Podium: Reality and Illusion in Ulster from a Speech Delivered by the Professor of Politics to the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association
Curtice, John, The Independent (London, England)
ETHNIC DIVISIONS are perhaps the most difficult ones to resolve in any polity. This is especially so when they are overlaid with differences of religion and national identity.
In such circumstances, decisions about citizenship, territory or state ceremony often come to be regarded as "zero sum" games in which anything that is believed to favour one side is automatically regarded as disadvantageous to the other.
But on Good Friday 1998 nearly all the principal political actors in Northern Ireland signed the Belfast agreement. This agreement set out a new framework for the governance of the province.
The agreement was reached after a "peace process" which had publicly been in existence for more than four years and privately for even longer, and during the course of which all of the major paramilitary organisations had declared a ceasefire.
In recent years political scientists have rediscovered the apparent ability of political institutions to influence political behaviour and outcomes. In the Belfast agreement politicians certainly attempted to find an institutional structure and a decision-making process that was capable of ending an apparently unending sequence of civil strife, in part by turning the zero sum game of Northern Irish politics into one from which both communities felt that they derived benefit.
But the substance of the agreement may not be the only foundation on which public approval rested. Northern Ireland's population may have been attracted to it by the prospect of material benefit and peace that it appeared to offer, even if that population was not particularly keen on some of the detailed provisions of the agreement.
And perhaps, too, the process of securing the agreement enabled some politicians to develop an appeal that straddled the province's political divide, thereby enabling them to obtain public support for the agreement.
However, it seems that there was a crucial ambiguity at the heart of the agreement in the minds of the Northern Irish public. The Belfast agreement itself did not explicitly link the right of parties to take up their places on the Northern Ireland Executive with decommissioning.
It simply committed them to "use any influence they may have to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years", while the pledge of office for executive ministers requires them to pledge "commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means". …