Northern Ireland faces real economic threats. It is heavily dependent on the UK Exchequer. 32% of its work force is employed in the government sector. That sector is kept going by an annual net transfer of 16 billion pounds from the UK Exchequer. But the UK Exchequer is running short of money. It has a deficit of 13% of its GDP.

Both major parties in the UK are agreed that after the Election there will have to be big cutbacks in spending by the UK Exchequer. Such cutbacks are more of a threat, the more dependent one is on public sector employment, as Northern Ireland is. Is the Northern Ireland powersharing systemcapable of making quick, fair and efficient decisions to reduce public spending in a timely way?

As I write these words, the talks between the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein and the other parties to save the power sharing Executive in Northern Ireland are still dragging on. All night sessions have been a feature, which puts a premium on physical stamina rather than on political sensibility.

The trouble is that the parties are not staying up all night discussing the threats to employment in Northern Ireland arising from the financial crisis and what to do about them. Instead, the issues which brought them to the precipice have nothing to do with the economy, have also been around for a long time, and could have been settled years ago.

The issues that divide them are control of the police and provocative parades. The parties have been sitting together in the Executive for a long time too, tackling other problems, and presumably interacting on a daily basis. One might therefore have expected that they would have quietly come to some common understanding on how to tackle these two well rehearsed problems, policing and parades, without the need for high profile all night sessions attended by the Irish Taoiseach and the UK Prime Minister, both of whom have plenty of other things to do.

The fact that they have not used their time to sort out these entirely predictable issues illustrates an underlying problem with the arrangements underlying the Northern Ireland Executive, which were put in place by the Belfast, or Good Friday, Agreement of 1998. These arrangements mean that the Executive does not face an opposition that is ready to take over from it. So long as each of the two bigger parties keep their own supporters in their own “community” happy, they are guaranteed their places, and do not have to worry about what the supporters of parties from the other “community” are thinking.

These arrangements were, of course, put in place for understanable reasons and to deal with an historic problem. In order to prevent a majority take all system coming about, as was the case in Northern Ireland from 1920 to 1972 when the Unionist majority had all the power, the 1998 Agreement required that every decision have the agreement of a sufficient number of both Unionist and Nationalist representatives. This is what is called cross community consent. Each decision must, at minimum, have 40% support of representatives who have registered themselves formally as “unionist” and also 40% of those registered as “nationalist”. Representatives of parties who decline to register as either “unionist” or “nationalist” may vote, but their votes do not count when it comes to deciding if cross community consent has been obtained for a particular decision. Thus the votes of members of the Assembly who do not register in one of the two ancient camps are worth less than the votes of those who do.

Thus there is a built in disincentive to the formation of parties that strive to win support on the basis of providing a new politics that transcends the historic divisions, and a disincentive to voting for them too.

Likewise, because parties have an incentive to identify themselves exclusively with one
community or the other, they tend not to bother to appeal for votes from the other side at all. Electioneering thus becomes a process of segmentation of the electorate, not of reconciliation.

And, as the work of the Executive and the Assembly is a search for a permanent and perfect balance on a see saw between the weights of two narrowly defined communities, there is a tendency for voters to choose parties at the more extreme end of their own particular community spectrum to maximise leverage for their side or to counterbalance or anticipate the election of extremists on the other side.

In fairness, it must be acknowledged that there might never have been an agreement at all in 1998, if these complicated, and apparently perverse, arrangements had not been put in place. And if there had been no agreement in 1998, a lot of people might have been killed in conflict since then.

But it is now time to accept that, while the arrangements have kept the peace, they have also preserved the divisions that led to the conflict in the first place.

Now may be the time to start thinking about ways toachieve cross community consent without polarising representation in the way the present system does.One might , for example, say that for any Executive to be formed, it must have the support of 75% of the Assembly, and that all decisions of the Assembly must have a vote of 75% to go through. One could then requiring parties to register as “unionist” or “nationalist” for the purposes of establishing cross community consent. That would reward parties who seek the centre ground between the two communities, in ways that the present arrangements do not. But it would still, in practice, require cross community consent, because no decision could assemble 75% support without a lot of support in the two traditional “communities”.

Divided societies like Northern Ireland, Belgium, Macedonia and Lebanon will not escape the need to make tough decisions to curb spending, any more than more united societies will avoid such decisions. They need systems that are robust enough to make decisions that are speedy as well as fair, and which promote a search for the centre ground rather than for leverage at opposite ends of the spectrum.

The current difficulties in Northern Ireland illustrate a wider design problem that needs to be studied by all those who want to build structures that will reconcile divided communities, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere, while also providing effective and cost efficient Government.

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