NI Election: What Beirut can teach us about Belfast

Moving from sectarian war to a sustainable democracy is a long and complex process

A poster of Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill against the backdrop of a republican mural in west Belfast. Getty
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Although separated by language, culture and geography, the people of Lebanon and Northern Ireland have more in common than one might think.

Two small, divided societies marked by historical conflict and inter-communal struggle, both currently labour under governing systems of Byzantine complexity, designed to prevent a return to the violence that filled their jails and graveyards for decades.

And both will go to the polls this month, long after the optimism that greeted their respective emergence from conflict has faded.

On Thursday, Northern Ireland’s voters will elect a 90-seat Assembly. This local parliament is a central part of the elaborate structures established by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Under that deal – an international treaty involving the British and Irish governments, as well as support from the US and Europe – institutions were set up that would require power-sharing between the region’s two main communities of British unionists and Irish nationalists.

It has not been smooth sailing. These institutions have repeatedly been put into suspended animation thanks in part to this requirement for mandatory coalition between unionist and nationalist politicians who are often bitterly opposed to one another.

The 10-member Northern Ireland Executive, the region’s cabinet, holds responsibility for devolved matters such as health, policing and education but cannot make decisions without the First and Deputy First Ministers. Effectively heads of government, the First Minister is nominated by the largest party in the Assembly and the Deputy First Minister is nominated by the largest party in the next biggest community bloc. These ministers are also joined at the hip, politically speaking; if one resigns, the other loses their post, too.

So far, this system has returned a unionist First Minister and a nationalist “deputy”, an important psychological point for unionists, who have until relatively recently been the majority community in Northern Ireland – a state created by the partition of Ireland in 1921 to accommodate the unionist majority in the north-east of the island.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson (second from right) on the campaign trail. Getty

When the almost inconceivable pairing of former IRA commander Martin McGuinness and Ulster Protestant firebrand Ian Paisley came together to lead the devolved government in 2007, Paisley would chortle that the Sinn Fein politician was “the deputy”.

McGuinness weathered the slight with some pragmatism, secure in the knowledge that, despite their respective titles, the two posts were co-equal – Paisley could not govern without him.

But, unlike in Lebanon – where critical government roles, such as the presidency, are reserved for particular communities – in Northern Ireland the largest party overall gets to nominate for the post of First Minister, and this time around polls strongly suggest that Sinn Fein – a movement dedicated to dissolving the state in favour of unification with the Republic of Ireland – could be in that position.

In that event, it is highly unlikely that the biggest party from the unionist bloc – the Democratic Unionist Party, staunchly loyal to the UK – will prop up a Sinn Fein-led government. If there is no Deputy First Minister, the First Minister cannot govern alone, the Executive cannot make decisions and the whole teetering edifice comes down, likely leading to direct rule from London.

So, what happens next? Once the elections are over, the 90 Assembly members must convene within eight days to nominate and approve the new First and Deputy First Ministers. If no agreement is reached, the Assembly can sit for six months and previously elected Executive ministers can remain in their posts, but then new elections must be called.

Between now and then, a scenario familiar to people in Belfast and Beirut alike will unfold: months of political haggling, strong-arming and tough talking. There will be interventions from and appeals to outside forces to help the process along. A compromise may be cobbled together, as has happened before.

This is a serious business. Although a return to the violence that plagued Northern Ireland for much of its history seems unlikely, paramilitaries who don’t like the current direction of political travel or who never bought in to the 1998 peace deal are still organising, recruiting and carrying out sporadic attacks.

Brexit is another source of instability, with unionist parties demanding London tear up the Protocol – a mechanism which effectively left Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market and customs union, leading to open, cross-border trade with the Republic but creating something of an economic hurdle with Great Britain.

It seems unpromising, but an optimistic view would be that despite the political dysfunction on show, Northern Ireland’s institutions still have their worth. There have been more than 20 years of on-off power-sharing, of sorts, between antagonistic politicians and occasional moments of unlikely but genuine partnership – Paisley and McGuinness, both dead now, were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers” for their bonhomie.

Stories and pictures telling the events of the troubles as seen on the International Mural on Northumberland Street in west Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. 03 Feb 2022.   Credit: Paul McErlane

In that time, society in Northern Ireland has changed somewhat. Former injustices such as electoral gerrymandering and discrimination against the nationalist minority in housing and employment have been largely consigned to the past. Many, younger, voters have grown up with hybrid British-Irish-Northern Irish identities. A significant section of the electorate are also what could be called “agnostic” on the issue of Irish unity, persuadable either way about staying in the UK or joining the Republic.

The Good Friday Agreement was nothing if not ambitious. In addition to the local structures, it created mechanisms for North-South co-operation, and a forum for devolved and national governments across Britain and Ireland. Paramilitary groups would decommission their arsenals and their imprisoned members would be released early. The police force was disbanded and reconstituted under a different name.

But these were largely political compromises struck at the elite level. Although the deal was put to the public and passed in a referendum after much soul-searching, since then Northern Ireland’s communities have continued to live largely separate, self-segregated lives. They educate their children at different schools, often live in different areas, play different sports and generally socialise apart. Intermarriage remains uncommon.

It is arguable that such institutions, rather than fostering a sense of shared identity or common purpose, instead reflect and ossify community divisions. As far back as 2013, the veteran Derry socialist Eamonn McCann, was telling The Irish Times that “the contradiction at the heart of the Agreement is the fact that it institutionalises and formalises the sectarian division which gave rise to the violence in the first place”.

What was called the “constitutional ambiguity” at the heart of the Agreement left a vacuum filled by competing narratives, both among politicians and the people. There is no agreed story about the Troubles – civil war, communal strife, political struggle or murderous terror campaign?

Nor is there a consensus about who does or does not constitute a victim of the conflict. Northern Ireland did not embrace the “truth and reconciliation” model of post-apartheid South Africa, and many of its 3,000-plus killings either remain unsolved or are the subject of lengthy, painful and high-profile legal battles.

Sinn Fein, which is close to also becoming the biggest party in the Republic’s parliament, regards the 1998 deal as a transitional phase before reunification. The DUP – which actually opposed the Agreement at the beginning – is determined to prevent Irish unity. And these parties are meant to govern together after Thursday.

The optimistic among us hope May’s contests can breathe new life into such dysfunctional politics, rather than being another punctuation mark in a story of crisis and seemingly endless peace-processing.

What Northern Ireland, Lebanon and other divided societies show is the monumental challenge of trying to develop post-conflict politics that move from stalemate to reconciliation and are not merely a continuation of past struggles.

Published: May 04, 2022, 8:31 AM