Peace without Consensus: Power-Sharing Politics in Northern Ireland

By Hrynkow, Christopher | International Journal on World Peace, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Peace without Consensus: Power-Sharing Politics in Northern Ireland


Hrynkow, Christopher, International Journal on World Peace


PEACE WITHOUT CONSENSUS: POWER-SHARING POLITICS IN NORTHERN IRELAND Mary-Alice C. Clancy Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010 215 pages, hardback, $99.95

In March 1995, I journeyed to Northern Ireland as part of a high school rugby tour. Everyone on the trip was stunned by the beauty of the landscape and the hospitality of the people. Nonetheless, we played and stayed in places associated with political violence both prior to and after our trip: Belfast, Lisburn, Armagh, Portadown and Enniskillen. Before leaving Canada, those of us taking a "world issues" course had been taught that the conflict pitted Catholics against Protestants. When my classmates and I presented this framing in our hosts' homes, we were told, unanimously, "that is not what the troubles are about." I now recognize that this reaction was a result of our reductionist framing.

More sophisticated forms of reductionism have crept into academic, media and popular understandings of the troubles both before and since the mid-nineties. According to Mary-Alice Clancy, Research Fellow at the University of Exeter's Centre for Ethno-Political Studies, one example of such essentialism has to do with the notion that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement's form of consociational executive power-sharing created a centrifugal structure meaning that the two "extreme" parties on the Northern Irish political scene, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), would soon hold the majority of seats in the devolved assembly. As such, the March 2007 power-sharing deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP, symbolized by the historic post-election photo of former sworn enemies, Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, sitting side by side at Stormont, is considered by some to an almost inevitable result of the Good Friday Agreement.

Working from a perspective examining the "high" politics which preceded that moment, Clancy's new book, Peace Without Consensus, makes an effective argument showing the major role of external actors - namely US, UK, and Irish political advisors, elected officials, and civil servants - in Northern Ireland's power-sharing politics. Specifically, Clancy focuses on the period between 2001-2007 to support her thesis that it was not the consociational institutions of the Good Friday Agreement alone which gave rise to larger roles for Sinn Fein and the DUP in Northern Irish politics. Furthermore, she contends that this power-sharing arrangement was somewhat fortuitous, as the external actors' partnering with Sinn Fein and the DUP allowed those parties to carry their "ethnic tribune" constituencies with them into the public peace process, creating foundations for the resolution of issues including demilitarization, decommissioning of paramilitary arms, criminality, political institutions and policing upon which the success of the process ultimately hung.

Clancy demonstrates that this internalization of the peace and political processes in Northern Ireland did not always go smoothly, with the result that 2007's moment of conciliation at Stormont was far from predestined by the deal reached in the spring of 1998. For instance, after the Good Friday Agreement, the British had initially favoured power-sharing between the more moderate Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Yet, Clancy shows how London's prioritization of the peace process over the political process meant that UK governmental policy served to weaken these parties. Her interview data, gathered from exogenous "high" political actors under a condition of anonymity, is most illuminating in this regard, allowing Clancy to paint a picture of British diplomatic efforts that served to bolster Sinn Fein, reimaging Adams and Martin McGuiness as nationalist moderates. In turn, she demonstrates that Adams was very effective at convincing several British officials (including Tony Blair) that, despite intelligence services reports to the contrary, he and McGuinness only had a tenuous hold on the republican movement. …

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