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The PPP/C is out of control because it could be!
Last week I quoted a Stabroek News editorial stating that power-sharing as recommended in the USAID report (‘Democracy, Human Rights and Governance assessment’) had been ‘a total disaster in Lebanon, … and the much touted Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in Northern Ireland has not worked as intended, and in fact is not working at all at the moment’ (SN: 20/02/2022). I believe that I said enough about Lebanon to support my contention that the editorial was the kind of dangerous ‘simplistic propagandist theorizing’ that President Ali asked all Guyanese to avoid in his Republic Day message. Here I intend to demonstrate that the editorial comment on Northern Ireland (NI) is similarly trite and propagandistic!
NI had a population of 1.9 million in 2017, the main contesting ethnic groups being the Protestants, (unionists/loyalists wanting continued and ever closer relations with Britain) with just over 50% of the population and the Catholics (nationalists/republicans wanting a united Ireland) about 40% of the population. Like Guyana, NI is essentially a bicommunal society in which two large ethnic groups control about 80% of the electorate. According to Britannica, similar to Guyana’s Indian/African divide, ‘the demographic majority the Protestants enjoy … ensured that they were able to control the state institutions and these powers were at times used in ways that disadvantaged the region’s Roman Catholic minority (though the extent of discrimination … remains a matter of intense debate).’ The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought an end to the 30 year ‘troubles’ that cost some 3,600 lives.
The agreement abandoned the winner-takes-all electoral system and introduced one based upon proportional representation and shared governance. At present, of the 90 Members of the Legislative Assembly, 40 are unionists, 38 are nationalists and 12 others. The Northern Ireland executive/government is co-chaired by a first minister and deputy first minister from the two largest parties respectively and the executive cannot make new policies/laws if either of them resigns. Ministerial positions are allocated to other parties with significant representation in the national assembly. There are other interesting features of the electoral system intended to protect ethnic interests, but these need not detain us.
Recently, the Protestant First Minister resigned, claiming that the border aspect of the United Kingdom (UK) withdrawal agreement (Brexit) from the European Union (EU) represents a threat to NI being part of the UK. EU membership of the UK and Republic of Ireland provided an important element of the context for the conception and implementation of the 1998 GFA and the UK withdrawal would mean that across a broad range of issues, the trajectories of the UK and Ireland will diverge significantly. The First Minster resigned on 3rd February 2022 but the government remains in place. For instance, NI consumer prices rose 5.5% in 2021 and to ease pressure on the population on 28th February 2022 the infrastructure minister made the decision to freeze fares on the public transport network.
In a presentation to mark the 20th anniversary of the GFA in 2018, former president Bill Clinton claimed that ‘The Good Friday Agreement is a work of genius that’s applicable if you care at all about preserving democracy.’ According to Clinton, the Agreement ‘called for real democracy – majority rule; minority rights; individual rights; the rule of law; the end of violence; shared political decision-making; shared economic benefits’. However, ‘The most interesting thing was that by creating a space for the identity and the interests and the values of all the people involved … it was a work of surpassing genius.’
Only last year the Economic Observatory noted, ‘The economy of Northern Ireland continues to be influenced by nearly 30 years of the Troubles. While there has been much economic improvement since the agreement finalised in Belfast on Good Friday 1998, the gains have been unevenly distributed.’ All of the main stakeholders, i.e., the political leaders in NI, the EU, British, Irish and USA governments maintain that the GFA is essential to good governance and the avoidance of violence in NI.
Therefore, contrary to the SN editorial (and in-so-far as political systems do work as the framers intended), it was because the previous NI majoritarian system did ‘not work as intend’ and resulted in decades of disorder that shared-governance had to be adopted. Furthermore, the SN editorial claim that the GFA ‘is not working at all at the moment’ is so simplistic as to be false. But more importantly, it suggests a mindset that is fixated on a winner-takes-all approach wherein a government with an extremely questionable and flimsy majority could ignore most of civil society and half of the National Assembly and passed the important Natural Resource Fund Bill, leaving a frustrated opposition to meaninglessly ransack the National Assembly only to be condemned by the very supporters of the dysfunctional winner-takes-all system!
The PPP/C regime is out of control because the political system allows it to be. President Irfaan Ali needs to take his own advice and avoid ‘simplistic (and) propagandist’ explanations and help to establish a governance arrangement that forces compromise by allowing all ethnicities and groups the constitutional right to obstruct the making of policies and laws that they and/or their representatives believe adversely affect their fundamental interests.