Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Brendan O’Leary's power-sharing lecture was not just an exercise in self-congratulation

Consociationalism: Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson
Consociationalism: Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson

Last week QUB was graced by the return of Professor Brendan O’Leary now of Pennsylvania University. He was giving a lecture entitled “Remarkably Successful Power-Sharing in Northern Ireland: Reflections on Excessive Ingratitude, Especially Among the Astonished.”

This self-regarding title was probably justified as having started off as an adviser to Labour’s shadow Secretary of State Kevin McNamara, he is widely credited as the academic who created our current power-sharing arrangement.

Known as consociationalism, it basically differs from the earlier model by dividing the spoils of government proportionately between the big parties.

Each get a due number of ministries while decisions requiring agreement at the centre are then negotiated, but only in crisis. These are the difficult decisions as it is relatively easy to spend money or allocate resources in each ministry.

O’Leary felt if decisions are parked there is no great downside as government continues, for the most part, on its parallel lines.

This system leads however to impasse and to nothing ever changing.

This lecture was not just an exercise in self-congratulation, as O’Leary ably pointed out how effective Stormont had been in its, admittedly, small number of fully-functioning years.

He instanced a somewhat dubious comparison with Scotland, saying each devolved assembly had passed a similar amount of legislation.

He also noted how the boot was often on the other foot with the police now having a crisis of acceptability in Protestant areas; British support having weakened (although not in the key financial area) and Unionist ‘hegemony’ ending forever.

This all rather denied the view of an equally famous political scientist from the 1960s, Richard Rose, who famously said: “The problem of Northern Ireland is there is no solution.”

Nonetheless the death rate had plummeted to an all-time low which O’Leary was pleased to say was another plus point of the new arrangements (I did point out that the level of killing depended more on paramilitaries choosing not to murder).

The Professor reserved a final criticism of the ‘others,’ the centre parties and the reconciliation community, who had not achieved such items as the Bill of Rights and were needlessly promoting integrated integration when a consociational system needed strong, separate schooling.

He had a good first point.

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