Podium: Reality and illusion in Ulster

From a speech delivered by the professor of politics to the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ETHNIC DIVISIONS are perhaps the most difficult ones to resolve in any polity. This is especially so when they are overlaid with differences of religion and national identity.

In such circumstances, decisions about citizenship, territory or state ceremony often come to be regarded as "zero sum" games in which anything that is believed to favour one side is automatically regarded as disadvantageous to the other.

But on Good Friday 1998 nearly all the principal political actors in Northern Ireland signed the Belfast agreement. This agreement set out a new framework for the governance of the province.

The agreement was reached after a "peace process" which had publicly been in existence for more than four years and privately for even longer, and during the course of which all of the major paramilitary organisations had declared a ceasefire.

In recent years political scientists have rediscovered the apparent ability of political institutions to influence political behaviour and outcomes. In the Belfast agreement politicians certainly attempted to find an institutional structure and a decision-making process that was capable of ending an apparently unending sequence of civil strife, in part by turning the zero sum game of Northern Irish politics into one from which both communities felt that they derived benefit.

But the substance of the agreement may not be the only foundation on which public approval rested. Northern Ireland's population may have been attracted to it by the prospect of material benefit and peace that it appeared to offer, even if that population was not particularly keen on some of the detailed provisions of the agreement.

And perhaps, too, the process of securing the agreement enabled some politicians to develop an appeal that straddled the province's political divide, thereby enabling them to obtain public support for the agreement.

However, it seems that there was a crucial ambiguity at the heart of the agreement in the minds of the Northern Irish public. The Belfast agreement itself did not explicitly link the right of parties to take up their places on the Northern Ireland Executive with decommissioning.

It simply committed them to "use any influence they may have to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years", while the pledge of office for executive ministers requires them to pledge "commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means".

Statements by Tony Blair during the course of the referendum campaign were widely interpreted as indicating that he believed that decommissioning would need to be in progress before either an executive was formed, or all prisoners were released.

Certainly it is clear that this was what the agreement was widely understood to mean. Whatever the agreement may have said, many Protestants and Catholics believed that it should and did say that both the formation of an executive and prisoners' releases were linked to decommissioning.

These issues are, of course, themselves not central to the long-term institutional arrangements for the governance of Northern Ireland. But they are central to the pain felt by many in Northern Ireland as a result of the "troubles".

The Belfast agreement was widely hailed at the time as a major political achievement. It seemed to have identified a set of institutional arrangements that might have legitimacy in the eyes of both communities and therefore might be capable of ending the civil strife that had troubled the province for 30 years. It was not achieved because there had been any significant decline in the differences of identity, political aspiration or social attitudes between the two communities. Rather, it was secured despite the fact that such changes had largely not occurred.

The crucial ambiguity at the heart of the Belfast agreement meant that the public at least believed that decommissioning would take place before prisoners were released or an executive was formed.

As a result, we should not be surprised that these have proved to be the issues that have dogged attempts to implement the agreement. Northern Ireland is not only still a divided society; it is at odds with itself about what the Belfast agreement was supposed to mean.

Identifying a set of institutional arrangements that both sides might live with is clearly a necessary part of resolving any ethnic division. But it evidently needs to be accompanied by a process to put those arrangements in place that commands confidence, too.