The politics of devolution
The politics of devolution

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The politics of devolution

5.4 Devolution in Northern Ireland: a particular case

Devolution in Northern Ireland has been an integral part of the post-1994 peace process, which aims to share power between the two divergent communities, the Unionist-Protestant majority and the Republican-Catholic minority. All-party talks, chaired by the former US Senator George Mitchell, followed the 1997 renewal of a paramilitary ceasefire. The decommissioning of arms by paramilitary groups was made a condition of the talks, but no specific date for its accomplishment was ever given. This position underlined the government's stance on the illegitimacy of the use of violence for political ends, but also stressed peaceful means to attain political aims previously pursued through the use of violence.

The UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, and the then US President, Bill Clinton, all put pressure on all sides to pursue the talks. Finally, the Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement, was signed on 10 April 1998. The agreement, marking a major breakthrough in conflict resolution strategy, seeks to reconcile the Unionist desire that Northern Ireland remains a province of the UK with the Republican claim for an independent united Ireland free from English domination. The two contradictory objectives, which have provoked years of intense violence and suffering for the people of Northern Ireland, were to be resolved in an internal power sharing accord in which Unionists and Republicans would be represented, and an external agreement in which the UK and Ireland guarantee the national aspirations of both communities.

The principle on which the agreement was based was ‘the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all’ (The Belfast Agreement, 1998, p. 1). It enshrined ‘the total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues’ (ibid., 1998, p. 1) and the endorsement of consent as a principle on the basis of which the people of Northern Ireland should decide on their future. All participants ‘recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland’ (ibid., 1998, p. 2).

The agreement provides for a democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly with an inclusive, fully representative membership. The Assembly exercises executive and legislative authority shared across both communities and safeguards protect the rights and interests of all. The agreement also established a North-South Ministerial Council to develop consultation, cooperation and action between Northern Ireland and the Irish government on matters of mutual interest. A British-Irish Council, comprising representatives of the UK and Irish governments, devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and, if appropriate, elsewhere in the UK, together with representatives of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, was also created with the aim of fostering harmonious, mutually beneficial relationships among the peoples of the British Isles.

Among the most controversial and delicate matters dealt with by the agreement were the provisions for the release of prisoners whose organisations maintain a ‘complete and unequivocal ceasefire’, and ‘the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms … in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement’ (The Belfast Agreement, 1998, p. 20). At the same time the agreement made provisions for changes in UK state security arrangements, reducing the numbers and changing the role of the armed forces deployed in Northern Ireland, removing security installations and ending emergency powers.

The agreement was endorsed by referendums in May 1998 when 71.1 per cent in Northern Ireland (turn-out 81.1 per cent) and 94.4 per cent in Ireland (turnout 56.3 per cent) provided strong support for the peace process. Elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly were held in June 1998 and again in November 2003. The Northern Ireland Assembly (Stormont) is formed by 108 members elected by single transferable vote and six members from each of 18 Westminster constituencies. Because of the specific nature of Northern Ireland politics, the Assembly is based on a system of weighted majorities to ensure cross-community consent between Unionist and Republicans on all major issues. The First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the executive are elected by a system that ensures the distribution of ministerial portfolios between all major parties. The executive committee is not bound by collective responsibility, and the committees and their chairs are appointed in proportion to party strengths, to scrutinize and advise on the work of each Executive Minister (Hazell, 2000, p. 4). Table 4 shows the Northern Ireland Assembly election results for 1998, 2003, 2007 and 2011.

Table 4 Northern Ireland Assembly election results: number of seats gained by different parties, 1998, 2003, 2007 and 2011

Political party1998200320072011
Ulster Unionist Party28271816
Democratic Unionist Party20303638
Sinn Fein18242829
UK Unionist Party510
Green Party0018
Progressive Unionist Party2110
Trad, Uniionist Voice0001

While more than half of Unionists – and the majority of Republicans – support the Belfast Agreement, implementing the peace process was problematic, not least because it provoked a profound split within the ranks of Unionism. Opponents of the agreement saw it as a sell out, ushering in a united Ireland within which Protestants would lose their privileged status. In particular, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) grew in electoral strength within the Unionist community. In addition, Unionists and Republicans initially failed to reach agreement on establishing a lasting power-sharing executive. While paramilitary ceasefires were achieved (although renegade Republicans formed the Real IRA, which killed 29 people in a horrific bombing in Omagh in 1998, the largest single loss of life in the modern history of Northern Ireland), disagreements over IRA decommissioning led Unionists to refuse to share government with Sinn Fein, something that then required the UK government to suspend the executive and the Assembly on several occasions between 2000 and 2005. As a result, the UK had to govern the province from Westminster up until the St Andrews Agreement Act (2007). At the time of writing, the ceasefires have prevailed amongst the main paramilitary groups and the peace process – and the agreement it sponsored – are now well established, with the DUP and Sinn Fein sharing power. .


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