Can public policy and institutional reform help combat sectarianism? Part 1/3

30 July 2019 - by Anna Mercer

Stratagem Senior Consultant, Anna Mercer took part in the 39th MacGill Summer School on the topic of sectarianism and how we eradicate it in Northern Ireland. Looking at the causes and implications for our political institutions and public policy, below is the first installation of a three part series on her paper.

21 years after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is still not a society at peace with itself. The constitutional question still defines our politics, and by and large, communities still live separately, with little meaningful integration.

Although recent elections have suggested a move towards the middle ground, most notably with the so-called Alliance surge, the smaller parties still remain a long way off the big two. Sinn Féin and the DUP have dominated the political landscape for the best part of this century, as voters continue to prioritise their constitutional preference at the ballot box.

And it should be added that there is nothing wrong with being nationalist or unionist; but we need to find a way of expressing these identities that doesn’t set them against each other, or prioritise them above everything else.

This challenge has been compounded by the existential crisis that Brexit presents for identity politics, UK/Irish relations, and to the UK itself.

Add to the mix the absence of an Executive and Assembly and it is fair to say that these are uncertain times for all on these islands.

For Northern Ireland in particular, this new fault line could undermine any progress that has been made towards a more inclusive society, and comes at a time when a new generation enjoyed opportunities that separated them from a history that was not of their making.

Indeed, it is ironic that the European Union, that has been a part of the healing process through the various Peace programmes, is now one of the factors driving a further wedge between our communities. 

Although our conflict has ended, a new generation has inherited its legacy in the form of sectarianism. The extent of the normalisation of this is such that it has become an acceptable characteristic of public policy, legitimised through policies that keep people apart; we need look no further than our education system for evidence of this.

Sectarianism has become institutionalised, but it is also the very institutions that are key to unlocking and progressing this issue.

Mark Durkan famously referred to “the ugly scaffolding” of the Good Friday Agreement in describing some of the necessary features installed to safeguard against abuses, and 11 years since he coined this phrase, they still remain.

The main structural challenges are:

  • Community designation as Nationalist, Unionist or Other
  • Petition of concern
  • Lack of adequate challenge function to the Executive

Initially introduced as mechanisms to protect minorities, these features now serve to enforce divisions in the very institution that was introduced to bring communities together. And this perfectly distils the crux of the problem; our institutions were designed to promote equality, but not integration.

In recent years there have been moves towards creating a more “normalised” political framework.

The introduction of an official opposition offered parties with a certain percentage of the vote the opportunity to provide a challenge function to the DUP and Sinn Féin. It was also part of that which was agreed at St Andrew’s.

However, the 2016 Act did not afford the resources, either parliamentary or financial, to enable opposition parties to effectively challenge the muscle of big government departments. To enable an opposition to function, there must be more support for parties who elect to fulfil this role as the current Act is not equipped to deliver on its intent.

Therefore, we need to ensure that any future arrangements are equipped not only to deal with and withstand these challenges, but to resolve them.

The Assembly and Executive Review Committee have undertaken a range of reviews into different aspects of the Northern Ireland Act, however there are two factors which I feel limit the scope of this important work; 1 – its reviews have focused on individual aspects of the legislation rather than as a whole; 2 – the reviews are carried out by MLAs, who are obviously conflicted. 

One solution to this would be to mandate an external body, such as a Citizens Assembly, with the task of review and reform of the Northern Ireland Act. Composed of a representative sample of society who are selected at random, and provided with the facts and different arguments as any statutory committee would be, the Assembly would be free of the burden of the political allegiance demanded of our elected representatives.

The quid-pro-quo approach that has characterised the St Andrew’s Agreement, and all those that have followed in its wake, in responding to particular moments of crisis has been shown to be unsustainable in the long term.

We need to agree a platform that can sustain the turbulence of governing, and that accommodates - but doesn’t prioritise - our constitutional positions in areas that serve to perpetuate sectarian attitudes; if we are to deal with sectarianism on the ground, we must look to the highest offices for leadership in putting in place the necessary conditions for change.

The second installation of this series will be published on Thursday.

The paper will be published in full on the Macgill Summer School homepage.