The Concertina Effect. Consociation and unionism.

Professor Jennifer Todd

Power sharing is hard for groups whose unity and identity is centred on the state. It is not just their interests that are challenged by reform but their identity. Some find new opportunities in the new reformed order: others opt out of politics altogether; some commit to creating a new sort of society; and some resist. Most try to compromise while retaining their old identity: but this is an unstable position, for their identity is built on a state that has changed, and their sense of community is built on a wider alliance that is dispersing. As power-sharing regimes stabilize, their anxiety grows, backsliding begins, and eventually the very power-sharing agreement is undermined.

The pattern is clear among unionists in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement. It is not atypical. The same pattern happened in the Republic of North Macedonia, driven by the same identity anxieties among sections of the state-centred ethnic Macedonians. There it took radical intervention by international actors, the Albanian kin state and multi-ethnic social movements to restore functional powersharing. A similar restoration has not (yet?) happened in Northern Ireland.

4 morals follow

-       First, the problem doesn’t lie in a freezing of identity, as the critics of consociationalism claim. It is rather change in state-centred identity that stimulates anxiety. Power sharing has positive potential for changing divided societies.

-       Second, it is also dangerous. Once institutional drift begins it needs radical intervention to restore powersharing, and the problem is likely to recur each time powersharing is stabilised..

-       Third, prevention is better than cure. For this we need a more radical normative vision and project.  Pluralist compromise and respect for difference isnt enough: this doesn’t work for state-centred groups, whose identity needs to change if any accommodation is to be possible. A normatively informed project for the future is needed, that allows critical distance from existing states  and loyalties.

-       Fourth, and analytically, comparative analysis of the trajectories and contradictions of unionisms – state-centred movements and ideologies – is needed

 

The issues are crucial for constitutional futures in contemporary Ireland. Unionisms do not change gradually, or without crises. For analysis, see the new  working paper by Ruane and Todd (Identities, institutions and ideals: ethno-national conflict, complex power-sharing, and consociational theory). On unionisms, Jennifer Todd and Dawn Walsh are working on a special issue of Irish Political Studies  (see the introductory working paper (Unionisms and the Challenges of Change).