More on the Belfast Agreement

The Belfast Agreement embedded the governance of Northern Ireland within a series of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ political institutions. The combination of devolved power-sharing alongside cross-jurisdictional institutional structures was widely considered to be sufficiently subtle to accommodate the competing claims of unionism and nationalism (O’Leary 2002). On the one hand, it addressed nationalist concerns about Northern Ireland's ‘Wal- zerian’ problem - that different spheres of political, economic, and social life should not be monopolized by any one group or section of society (Walzer 1983). It also gave institutional expression to the ‘Irish' identity of northern nationalists by creating opportunities for deeper political and economic connections with Ireland. On the other hand, the Agreement defends the right of the unionist community to remain British by laying down that only after a majority in a referendum voted to do so could the constitutional status of Northern Ireland be altered: the Agreement copper fastened the principle of consent.

In the immediate aftermath of its signing, the Belfast Agreement was heralded as a path-breaking political and constitutional development. The broad set of intergovernmental relationships, transnational governance institutions, and elaborate local power sharing arrangements established was seen as creating a new political framework in which institutional connections that straddle national borders would be central to the internal political stability of Northern Ireland (Wilson and Wilford 2006). On this view, the Agreement represented a departure from the traditional ‘Weberian’ idea of political democracy and constitutional frontiers being contiguous, with governments securing their legitimacy by being rooted within already existing nation-states. The umbilical cord connecting sovereignty and democracy was cut by the construction of a novel political framework whereby the democratic credibility and sustainability of Northern Ireland was not invested in any one definition of nationhood, Britishness. Not everyone shared this interpretation of the Belfast Agreement, but the 'creative ambiguity’ running through the Agreement meant it could not be fully discounted as a possibility.

After more than 20 years, it can be safely concluded that the idea, even hope, of the Belfast Agreement housing the governance of Northern Ireland within some type of post-nationalist political framework has not come to pass. Yet it is self-evident that the Agreement has been hugely successful as Northern Ireland is now an incomparably better place than in the 1970s and 1980s when violence was widespread. Apart from episodic incidents by fringe dissident republican and loyalist terror groups, the region has experienced the near complete absence of paramilitary violence. For sure, building a fully- fledged political democracy within Northern Ireland remains a work in progress. Over the two decades since the signing of the Agreement, the devolved power sharing executive and assembly has evolved in fits and starts (McGlynn et al 2014). Currently, these power sharing institutions are once again functioning after having to be mothballed for the best part of three years due to a breakdown in trust between the two main political parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP. Moreover, as already pointed out, imperfect political and social features street pervade Northern Ireland life - peace walls, sectarianism and so on (Shirlow 2018). Yet what is not fully appreciated is that after 20 years of the Belfast Agreement the broad contours started to emerge of a mostly internal political settlement within Northern Ireland. The two main pivots of this nascent political settlement were a new democratic equal status between the two communities and the creation of an open border between the north and south of Ireland. The significance of Brexit is that it has fragmented beyond repair this emerging settlement.

56 Brexit and the Belfast Agreement Strand 1 and the politics of deterrence

The power sharing institutions created by Strand 1 of the Agreement closely followed the core principles of consociational democracy. The assumption was that these institutions, which recognized the legitimacy of both nationalist and unionist political traditions in Northern Ireland, would trigger a process of accommodation, leading to the divisions between the two communities becoming less antagonistic (Todd 2011). The expectation was that power sharing would make both nationalism and unionism less solipsistic. However, this moderating effect was never really generated, at least not overtly within the formal political arena. Shortly after the creation of the power sharing institutions, electoral support for the moderate wings of nationalism and unionism dipped significantly, resulting in the extreme wings of the two blocs, the DUP and Sinn Fein, acquiring dominance. Con- sociationalism released a centrifugal rather than a centripetal political dynamic inside Northern Ireland.

Yet, the power sharing institutions were able to survive this lurch to the political extremes. Sinn Fein and the DUP had shared power with each other for nearly a decade before the Northern Irelans Assembly collapsed in 2017. Admittedly, it took nearly three years before the Assembly was restored, but ten years of formal political stability suggests that the DUP and Sinn Fein were quite capable of sharing power with each other. One perceptive view was that power sharing was not compromised by the dominance of the DUP and Sinn Fein as each extreme recognized the dangers of non-cooperation and each were sufficiently encompassing to commit their respective blocs to the joint governance of the region (Mitchell et al 2009). The situation that emerged can be usefully characterized as peaceful co-existence breaking out between nationalism and unionism, involving each side holding back from aggressively pursuing their own objectives or making excessive demands on the other side. Each bloc started to recognize that while it had enough power to thwart the political ambitions of the other side, it had insufficient power to push through its own agenda. A politics of deterrence emerged between the two blocs, which is essentially about stopping or preventing an action not in your interests. Previously, a politics of ‘compellence’ mentality dominated both nationalism and unionism, which involves forcing an actor to do something that is in your interests or at least against their own interests (Schelling 1980). Deepening electoral support for Sinn Fein and the DUP gave credibility to this politics of deterrence: each bloc was able to signal to the other their internal strength and cohesiveness, thereby weakening the incentive of either side to depart unilaterally from the newly found peaceful accommodation and pursue the politics of compellence.

Thus, what emerged under Strand 1 of the Belfast Agreement was an arm’s-length deterrence coalition between nationalism and unionism that ensured, until recently, the internal political stability of Northern Ireland. However, the cost of this deterrence coalition may perhaps have been inefficient and ineffective government of the region. Studies repeatedly point to the presence of cumbersome and unadventurous policy-making across a wide range of areas, including health, education, economic development, and sectarianism (Knox 2016). A related criticism was that the arm’s-length deterrence coalition ossified political structures around nationalism and unionism, with the effect of reducing the political space for non-sectarian politics (Wilson 2010). While these criticisms have merit, they perhaps should not be pushed too far. A more positive interpretation would be that while the politics of deterrence may have held back innovative government in Northern Ireland, the peace that it ensured facilitated modernization outside the formal political process. In particular, although politics at Stormont may have been ossified along predictable sectarian grounds, within the wider economy and society some significant advances were being made towards creating a new democratic equal status between Catholics and Protestants, which held out the promise of spilling back and disrupting established attitudes inside both unionism and nationalism.

Moves towards a new democratic equal status in Northern Ireland centre on the improved labour market position of Catholics in Northern Ireland, which is highlighted in Chapter 1. Progress towards rebalancing the performance of Catholics and Protestants in the labour market was being made since the early 1990s, but it picked up pace after the signing of the Belfast Agreement. To add further evidence in support of this development, we use data from the latest fair employment monitoring survey that records how 'designated' organizations are promoting ‘fair participation' of Catholics and Protestants (see Equality Commission for Northern Ireland 2018). Under fair employment legislation, certain employers in Northern Ireland must review their own workforce composition every three years to assess ‘fair participation’ between the Protestant and Catholic communities and where there is an under-representation, take appropriate affirmative action. To do this they are required to collect workforce monitoring information on an ongoing basis. The Equality Commission collates this information and produces a Fair employment monitoring report every three years.

The latest 2018 Report shows that in terms of employment stock the share of Catholics in the workforce of monitored firms increased by 6.7 per cent between 2001 and 2016, up from 41.8 to 48.4 per cent, whereas the Protestant share decreased by about the same amount, down from 59.7 per cent to 53.3 per cent. In terms of employment flows, in 2017, for the ninth consecutive year, the Catholic community comprised a greater proportion of applicants, 53.1 per cent, than the Protestant community in monitored firms, 46.9 per cent. In every year between 2006 and 2017, members of the Catholic community, 53.0 per cent, comprised a greater proportion of appointees than did the Protestant community, 47.0 per cent. Overall, the share of Catholic appointees in monitored firms has increased by 9.0 percentage points from 2001, when the figure was 44.8 per cent. These aggregate figures reflect important changes to labour market behaviour and outcomes. Catholics now represent a greater proportion of applicants for jobs at firms that participate in fair employment monitoring. They also comprise a greater proportion of successful appointees. In addition, the Catholic share of promotions within monitored firms has been steadily increasing over the last decade and more. Conversely Protestants comprise a greater proportion of job leavers than Catholics (Equality Commission for Northern Ireland 2018).

Emblematic of the narrowing gap in the labour market performance of the two communities is the civil service. Throughout the old Stormont years, from the late twenties through to the early seventies when Stormont was abolished, there were virtually no Catholics at the senior echelons of the Northern Ireland civil service. To some, the stark absence of Catholics from senior civil service jobs was not troubling. John Oliver, a Permanent Secretary in the Northern Ireland in the 1960s, widely regarded as an erudite and innovative civil servant, in his memoir Working at Stormont, dismissed out- of-hand the idea that the lack of Catholic representation at the senior levels of the civil service was due to discrimination, saying that in decades working at Stormont he did not encounter any such behaviour or practices (Oliver 1978). Others are blunter in their explanation as to why Catholics were more or less absent from the higher echelons of the civil service. Gudgin (1999) argues that Catholics had only themselves to blame for this underrepresentation as too many were hostile to the State and ‘preferred second class citizenship to working for the government’. Thankfully, this rather crude and unsophisticated view held no sway on government thinking. Instead, it was recognized that decisive action had to occur to improve the number of Catholics holding senior civil servant appointments, otherwise attempts at creating a new peaceful Northern Ireland would have been viewed as shallow.

As a result of a sustained effort over many years, the religious composition of the Northern Ireland civil service workforce has changed radically. Excluding those with a community background recorded as ‘Not Determined', Protestants made up 50.8 per cent and Catholics 49.2 per cent of civil service staff in 2019, a difference of 1.6 percentage points. This contrasts sharply with the situation in 2000 when the gap was 16.6 percentage points (Protestants made up 58.3 per cent and Catholics 41.7 per cent). Catholic representation at the most senior grades in the Civil Service - Grade 5 and above - is still lower than the Catholic share of the wider economically active population: about a third of employees in these senior posts are now Catholics. Although not perfect, these developments represent a step change from the old Stormont years. Below senior level positions, the picture is even more positive as Catholic representation in each grade is more or less similar, if not above, their share of the wider economically active population. At all grade levels, Catholic representation is higher in 2019 than in 2010.

Progress has also been made in other parts of the economy, although perhaps in slightly more chequered manner. Consider the PSNI. In 2001, the police force in Northern Ireland consisted of 7,558 Protestant officers and

708 Catholics officers. In other words, over 90 per cent of the police force were from one side of the community, with Catholic only making up 8.3 per cent of the numbers. The imbalance between the number of Catholics and Protestants was widely viewed as a core reason why the Catholics community was so alienated from the RUC, the name of the police force before it received its new title, the PSN1. As part of the peace process, the British Government set up in 1999 a Commission to reform the RUC under the chairmanship of Chris Patton, the Conservative peer. The Patten Report (1999) introduced a battery of radical reforms with the objective of changing the police service root and branch. One of its key recommendations was to introduce a new recruitment and selection procedure, what become known as the 50:50 recruitment rule. The recommended procedure would work as follows: all candidates who applied to join the police service and who reached a specified standard of merit in the selection procedure would be placed in a pool from which an equal number of Protestants and Catholics would then be drawn for appointment. The Patten Commission envisaged that 50:50 recruitment would quadruple the proportion of Catholic officers within ten years, increasing the Catholic composition of the PSN1 to about 33 per cent.

Unionist politicians reacted furiously to the recommendations of the Patten Commission and mounted a campaign of opposition. The 50:50 recruitment rule was denounced as ‘institutionalized sectarianism’. Yet the British Government did not flinch and implemented the Patten Commission more or less in its entirety. Over the following decade the composition of the PSN1 changed drastically. First of all, its numbers fell significantly. In 2001, there were about 8,200 full time, permanent police officers in Northern Ireland, but by 2014 the numbers had fallen to approximately 6,600. A very generous severance programme was introduced to reduce police jobs to what was considered necessary for more peaceful conditions. Secondly, the religious composition of the police force was drastically altered by the 50:50 recruitment rule. In 2020 there were about 2,214 Catholic police officers (roughly 32.0 per cent of the total) whereas there was approximately 4,608 Protestant officers (more than 66.6 per cent of the total). Thus, in aggregate terms, the targets set out in the Patton Commission have been broadly realized.

Yet some disquiet still exists that progress towards creating a genuinely religiously balanced police force has slipped back since then. Concern has been expressed about the lack of Catholic representation in senior positions inside the PSNI. Figures published by the PSNI last year reveal that of the 68 officers above the rank of superintendent, 57 are Protestant, while eight (11 per cent) are from a Catholic background. Of the 77 officers that hold the rank of chief inspector, 58 (75 per cent) are Protestant while 17 (22 per cent) are Catholic. At inspector level there are 347 officers, with 248 (71 per cent) Protestant and 89 (25 per cent) Catholic. The percentage breakdown for those who hold the rank of sergeant are similar with 976 appointed to the role. Of that number, 687 (70 per cent) are Protestant while 275 (28 per cent) are Catholic. Perhaps a more concerning development is that just 20 per cent of 2019’s PSNI graduates were from a Catholic background, while 77% were Protestant, which hints that joining the police force is no longer as attractive as it was a few years back for young Catholics (PSNI 2020). If this trend were to continue, it would almost certainly lead to the Catholic composition of the PSNI falling. There has been a call for the return of the 50:50 recruitment rule that was abolished in 2011 by the then Coalition Government (the presiding Secretary of State was Owen Patterson). Such a move cannot by fully ruled out as the current leadership of the PSNI have suggested that it is an option that it would consider reusing because developing a representative police force is a core goal for the organization.

Chapter 1 provides more systematic detail of the progress that has occurred towards fair employment so the point is not laboured here. The key point is that after a long process, starting before the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, the Northern Ireland labour market is now fairer than ever before and that large religious disparities in employment are now more or less history. Whether or not Catholics faced systematic employment discrimination in the past will no doubt be a matter of ongoing debate, but it is hard to argue with any degree of credibility that contemporary Northern Ireland is riven with Catholic labour market disadvantage. The evidence simply does not support such a position. Although not fully in balance, a religiously fair employment society has been created in Northern Ireland and it is a hugely significant development. It has led to a democratic equal status emerging between the two communities in Northern Ireland - no longer does any one group enjoy privilege in employment, nor is there the material basis for any group to regard themselves as second class citizens.

Equally important, the eradication of Catholic labour market disadvantage has created the political space for a widen equality agenda to flourish within Northern Ireland. Siobhan Fenton (2018) in her interesting book. The Good Friday Agreement, persuasively argues that the preoccupation with tackling sectarian employment practices pushed to the margins issues relating to other forms of discrimination and inequality. The various agencies established to promote equality and human rights - the Fair Employment Commission and the Human Rights Commission - used the lens of religion for the most part to advance their work. Political parties were only too willing to adopt a narrow religious focus to the issues of discrimination and equality. Highlighting that Catholics were not being treated fairly in the jobs market or proclaiming that moves towards fair employment were disadvantaging Protestants were tactics used only too often by nationalist and unionist politicians in an effort to authenticate themselves within their respective communities. In a perverse way, both nationalism and unionism were content that religion dominated the equality agenda in Northern Ireland as it lubricated their monopoly over politics in the region.

But the emergence of a religiously fair employment society facilitated the emergence of a more expansive equality agenda aimed at improving the situation for a wide range of groups, including women, LGBTQ+ people, ethnic minorities and so on. For the first time, concerted campaigns were launched to repeal some of the anachronistic legislation that potentially penalized women in Northern Ireland seeking abortion. Demands increased for the introduction of same-sex marriage legislation that existed in Ireland and elsewhere in the UK, but repeatedly denied gay people in Northern Ireland. After some sustained campaigning - and, it must be said, shifty political manoeuvring at Westminster - abortion rights were improved for women and gay people secured the right to marry the person they loved. These two victories went some way towards dragging Northern Ireland out of the dark ages when it comes to women and LGBTQ+ rights. Both campaigns met with serious opposition from within the nationalist and unionist communities, which if truth be told still lingers. At the same time, the campaigns point to the emergence of a significant constituency inside Northern Ireland for an open and modern society that is cosmopolitan in outlook and ethos. Important changes may be occurring to ‘attitudinal structuring' inside Northern Ireland.

Entrenched attitudes in Northern Ireland may also be restructuring, albeit slowly, in other ways. The major advances towards fair employment may have generated important political spillovers. In the past, Catholics were reluctant to commit fully to Northern Ireland as they viewed themselves as being effectively excluded from nearly all walks of economic and political life. But the improved labour market performance of Catholics erodes the material basis of this political alienation and opens the opportunity for the Catholic community to be more committed to the political institutions of Northern Ireland (Tonge and Gomez 2015). Some interesting political developments hinted at movement in this direction. One revealing finding in the last Census was that 21 per cent of Northern Ireland citizens identified as ‘Northern Irish’ as opposed to British or Irish alone, a figure that rose to 28.3 per cent when those who viewed themselves as Irish or British as well as Northern Irish were included. The significance of this finding is brought into sharper relief when it is realized the Census also reported that only 25 per cent of citizens thought of themselves as Irish (Nolan 2014). Morrow (2019) rightly points out that it is not clear whether the ‘Northern Irish' political identity is a stable category that spans the two communities. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the emergence of a democratic equal status had the important spillover effect of making the dominant political blocs of nationalism and unionism less monolithic (Hayward and McManus 2019).

Thus, until recently the internal political developments inside Northern Ireland were travelling along two hard-to-reconcile pathways. At one level, a relatively high level of political stability emerged due to nationalism and unionism reaching a political accommodation, involving each side recognizing that whilst they could not win, they would not lose either. At another level, developments were hinting at the creation of the material foundations of a new. durable political settlement inside Northern Ireland. The sources of the old, deep sectarian divisions were being chiselled away and space was opening up for the effective confrontation of inequalities and disadvantages experienced by women, gay communities and other groups. Although the point should not be pushed too far, a certain level of political modernization was occurring beneath the formal political accommodation between nationalism and unionism. Just how the two tiers of this spilt level political structure interacted with each other has to be fully worked out, but in combination they can be viewed as the first plinth of an emerging political bargain that was slowly giving shape towards a new democratic Northern Ireland.

The second pillar of this new political bargain was an open border between the north and south of Ireland. As Chapter 3 shows, the first-order effect of Strand 2 of the Belfast Agreement was the creation of a new social- psychological community that allowed the traditional sharply competing views on the Irish border that existed in nationalism and unionism to moderate. The emergence of an open border (as opposed to cross border institutional and policy cooperation) enabled citizens of the north and south to be at ease with one and another: in a non-threatening way, people started to feel that they lived in two different political systems, but in the one country. Thus, the Belfast Agreement fostered a nascent political bargain resting on two interconnecting pillars. One pillar involved the formation of a deterrence coalition between nationalism and unionism that had the paradoxical consequence of ossifying sectarian politics in the power sharing institutions yet enabling important modernization advances outside the formal political arena with the potential to weaken the political monoliths of nationalism and unionism. The other was the creation of a new socio-psychological community between the north and south, which resulted in the border no longer being symbolic of the entrenched divisions that have historically blighted the island.

A feature of the nascent political bargain was that the governance of Northern Ireland did not encroach overly into the political systems of either Britain or Ireland. For sure, political leaders in both Dublin and Westminster showed political courage and took political risks to secure the signing of the Belfast Agreement, but at the same time they were probably relieved to see the emerging political bargain in Northern Ireland intruding little into their own 'domestic' political systems. It is notable that over the decade 2005-2016 when the internal power sharing arrangements appeared stable, Strand 3 of the Belfast Agreement, which brought together the British and Irish Governments to promote East-West cooperation, met increasingly infrequently until it was virtually mothballed towards the end of the period: after 2013 they did not meet until 2018. Thus, Strand 3 played virtually no part in the development of the emerging political bargain and both the Irish and British Governments were content for it to wither-on-the-vine to reinforce the 'internal' complexion of the new accommodation.

 
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