In my previous post (temporarily eaten by wordpress, but now restored), I laid out a proposal for a constitutional settlement that I feel represents the best chance for real political progress in Northern Ireland. It is not a perfect solution by any means, but I have tried to keep the compromises to a minimum. I had intended to write a series of posts walking through the document from start to finish, but based on initial feedback I will start near the end, with the section containing most of those compromises.
P. Equality of Representation
- notwithstanding the above, for a period of twenty one years after the establishment of the Commonwealth (unless extended by the consent of the people) the following restrictions on public office shall apply:
- all political parties must field an equal number of male and female candidates (plus or minus one) in any election
- all political parties must field an equal number of candidates from the Catholic community as from the Protestant community (plus or minus one), as defined in Equal Opportunities legislation, in any election
- the Executive, the Opposition and the Supreme Court shall each contain
- the same number of male and female members (plus or minus one)
- the same number of Protestant and Catholic members (plus or minus one), as defined by Equal Opportunities legislation
- the First Minister and deputy First Minister shall not both be Protestants nor shall they both be Catholics
- the Chair and deputy Chair of the Assembly shall not both be Catholics, nor shall they both be Protestants
This section is intended to serve several functions. Firstly, it directly replaces the “ugly scaffolding” currently used at Stormont. Article P4b has a similar effect as the system of designation, except:
- Members do not designate themselves on political lines but on ethnic lines. Under a “normal” political system we must allow that people’s political views may be swayed by argument.
- There is no inherent bias against “others” – the only requirement is that Protestants and Catholics are equally represented.
- There is no assumption that parties are ethnically homogeneous.
This last point is essential, because article P3 goes much further than the current system, and specifically forces all parties to be ethnically inhomogeneous. This addresses the key weakness of Stormont, which is the ossification of the political divide along ethnic lines.
The GFA plucks victors from the sectarian bearpit and forces them to work together in government. Because there is no plausible method for Unionists to vote out a Nationalist party (and vice versa), the political calculation is to mitigate the power of the “other side” by giving them a strong counterbalancing party to share power with. This directly incentivises a retreat into the communal trenches and actively maintains the unreconstructed ethnic base of the major political parties.
In most other advanced democracies, strong party-political ethnic bases are regarded as impediments rather than solutions. It has long been accepted in many countries that rival political parties should make efforts to eat into any ethnic base that their rivals may have, undermining their support among marginal groups. In NI by contrast, there is no sign of any such movement from the major parties, whose outreach efforts appear to be little more than comforting noises aimed at stealing support from more moderate parties on the same side.
I discussed in a previous post the nature of trust in a “normal” democracy and how it fails to work in Stormont. The solution presented there is the basis of section P. Unlike the GFA, which is content to assume that Unionists will be forever the enemies of Nationalists, and seeks merely to bind their hands to stop them harming each other, section P offers a way out of the political impasse. The only way a political party can win power in the Commonwealth is to broaden its membership and stand candidates from both sides. Sinn Fein would be forced to put up Protestants for election, and the DUP would be forced to stand Catholics. If they could not entice enough members from across the ethnic divide they would lose power. Instead of papering over the cracks of politics, change would be introduced at the lowest level.
This has worked before, for employment. Younger readers will not remember (I barely do myself) that for decades many workplaces were as ethnically homogeneous as today’s political parties, even in towns and cities with a mixed population. Fair employment legislation, though an affront to the liberal ideal, works. It is now the accepted norm that workplaces should be ethnically neutral spaces. There is no reason to believe that similar provisions will not work in politics. By enforcing in law what we would expect should happen naturally (if society were to change for the better), we cause a shift in public attitudes that helps bring about the very change that we desire.
Yes, it is an affront. But it is a necessary compromise which will bring about the end of a more dangerous affront – our chronically divided society.