The Northern Ireland peace agreement was born on the 10th April 1998, Good Friday, in Belfast and will thus celebrate its 15th birthday next week. One of the central elements of the Agreement was to achieve equality between the two main communities in Northern Ireland. It was an ambitious attempt to achieve this aim through a significant restructuring of the Northern Ireland constitution. This aspect of the Agreement has implications, therefore, for the role of constitutions in achieving equality more broadly. The fifteenth anniversary provides a suitable occasion to assess the outcomes achieved, and to look to the future.
The Northern Ireland constitutional model incorporated in the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement is neither unique, nor particularly unusual in a global context. It is a classic democratic consociation, as political scientists term it. Four key elements of democratic consociation are commonly identified.
These are, first, the sharing of executive and, often, legislative and security powers among representatives of all the major communities, especially those with histories of prior antagonism. Examples of specific arrangements include collective presidencies and co-premierships; examples also include concurrent or qualified majority rules. Plainly such power-sharing aims to achieve greater inclusivity and jointness in decision-making than ‘winner-takes-all democracy’.
The second key feature is community autonomy. Each constituent group has significant internal self-government in at least one public function (for example, in establishing and controlling its own schools). Equality across the communities applies in these respects. Self-government accompanies shared government.
The third feature is the widespread use of the proportionality principle, understood to encompass proportional representation in shared institutions, and the allocation of important resources and public offices. For example, posts in the civil service, security forces, and judiciary, are shared out by reference to the proportions the groups have in the population as a whole, or in the labour market. Proportionality may also apply to the allocation of public expenditures, e.g., each group may receive the same per capita funding for its primary schools.
Lastly, because power-sharing, proportionality, and autonomy may not provide sufficient assurance to particular groups that their interests will not be over-ridden, explicit veto rights may be granted to each of the communities on vital issues, with variations in how these veto rights are allocated and legally entrenched.
How does all this relate to the equality agenda? Apart from the attempt to achieve equality at the level of the legislature and the executive, there are three additional legislative features of the equality agenda in Northern Ireland that relate to the Agreement: first, the fair employment legislation which began in 1976, was fundamentally restructured in 1989, and more minimally reformed as a result of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement; second, section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 which established a public sector equality duty on public bodies resulted directly from the Agreement itself; and third, the (now repealed) quota provisions regarding the recruitment to the Northern Ireland Police Service is derived from the Patten Commission established as a result of the Agreement. There are five points I want to make.
First, the equality agenda comprising these elements can best be understood in the context of the Northern Ireland consociational model. It is, of course, separable from it – much of the equality agenda borrows its techniques from other countries (such as the United States) where consociations are not in operation. But placing it within the consociational model emphasizes the extent to which equality in Northern Ireland is primarily about securing the third of the three elements I described earlier – the proportionality principle. It is this that marks the equality agenda in Northern Ireland out from that in the rest of the United Kingdom or, indeed, in the Republic of Ireland.
Second, it is also useful to see the equality agenda in the context of the consociational model for another critical reason: the effective enforcement of fair employment after 1990, and the debate over the public sector equality duty in the early 1990s was a critical element in the “confidence building” measures that resulted in nationalist (and particularly republican) politicians agreeing to the other elements of the consociational package, in particular the first of these, the sharing of legislative, executive and security powers with the other parties. The orthodox histories of the run up to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement largely, I think, underestimate the extent to which there was a parallel “peace process” that supported the main process, but which concentrated less on security and power-sharing issues and more on economic, social and human rights issues. In practice, the two went hand in hand.
The relative success in getting these equality measures accepted and implemented provided a degree of reassurance that the Northern Ireland state was capable of reform and transformation, and laid some of the political ground work for the Agreement. The Americans, and largely because of them the Irish Government, understood this; I was never convinced that the British Government did (or, perhaps, does) fully comprehend the importance of this.
The third reason for emphasizing the consociational context of the equality agenda is that the other elements of the consociational model act as a limit on a liberal individualistic equality agenda. This can be seen in two respects. First, the consociational model depends on the recognition and (to a degree) the institutionalization, of the two major communities as the key political actors. For some, though not for me, this is anathema because it appears to emphasize existing divisions rather than transcending them; and this came to a head in particular in the debate over the Patten police quota arrangements.
A second limit on the equality agenda arising from consociation relates to schools. I said that one of the features of a consociation is a degree of autonomy in certain spheres. In Northern Ireland, the best example of an autonomy arrangement relates to primary and secondary education, which is a closely guarded sphere of Catholic influence. Fair employment legislation has carved out teaching in schools as an exception. This can really only be understood when seen in the consociational context.
I will end by making two further points. The first is that, to a considerable extent, the strategy worked, not just in the sense that it helped build confidence (which it did), but in its own terms. In particular, research supported by the Nuffield Foundation demonstrates pretty definitively that the effective enforcement of the fair employment legislation in the 1990s led to a significant shift in the labour market with significantly reduced inequality between Catholics and Protestants, at the same time as achieving significant desegregation. There is a more complex story to tell, but suffice to say it is a very good news story, and one that Northern Ireland should be proud of. It is the success of this legislation that has significantly taken the poison out of the discrimination issue (a poison that those of us who worked in the area remember only too well). The same applies to the Patten quota, which has succeeded in restructuring the composition of the police service from one that was overwhelmingly Protestant to one that is now proportional, and has contributed to the increased acceptance of the police in the nationalist community.
Finally, what of the future? Although by no means unique globally, consociational arrangements are unusual in the British and Commonwealth world, and are therefore continually under pressure; there is a sense among some opinion formers in Britain that the Westminster model is in some way the “norm” and that, in time, the aim should be to return Northern Ireland to “normality”. In the equality context, this means constant indirect pressure to reduce the specifically Northern Ireland features of the approaches taken to equality, such as compulsory monitoring in fair employment, a significant regulatory presence in the labour market in the shape of the Equality Commission, and the process requirements of the public sector equality duty concerning civil society participation in decision-making, and impact assessment. Both the European Union and the domestic courts have recognized the importance of preserving the Northern Ireland equality model, and have resisted attempts to force change.
The greater danger comes, I think from, a sense among some opinion formers in London (and even some in Belfast) that the equality job has been done, equality has been achieved, and we can therefore simply dismantle the panoply of equality requirements, particularly in a time of financial cutbacks. That view, I suggest, should be strongly resisted. The importance of the equality agenda in enabling the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement to be concluded in the first place, and ensuring that a stable government could eventually be established and maintained, should be recognized and lessons learned. It would be a mistake, I think, of incredible stupidity with incalculable costs if inequality between the two communities were to become a significant problem again in Northern Ireland.
Christopher McCrudden FBA is Professor of Equality and Human Rights Law, Queen’s University Belfast, and Leverhulme Major Research Fellow (2011-2014). It is an edited version of a talk presented on the 27th March 2013 at the British Academy seminar “The Good Friday Agreement: 15 Years On”.