Lessons From Northern Ireland

Sir Lawrence A Joseph

By Dr Lawrence A Joseph

In keeping with the terms of the S T Lee Visiting Professorial Fellowship I journeyed to Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland, on 9 March 2014. I did so in order to deliver the second public lecture on the following day on the topic: “To What Extent do Citizens have an Obligation to Obey the State?” The lecture went exceedingly well and the opportunity was taken to learn about the governance of Northern Ireland. I spoke with several officials there including the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Speaker William Hay who belongs to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

In 1921, following a troubled past, Northern Ireland was separated from the rest of the island of Ireland by an Act of the British Parliament. It is one of the four countries forming the unitary state of the United Kingdom and has a population of 1.8 million people. The other three countries, England, Scotland and Wales constitute Great Britain. It was at a Belfast shipyard in 1911 that Harland and Wolff built the largest passenger liner at the time, the RMS Titanic. This ship sank on its maiden voyage to New York on 15 April 1912 after hitting an iceberg causing over fifteen hundred people to lose their lives. A museum has been constructed in Belfast in its honour.

From the late 1960’s Northern Ireland experienced very intense violence known as “The Troubles” which lasted for over thirty years. The causes of the Troubles were the disputed status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and the discrimination against the nationalist (or republican) minority by the dominant unionist (or loyalist) majority. The Nationalists had the desire to join with southern Ireland to form one independent Irish State, whilst the Unionists were desirous of remaining under the control of Great Britain. As a consequence of this ongoing dispute, the Nationalist community comprising mainly Roman Catholics and the Unionist community comprising mainly Protestants formed themselves into paramilitary groups such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) siding with the Nationalists and the Ulster Defence Association siding with the Unionists. During the Troubles, there were over three thousand violent deaths and over fifty thousand casualties.

The conflict came to a formal end in 1998 when all parties signed the Belfast Agreement also referred to as “the Good Friday Agreement”. By this agreement the paramilitary groups agreed to a cease fire and the decommissioning of all weapons and ammunition. Since then an uneasy peace prevails with general elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly being held in 1998, 2003, 2007 and 2011. The Assembly has a substantial amount of devolution from the Westminster Parliament.

Because of the delicate nature of the political situation in Northern Ireland, the Constitution does not provide for any official opposition party. All the elected members of the fourteen political parties share in governing the country. The two main parties, that is, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) now has its leader Peter Robinson as the First Minister and the Sein Fein’s deputy leader, Martin Mc Guinness as the Deputy First Minister. They head a fourteen member executive of mixed membership. Originally these groupings were dead enemies. From all appearances, the constitutional provisions seem to be working well because of the special circumstances.

Altogether there are 108 elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly located at Stormont representing six members each from 18 constituencies. They are elected by the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of proportional representation.  Proportional representation is an electoral system which seeks to ensure that the strength of each political party is represented in parliament in proportion to its support amongst the electorate. With this system, every voter has only one vote but the voter can ask for that vote to be transferred from one candidate to another to make sure it is not wasted. This is done by numbering the candidates in order of preference: 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on, instead of just putting an “x” against just one of the names. Northern Ireland also utilizes the STV method for electing its 3 members to the European parliament, but uses the first past the post system for electing its 18 members to the Westminster parliament.

If the STV system was utilized in Grenada during the 2013 general elections, the main opposition party which received a substantial number of votes would definitely have obtained some seats in the House of Representatives which is not the present situation. However, working a system of proportional representation even in combination with the first past the post system does have its own problems. These would have to be carefully analyzed before such a system is adopted. Notwithstanding all of this, some lessons may well be learnt from the structure of governance in Northern Ireland.

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