CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: With all due respect - pluralism and parity of esteem (Report No. 7)

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With all due respect

Pluralism and parity of esteem


Feeling institutionalised

Much of the debate about negotiating the future of Northern Ireland is in essence about how an equilibrium between the two main religious communities, consistent with freedom and equality for all - and not excluding other forms of citizen identity - can be given institutional expression.

Jonathan Stephenson accepts that the SDLP would be interested in a power-sharing arrangement in a devolved Northern Ireland administration, involving committees allocated proportionately to the various political parties. He points out that this was the model which almost resulted in agreement between the parties during the Brooke-Mayhew inter-party talks of 1991-92, although he is keen to rebut unionist claims that the SDLP backed away from agreement in strand one', emphasising that his party could not agree on internal government until there had been agreement in all three strands - the 'nothing is agreed until everything is agreed' formula. Mr Stephenson looks to the future and the positive impact of power-sharing in building trust between the people of Northern Ireland-speculating that some decades ahead a shift might occur in the political landscape, with an emergent social-democratic/conservative axis obviating the need for power-sharing.

Jeffrey Donaldson explains that the UUP's attitude to any new governmental arrangements is shaped by the fact that "firstly, we want to see, obviously as unionists, Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom", as against nationalists who want to "establish structures which will actually undermine that constitutional status". Within Northern Ireland itself, the UUP would like to see administrative structures returning control of local affairs as elsewhere in the UK, with the various parties involved on a basis of proportionality. In place of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Mr Donaldson offers a bill of rights, encompassing not only the rights of individuals but also of minority groups. Since, in addition, governance would be on the basis of proportionality, "you are not talking about a return to pure majority rule". He also envisages a requirement for "sufficient consensus" - ie across the sectarian divide - on controversial matters. "What we will not agree to is this idea that the Irish government will act as a guarantor in relation to the internal institutions of Northern Ireland."

Ian Paisley Jnr (DUP) also advocates a bill of rights, though he balks at the idea of minority protection as such. He rejects, too, the idea of any guarantor role for the Irish government vis-à-vis northern Catholics. For him, "An accountable democracy really is the key."

Bob McCartney of the UKUP has "no objection to cultural rights, nor have I nor could I have, if I claim to be a democrat, any objection to political aspirations about a change in the nature of the state". But Mr McCartney believes that when nationalists talk about parity of esteem, "you are now talking about an equal right being given to the minority to decide that the Republic of Ireland should have as much executive and constitutional say over the running of Northern Ireland as … the majority has. Now this is absolute rubbish."

Mr McCartney defends his stance by reference to the conventional language of the post-war international order - of territorial integrity versus self-determination - which the first chapter showed was unable to resolve the conflicts (Northern Ireland included) associated with the disorder of today:

… the basic principle after the second world war, for settling the affairs of Europe, was to say that all the nations must respect the territorial integrity of their neighbours, even though their neighbours contained significant minority elements coming from the country of origin. So as far as 'parity of esteem' in this sense is concerned, it runs totally and completely against the international principles for the settlement of such disputes that have been agreed post the 1945 war.
All shades of nationalism reject as inadequate these unionist gestures towards accommodation. While nationalists agree that there should be a bill of rights and some form of internal power-sharing, this is deemed insufficient to recognise their Irish identity - their sense of being part of an island-wide community. Nationalists thus seek strong north-south bodies with executive powers, and the 'dynamic' mentioned in the framework documents. Unionists, conversely, prioritise the internal government of Northern Ireland, want weaker north-south bodies, and look to an east-west axis - the 'Britannic dimension' - in which a Northern Ireland assembly would have the key role, replacing the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Many of the fears and aspirations of unionists and nationalists are projected on to the institutional structures proposed in the framework document promulgated by London and Dublin in February 1995, particularly the north-south body foreshadowed there. The economist Paul Teague[1] has described a widely-held nationalist expectation that closer economic co-operation between the two parts of the island will induce unionists to shift their loyalties away from Britain and towards the republic. As a result of this gradual process, the political foundations will be laid for unification. This view is best described as 'rolling integration', and it closely resembles the neo-functionalist account of integration inside the European Union.

Neo-functionalism sets out to explain the process whereby political actors in separate national settings are persuaded to shift their traditional loyalties, expectations and activities from a well-established political formation towards a new constitutional order. A key proposition is that once different national political and economic élites decide to deepen co-operation, even in fairly proscribed policy areas, they find that the scope of the integration agenda expands quickly. Neo-functionalism is held to be inherently cumulative and dynamic:

At the start, the integration process is seen as involving governments horse-trading to conclude package deals. Deals of this kind oblige some governments to take action on a particular matter in return for other governments agreeing to do something in another policy sphere. Because these reciprocal actions invariably have unintended consequences in yet other unrelated areas, governments feel compelled to further spread the integration arena. After a time it is not only the political and administrative élites who are engaged in the integration process, hut citizens too. The spillover dynamic, by creating new centres of decision-making, will encourage citizens to turn away from existing jurisdictions. This is largely because their general well being will he increasingly tied to the integration process. Eventually citizens are persuaded to regard the institutional apparatus associated with integration as representing a legitimate new political community, thereby rendering the old jurisdictions obsolete.
Teague identifies the unionist position, by contrast, with intergovernmentalism. Cross-border co-operation organised along intergovernmental lines normally has two distinct features:
One is that the objective of the integration process is not to wither away existing constitutional borders, but to promote peaceful co-existence between different nations. Secondly, the institutional design of intergovernmentalism ensures that the participating countries control the decision-making process. Thus, should any country disapprove of a specific proposal, it has the capacity to say no. In practice narrow and broad versions of intergovernmental-ism can be found. Under the narrow version, the participating countries keep a tight grip on the collaboration process so that no spillover or incremental dynamic comes into play. Although autonomous organisational structures can be established these normally have no strong decision-making powers. Examples of narrow intergovernmentalism would be the Nordic Council which promotes co-operation between the Scandinavian countries and, at the international level, the United Nations.

The broad version of intergovernmentalism is not so tightly controlled by the involved nations. A limited form of autonomy is enjoyed by the integration centre to pursue quasi-independent programmes. Moreover, a range of collaborative economic and social initiatives emerge which are associated with the formal integration project but are not under the direct control of national governments. Thus, the intergovernmentalist structure is augmented by the activities of interest groups, business lobbies and so on. As a result, additional support structures for the integration process are created that at once legitimises cross national collaboration and generates pressure for further initiatives. Overall, the integration project is made more dynamic and less tied to the interests of governments. In the end, dense commercial, policy and social interdependencies emerge across frontiers. But these interactions are contained inside an institutional structure committed to respecting sovereign boundaries. Perhaps the best example of broad or augmented intergovernmentalism is the EU itself.

Ultimately, a nationalist might wish to see the establishment of joint authority or sovereignty over Northern Ireland, exercised by the London and Dublin governments and created by a neo-functionalist process. A working illustration is the co-principality of Andorra in the eastern Pyrenees, the oldest and most successful example of condominium in the world. For over 700 years, since 1278, its has survived as a tiny republic between France and Spain, by involving both of them in guaranteeing its liberties. Internal affairs are generally left to the Andorran people, while foreigu relations are handled by France.

A working example of intergovernmentalism, as unionists would prefer, is provided by the Nordic Council. The council, founded in 1952, representing Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark, serves as an advisory body dealing with economic, social, cultural, environmental, legal and communications affairs. Recommendations and statements are sent to the Nordic Council of Ministers, whose formal decisions must be unanimous.

Jonathan Stephenson argues that any political settlement cannot be internal to Northern Ireland alone, and he would wish to "move closer to some form ofjoint authority". And he does favour a process of north-south integration, while recognising the right of unionists to argue for a contrary position. Were there to be a power-sharing government,

yes, there would still be those elements within the SDLP who would push to move things forward. We would want to use that as a dynamic. We would still aspire to a united Ireland and there would be those elements within the unionist parties who would wish to push things back, to move it in the old direction. And those elements would have a right to their aspirations and they would have a right to peacefully pursue their objectives ... I think it is now a very long-term objective to most people in the SDLP but it is an objective that they would feel the right to pursue.
In 75 years, he explains, nationalists have been unable to feel an ownership of Northern Ireland, as unionists have had, without resort to a pan-nationalist identity extending throughout the island, and therefore they seek expression of their identity through all-Ireland institutions which, while falling short of all-Ireland governing institutions, offer reassurance to the nationalist identity. North-south co-operation, on issues such as tourism, agriculture, or 'mad cows', makes economic sense as well as reassuring nationalists that they are "not being fobbed off' with an internal settlement in which they will always be the minority.

Jim Gibney (SF) quite explicitly favours the 'rolling integration' scenario. What he finds interesting in the framework document is the proposed north-south body: he calls for the political representatives of the island of Ireland to come together in such an institution and incrementally remove the British presence: the more institutions at a political level on an all-Ireland basis the better. Mr Gibney envisages an all-Ireland economic council and harmonisation of social welfare, education and health boards and all sporting bodies. He believes that the "more the island is united institutionally the easier it would be for the people to be united in an institution of an all-Ireland character at some stage in the future".

Unionists tend to counterpose the east-west axis to north-south, with suggestions for a Council of the British Isles. Mr Gibney rejects this as "going in the wrong direction ... I think that the sovereiguty ... or at least the statehood that the people of the south of Ireland have arrived at, and their sense of independence ... could well be eclipsed by the notion of a Council of the British Isles. But in the context ... where we are moving towards British disengagement I think we have to look at everything."

To Mr Gibney - his hopes a direct reflection of unionist worries - this process of disengagement is manifest in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Downing Street Declaration, and the framework document, in which there is an "Irishisation of the process":

There is a Northern Ireland ethos attached, very definitely attached, to all of these documents. So, incrementally if you like, despite John Major's remarks that the north of Ireland is as British as Surrey-ten years ago it was as British as Finchley - despite all of these things, if you live in Surrey or you live in Finchley you don't have all these elaborate agreements, institutions or whatever: you just send MPs to Westminster. But the point is that I think, incrementally, we are faced into a situation where more and more and more the British are recognising that this state cannot survive within itself, that there is an all-Ireland character to the resolution of this problem and we would say we would push that even further and further and further and further.
As to unionist fears:
I think they are right. I think that, and they know that ... They have got to face reality. I mean David Trimble can either lead his people into the 20th century or he can lead them back to 1912. Now he's been leading them back to 1912, but he needs to realise that the momentum is clearly towards all-Ireland institutions- clearly towards all-Ireland political developments, economic developments, social and cultural developments. That is the way it's going ... He is not going to be able to stop the changes that are on the way.
Again in direct contradiction of unionist insistence that only an 'internal' settlement can be negotiated, he believes that an accommodation is only possible if it is taken "out of the context of the north of Ireland ... [W]ithin the confines of the north of Ireland ... I don't think anything is workable, I think that has [been] proven beyond any, any shadow of doubt. In the context of the island, yes, I think that we can make accommodation with unionists, I think that we can make accommodation with their Britishness and that that can be reflected in the institutions in the island." But the "Irish nationalist aspiration for independence cannot be reconciled with British sovereignty in Ireland". Even joint sovereignty or a federal Ireland would have to be considered "as staging posts towards an all-Ireland democracy".

Aware of what he sees as its analogous significance for Northern Ireland, Jeffrey Donaldson sees dangers in the functionalism of the European Union. Looking back to the genesis of the Common Market, he points out that for many the ultimate goal was a federal European state, which it was recognised was not going to be created overnight or by putting political structures in place - rather, the key was to be economic union, developed on the basis of gradualism. Nationalists, he claims, realised in the New Ireland Forum Report of 1984 that an 'agreed Ireland' could similarly be achieved by a process of gradualism: "[I]t had to be a staged process to achieve their political objectives, ... a united Ireland was not going to happen overnight, it wasn't going to drop out of the sky, ... they had to create a framework within which they could achieve their objectives". The Anglo-Irish Agreement created this framework and the framework document set it out in more detail:

the key being harmonisation a word which is at the heart of European integration ... you have got harmonisation of the economies, the markets, taxation régimes and now even the harmonisation of currencies, as it will be under the proposals in the framework documents. You will have harmonisation of the economies of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and nationalists hope that through the harmonisation of the economy they will create a framework within which political harmonisation can also take place. They will then be able to argne much more powerfully, much more forcefully that, since there is economic harmonisation, the natural progression is political harmonisation. So that is why I see, as a unionist, very real dangers in the type of proposals that are being put forward, for example, in the framework documents but more generally in this Anglo-Irish process which is about much more than simply giving expression to the Irish identity-it is in fact about creating political structures and a political framework through which nationalists will be able to achieve their political objectives in the medium-to-long term.
Mr Donaldson argues that most unionists are in favour of north-south co-operation - they were not saying 'close the border'. Instead "we are saying yes, there are many areas in which there is benefit for both parts of the island of Ireland for both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to work together and co-operate on matters of mutual interest, and therefore we want to see cross-border co-operation." But unionists were "certainly against the idea that you create north-south bodies or all-Ireland institutions which will have in themselves a dynamic", as proposed in the framework document, which "actually move away beyond the idea of co-operation and the spirit of co-operation to create the framework ... which is to ... weld the two parts of the island together, not just economically but politically".

Unionists "do not believe, as nationalists seem to believe, that the political entity, the framework within which such co-operation can take place, is exclusively all-Ireland. We believe that the proper framework, whether you look at it in social or economic terms, is in fact the British Isles as a whole, and what we want to see is a new political agreement and a new political arrangement is first and foremost a political framework which encompasses the British Isles."

Within the political framework of these islands, Mr Donaldson argues that there can be north-south co-operation, but again he turns to the east-west dimension: "[W]hy not Northern Ireland also working with Scotland, the Irish Republic working with Wales and so on?

[T]he reality is that both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland do the bulk of their trading with Great Britain and that Northern Ireland is much more strongly linked into Great Britain and the rest of the United Kingdom than it is in economic and social terms with the Irish Republic." The framework in which unionists want to see a new political agreement is first and foremost the 'British Isles'-"strictly within that framework, not in isolation from it." A prerequisite is perceived to be the removal of the republic's territorial claim, which unionists see as in contravention of the spirit of co-operation.

Ian Paisley Jnr echoes the concern that the framework document represents a "piece-by-piece, incremental movement towards a de facto unified state. Whether it then becomes legally and constitutionally a unified Irish state doesn't really matter because everything else is there ... [I]t's Irish unity by stealth." He claims that there is already a process of conditioning the people of Northern Ireland for a shared administration, starting, for example, with a common tourist policy. Mr Paisley argues that there will only be harmony in Ireland when there is a "recognition that the border is there ... that this is a different country".

While unionist politicians are prepared to accept some policy ties between north and south, this is conditional on a narrow intergovernmental model applying-there being no overarching institutions and with the Dáil and any Northern Ireland assembly in full control. Ultimately, the assembly would have the right to withdraw co-operation.

The republic's government rejects many of these fears. It denies that unionists have anything to fear from a north-south body, emphasising that if they were to take part they would see no powers being conferred against their will, as any such body would have to reach decisions by unanimity; they would, in effect, have a veto over whether or not the body actually got off the ground. For Dublin, 'harmonisation' is nothing for unionists to be alarmed about, again because it is subject to unanimity, and any 'dynamic' would be similarly constrained. Unionists, they feel, are being paranoid: a north-south body would be brought into existence by a Northern Ireland assembly and by the Dáil, would be dependent on both and would draw its authority from both.

The republic's government also argues that the framework document is predicated on constitutional change in its jurisdiction. If it is going to propose such change, acceding to unionist concerns by diluting articles 2 and 3, then northern nationalists have to have some sense that their own identity will be otherwise catered for-and that compensation should take the form of a north-south institution which would give day-to-day, practical expression to nationalists' identity.

The government believes, moreover, that the southern electorate would not support change to the articles in a referendum, unless reciprocated by a reassurance of another kind. It points out that alteration of articles 2 and 3 would leave unionists with the constitutional certainty from the republic they have always wanted and an assembly for Northern Ireland. The quid pro quo would be unionist agreement to a north-south body to keep northern nationalists happy, as they would otherwise be destabilised by the change to the republic's constitution.

For Dublin, the key east-west relationship is, and will remain, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, although a number of the functions of the Anglo-Irish secretariat would be transferred to any new Northern Ireland assembly: both governments would continue to need a structured way of consulting each other on whatever residual functions they retained. There are reservations about anything, such as a Council of the British Isles, which would apparently attempt to diminish the importance of the nationalist identity within Northern Ireland.

The republic's government argues that its emphasis upon north-south bodies is an attempt not to 'Irishise' Northern Ireland at the expense of its Britishness but to balance unionist and nationalist identities, since the reality of the unionist vision is all around in membership of the UK. It is not offering unionists an agreed Northern Ireland within the UK for nothing. Unionists are being asked to make concessions, but then so are nationalists - the considerable concession of accepting, certainly for the foreseeable future, that a united Ireland is not achievable, and that they will have to settle down to be contented residents of the United Kingdom.


This chapter has teased out in more detail what nationalists and unionists envisage by parity of esteem in practice. It is clear that unionists are unwilling to break with core conceptions of sovereignty and majoritarianism - however qualified by proportionality or bills of rights - and that their focus is almost entirely internal or east-west. It is equally clear that northern nationalists refuse to 'set a boundary to the march of the nation', resisting internal settlements and east-west structures in favour of the north-south 'dynamic'.

Dublin's position is more sensitive to unionist concerns, strongly hinting that a political stabilisation is possible, essentially within a UK context, if only northern nationalists' sense of Irishness is fully accommodated. But the starkness of opposition between even the 'moderate' protagonists is daunting. It must direct us to the development of a new language for an overall settlement-a task in which the work of those groups committed to building mutual understanding, to be explored next, must play a critical, long-term role.


Footnotes
1 Paul Teague, 'The European Union and the Irish peace process', , Journal of Common Market Studies, vol. 34, no 4, December 1996, pp.549-70

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