We need a politics of recognition not identities – Professor Rick WILFORD

As part of his retirement from Queen’s University Belfast, Professor Rick Wilford was invited to present a lecture: “Two cheers for consociational democracy?” The Senate Chamber of Parliament Buildings provided a most appropriate setting for his review of the structures and operations of Northern Ireland’s government since the return of devolved administration with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, William Hay MLA, welcomed Prof. Wilford, particularly thanking him for his role in establishing the Assembly Bursary Programme, “of which we are most proud”.

He further described Prof. Wilford as “a critical friend”, someone ready to tell it as it is, as well as how it could be. The Speaker said that the Northern Ireland Assembly “is not perfect, yet sometimes we bring it upon ourselves”. By this, the Speaker was lamenting the underdevelopment of a parliamentary culture within the Assembly, where we are “far away from where we should be”.

By way of introduction, Professor Wilford described his arrival at Queen’s University in 1980. By no means ashamed of his Welsh background, he doesn’t go for passionate nationalism: “We are born with feet not roots; I like to travel light on my feet.”

For the development of his own understanding of this space we call Northern Ireland, Prof. Wilford cited many leading academics — John Whyte, Cornelius O’Leary, Sidney Elliott, Richard Rose, Richard Crick et al.

And before commencing his main lecture tonight, Prof. Wilford praised the Speaker, stating that Speakers have a key role in their legislatures. He particularly thanked the Speaker for the reform of the operations of the Assembly (based on an undertaken review), and for his office’s outreach efforts, with the aim of greater linking with the public that it serves.

So, does our model of consociationalism — which ensures a power-sharing governance arrangement based on dominant cleavages in society — deserve two cheers?

The short answer by Prof. Wilford is “yes”:

  1. There is variety in our government, i.e. inclusiveness across the divide
  2. Criticism is allowed, within and without, i.e. individual MLAs and Ministers can be challenged

But there are numerous shortcomings.

Prof. Wilford framed his critique in terms of the general politics and the citizenry, or polis.

For example, many legislatures in democracies are facing a decrease in public engagement, from a disdain of party politics. But Prof. Wilford reminded the audience that the political domain is greater than the body of elected representatives; politics is ubiquitous.

He emphasised the need to have a constant civic conversation (with less top-down presentations and more cultivated participatory processes). Institutional reforms of government procedures are not enough. Instead, we need to adapt to a new culture of doing politics, which could include the use of social media (which has already countered the decline in party membership).

Prof. Wilford mooted whether government structures crimp opportunities for political action, or open them up?

He described Northern Ireland government as not resembling a partnership, but more akin to patron (Northern Ireland Executive) and client (Northern Ireland Assembly).

Also, for an MLA to disobey his or her party whip not only lets the party down, but also that legislator’s ethnic group.

Prof. Wilford then argued the need for a more deliberative process in the Assembly; individuals need to regard themselves as “Members of Parliament, not Bristol”. Legislators should also exercise independent judgment, “enlightened not ethnic”.

Positively, he pointed to three developments in the Assembly that can facilitate this:

  1. Assembly Committees are better supported administratively
  2. Topical Motions
  3. Private Members’ Bills

This “critical friend” then suggested further reform:

  • Northern Ireland Executive should be smaller, especially its functions
  • Escape “Departmentalism”; need joined-up programmes
  • OFMdFM should be like the UK Cabinet Office, a strategic hub (and no more)
  • Northern Ireland Assembly should be smaller; Committee Chairs should not sit on other Committees; Public Affairs Committee should be akin to that in Scotland (and especially in absence of a Civic Forum)
  • Petitions of Concern should only be for communal issues, or implement a weighted majority vote without communal designations
  • An adequately funded Official Opposition (but with minimum threshold of seats to prevent “I am Spartacus” claims!)

Prof. Wilford concluded by aspiring for good parliamentarianism, in a “spirit of accommodation”. He wants better connectedness, both between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as by all politicians and the body politic.

Instead of a politic of identities, he added, there should be a politics of recognition.

To this, Prof. Wilford declared that he would select the Assembly’s designation of “other” (versus “nationalist” or “unionist”), reflecting his tenet of independent judgment and representing the wider citizenry.

Even the Speaker added: “Northern Ireland does put politicians into boxes, and limits them.”

I replied to Prof. Wilford, suggesting that while there is perhaps not much we can do to change the operations of the Northern Ireland Executive (with the inability to remove party representation (for any reason) and the lack of collective responsibility), the Good Friday Agreement is arguably not as prescriptive upon our legislature. That is, I see “a ray of hope” in the ability to introduce many of the professor’s suggested reforms above.

And the need to facilitate a constant civic conversation also resonated with me; it is part of my daily professional work.

The audience was very grateful to Professor Wilford for his analysis and positive proposals. Somehow after living here for near 35 years he has not become utterly jaundiced, calling himself a “miserable optimist”.

Considering our contested past, it’s reasonable to expect a lot of misery about this place. But if we are to progress and “not train another generation to go through what we went through”, as the Speaker thought out loud, then I’ll take optimism in any form.

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