Queen's Policy Engagement

Reflection, Renewal and Restoration

Reflecting on the current impasse with power-sharing here in Northern Ireland, Professor Colin Harvey calls on all concerned to turn round and start facing each other again.

Reflection, Renewal and Restoration

‘We’ are running away from each other, again. Running back to ‘home states’ that are skilled at comforting words about a ‘precious union’ and abhorrence of past abandonment. It is an understandable reaction to an entity carefully designed to nurture long-term dysfunction; abandonment here is shared. Hard as it may be, we need to turn round and start facing each other, again; ultimately to travel in the same direction, maintaining our familiar differences as we go.

The ‘we’ merits attention. Its notional reductionism (to the standard nationalist/unionist tale) masks an evolving picture of a diverse and multi-ethnic ‘we’; one that embraces everyone and multiple identities. That said, there is little to suggest that core conflicts have evaporated or that new or well-established communities are agnostic on these questions. The dynamics of this society remain doggedly intact. The only novel trend is the slow shift to majority endorsement of social liberalism and the related vibrancy of movements that are confronting injustice. A fact which makes the case for one foundational pillar of the peace process (rights and equality) compelling, but which also poses a puzzle for a consociational arrangement that can look like an irritating impediment to social equality and radical change. In thinking this through, and with further discussion in mind, there are three themes I want to highlight.

First, advocates for a fairer society here knew that without the proper implementation of the rights, equality and justice components of the peace process the governing structures would collapse: either formally or simply become worthless or hollowed out. The last few years were predictable and avoidable. The crisis in this field can be dealt with through decisive legislative change that reflects what most now appear to want. The areas where action is required are well known. Avoiding this is no longer an option; anyone who is serious about restoring power-sharing should accept the need for extensive legal reform. If Brexit can be taken forward then everything else follows. Where it happens is less significant than when. Sustainable governance has a chance to flourish if this rights and equality ‘revolution’ is realised, but the material and practical challenges of doing so remain formidable (even if legal change happens).

Second, we need to reflect on how the institutions have functioned and will operate in future. Brexit raises this in stark terms. There will be capacity problems, and work will be needed to merge what is there now with the mechanisms that will flow from any EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement.  A long, messy and fraught process lies ahead (made worse by the ill-advised and strategically disastrous stance adopted by the main unionist party to Brexit). ‘Capacity’ includes tackling the corrupted nature of the public sphere; a ‘standards in public life’ revolution is also overdue across society.  These problems are not merely confined to the governing institutions. Thinking on this was already apparent but will need to accelerate now.

Third, the institutional and normative architecture of the Good Friday Agreement must be embraced. Not just because this has become fundamental to legal and political constitutionalism: the Agreement simply reflects the complex blend of principles that still stand the best chance of securing long-term sustainable governance. That will sound scarcely credible, and even foolish at the moment, but (in my view) it remains hard to refute. The institutions and norms of the Agreement and subsequent agreements are the practical expression of agonised thought about the potential transformation of this place (the force of credible critiques of the approach have been noted and some lessons absorbed). There will be a return; and the broad framework on which it will take place is established. That cannot, however, become an excuse for sidestepping questions of practical application of the ‘constitutional fundamentals’. The system plainly is not functioning as intended or designed; without confronting this the cycle of ‘boom and bust’ will persist. The valid criticisms directed at devices such as the petition of concern must be acknowledged.

The negotiations thus far have focused on a piecemeal approach to the restoration of power-sharing (and have been derailed by Brexit). That is no longer adequate, particularly as the grim post-Brexit world beckons. Any dialogue to come is going to have to face the larger questions. These include how to make the basics of the peace process function effectively in the dire place we are now in. The ingredients are there; and the remarkable thing about this society is the appetite for offering solutions.

‘Direction’ too is worth pondering. The constitutional destinations are set; the mechanisms of change are agreed (and need to be normalised). It will be for the people of the island of Ireland alone to decide, and that is now a mainstream public conversation (and that will help to normalise it).  The task remains to make life as good as possible for everyone in the region, whatever its constitutional status happens to be.  A particular focus must be on the marginalised and vulnerable, and thus using the institutions (when they return) to confront the forces here and elsewhere that are standing in the way of transformative social change.

After a period of deep reflection, a process of renewal must follow, one that will take us on a path to the full restoration of respectful and effective power-sharing government; sustainable and ethical governance that focuses on improving the lives of the people (all the people) who are here now and those who will follow.

As hard and unrealistic as it may sound, there is no other way.

Colin will be chairing a special Queen’s Policy Engagement lecture with Dr Graham Gudgin, Chief Economic Adviser at Policy Exchange entitled ‘How the Economics Profession Got it Wrong on Brexit’. The lecture will take place on 8 November 2018 @ 7.00pm at the Peter Froggatt Centre, Room 02/018 at Queen’s University Belfast.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 



Professor Colin Harvey
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Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law in the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast. He has served in several leadership and management roles at Queen’s including: Head of the Law School; Director of the Human Rights Centre; Director of Research (Human Rights); and as a member of Senate. Colin served as a Commissioner on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission from 2005-2011.

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