Posted by: promiseofpeaceni | October 4, 2013

The Promise of Peace: Institutional Reform and the (Apparent) Democratic Deficit

The Promise of Peace: Institutional Reform and the (Apparent) Democratic Deficit

Dr Cillian McGrattan (UU)

Dr Laura McAtackney (UCD)



In the latest workshop in the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust sponsored Promise of Peace Programme, Professor Brendan O’Leary (University of Pennsylvania) delivered a robust defence of the devolved institutions and, in particular, the potential of power-sharing to deliver a sustainable peace.


Speaking to the topic of Remarkably Successful Power-Sharing in Northern Ireland: Reflections on Excessive Ingratitude, Especially Among the Astonished’, O’Leary denounced what he saw as reactionary journalism and commentary that sees the institutions as ineffective and doomed. Instead, he argued that the current institutions have ‘plainly made a difference’ to politics in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, he claimed that power-sharing (or, to be more precise the division of power under what is known as a consociational system of government) can effect real change in critical and divisive issues such as parading, commemoration and flags.


O’Leary described how what he called a ‘bourgeois’ peace was the best that Northern Ireland could have expected and that, since Northern Ireland was reformed despite people’s fears and expectations, we should be realistic about the scale and speed of change we should expect.


Northern Ireland is unlikely, he claimed, to remain outside the broad church of liberal democracies. In contrast to voices who implicitly threaten a return to violence unless the changes they wish to see are enacted, O’Leary argued that change is slowly occurring and that it is evident in terms of a greater willingness to identify as Northern Irish and a movement towards desegregation of workplaces. He argued strongly for paying attention to political opportunities: legislation is not enough to effect change unless it is backed by a political appetite and a political recognition.


Were changes to be implemented, including the dismantling of the current structures, then, according to O’Leary, they should take place within the democratic framework established in 1998 – namely, that they would proceed on the basis of cross-community consent.


O’Leary severely criticised the leadership of David Trimble and Seamus Mallon – particularly for their emphasis on a mutual veto over the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Allowing ‘the other side’ to say who should be your representative, according to O’Leary’s logic, is to call into question the legitimacy of your own leader. He argued that other mistakes were also made at the time of the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, most notably, the lack of provision for a generalised amnesty.


O’Leary argued that the legislative performance of the Northern Ireland Assembly is comparatively good and that the Petition of Consent mechanism that could act as a kind of ethnic veto has been only sparingly used.


The counter-factual of the amnesty logic was, unfortunately, not developed: amnesties can be deleterious to democratic practice in that they offer militants the example that egregious violence and atrocity is permissible; and while the Petition of Concern has not been a regular feature of Assembly business, as the Special Advisor’s legislative passage demonstrated, the mechanism retains the potential to offer political and moral offence.


In the closing sections of his talk Professor O’Leary sketched possible federalist and confederal developments but stressed that his approach was that of a ‘small-c conservative’: namely, that Northern Irish politicians should not rush towards a dismantling of an institutional architecture that has proven to be resilient to dominant party change, dissident violence and a range of scandals and setbacks. He argued that were he to advise the DUP on potential changes he would advocate being ‘relaxed’ about the future – he sees no compelling evidence of potential outbidding in the near future for the DUP and argued that the UUP and SDLP have a long way back in terms of reclaiming votes.


The Promise of Peace team is comprised of Prof Colin Harvey (QUB) with Dr Máire Braniff (UUJ), Dr Stefanie Lehner (QUB), Dr Laura McAtackney (UCD), Dr Cillian McGrattan (UUJ) and Dr Joanne Murphy (QUB); Prof Matthias Beck (QUB)




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: