ireland is because the very idea itself is unworkable.

If my opinion in this regard is correct and power-sharing is unworkable, then we must try to find a plan B. Here is where the liberal democratic models may be of more use. The US constitution is the classic example of liberal democracy. I would not propose it as a model to be slavishly followed here, yet although majoritarian, it has a series of guarantees:
1. It divides powers geographically by its federalism.
2. It limits the powers of its institutions.
3. It has strong judicial controls.
While the GFA looks better in theory, it has not worked in practice. In the real world the sort of mechanisms set out in the US constitution and in the constitions of other liberal democracies may prove a lot more effective than anything in the GFA.

Because the NI orthodoxy is so strongly wedded to "power sharing" nobody is really even considering the multitude of other constitutional mechanisms that may be available. Pursuit of utopian perfection has prevented us from looking for solutions in the real world.

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