Consociationalism and Bifurcated Cabinets in Northern Ireland


The dysfunction, conflict, and ideological incoherence at the heart of the Northern Irish Executive offers a modern analogy to what the dual ministries and co-premiership of the Province of Canada might have looked like.

That said, the Northern Irish Executive probably operates on a consociational “powersharing” arrangement similar to but worse than what the Province of Canada evolved in the 1840s. At least in Canada, English Liberals and French Liberals on the one hand and French Conservatives and English Conservatives on the other would usually coalesce into some semblance of ideological coherence, even though parties remained looser associations in those days and party discipline as we understand it in Canada today certainly had not yet emerged.

But “powersharing” in Northern Ireland followed on the thirty years of “Troubles” – terrorism and bombings and paramilitary violence – between Catholics and Protestants. So left-wing Irish nationalists and right-wing British unionists now find themselves awkwardly entwined in a permanent and ideologically incoherent coalition. Northern Irish voters can never really change their government in general elections to the Northern Irish Assembly because the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act, 2006 requires these permanent, ideologically incoherent coalitions between unionists and nationalists, where the leader of the larger of the two groups becomes First Minister and the leader of the lesser of the two becomes Deputy First Minister. In practice so far, a British Unionist becomes First Minister and an Irish Nationalist becomes Deputy First Minister. The legislation also enforces a suicide pact so that one side cannot dominate the other. Even the architecture of the Northern Irish Assembly reflects the perpetual dyad of Unionist-Nationalist consociational grand coalitions: ministers sit in a horseshoe of desks, and backbenchers sit in two other rows of horseshoes behind them.

Neither can live while the other survives. If either the First Minister or Deputy First Minister resigns, the entire consociational coalition collapses. In January 2017, Martin McGuinness, the Irish nationalist leader of Sinn Fein, resigned as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and the entire Northern Irish Executive collapsed. Northern Ireland remained without a cabinet at all for three years, during which time civil servants acted as technocratic caretakers.[1] Only in January 2020 did the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein agree to re-establish their consociational coalition and this time invited members of the three other parties to join an all-party cabinet.[2] The Social Democratic and Labour Party (a secondary Irish nationalist formation), the Ulster Unionist Party (a secondary British unionist grouping), and the Alliance, a centrist liberal party which classifies itself as “Other” and tries to remain neutral on the nationalist-unionist question, each provided one minister. Incidentally, if the Alliance ever won a majority of seats at Stormont, this would throw a huge wrench into the machinery of the Northern Irish Assembly and Northern Irish Executive, where the First Minister and Deputy First Minister must by the Northern Ireland Act, 2006 declare themselves as either nationalists or unionists.

Collective ministerial responsibility also splits in two along the lines of the two communities. This exact same thing happened in the Province of Canada from the 1840s to the 1860s and has been happening from the 2000s onward in Northern Ireland. In this video footage of “Question Time: The Executive Office” from 24 January 2022, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neil (Sein Fein, leftist, Irish nationalist) fields questions from the North Irish Assembly. But she openly criticises her colleague in cabinet, the First Minister Paul Givan (Democratic Unionist Party, rightist, British unionist) on matters of policy – which never happens in a properly functioning Westminster parliament. The DUP half of cabinet probably maintains solidarity with itself, as would the Sinn Fein half. The UUP would side with the DUP, and the SDLP would align with Sinn Fein, potentially leaving the Alliance as the only outlier. But cabinet as a whole cannot maintain solidarity by design, because it consists of two diametrically opposed forces of unionists and nationalists. (Incidentally, Ministers and other MLAs talk to one another in the second person and address each other directly as “you” throughout).

Consociational government is not Responsible Government. If anything, consociational government props up inherently unstable and dysfunctional polities and stands as a key bulwark in preventing unstable societies from lapsing back into sectarian or ethnic violence. But it also locks ethnic and sectarian divisions in place in a kind of stasis in which political elites always try to preserve the status quo. Not coincidentally, a confessional consociationalism also prevails in Lebanon, another country riven by ethno-sectarian strife and civil war in the 20th century. It is an admission and avowal of failure and only guarantees that nothing can ever change. Political parties must remain tribal by definition and cater only to their narrow sectarian communities and cannot evolve into proper ideological or programmatic alternatives to one another.

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[1] BBC News, Martin McGuinness Resigns as Northern Irish Deputy First Minister,” 10 January 2017.

[2] BBC News, Stormont Deal: Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neil New Top NI Ministers,” 12 January 2020.

About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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3 Responses to Consociationalism and Bifurcated Cabinets in Northern Ireland

  1. Murray K says:

    It’s better than civil war.

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    • Murray K says:

      And I’ll add that is the point. The Westminster stylr Northern Ireland parliament that existed from the 1920s until the 1970s was a complete failure in recognizing the rights of the non-Unionist minority and completely excluded Catholics not only from political power but also allowed for state discrimination against Catholics in employment, housing, education and social programmes – in a system that had parallels to apartheid or Jim Crow (though not to the extent of denying people the vote or enforcing petty segregation). Some sort of power sharing system was necessary instead of a Westminster parliament that allowed 60% of the population to oppress and exclude the other 40%.

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      • Fair enough. And I suppose those discriminatory policies helped precipitate the Troubles in the first place just before London abolished that iteration of the North Irish assembly.

        I saw something in the news the other day that the First Minister resigned, which, consequently, forced the Deputy First Minister’s resignation as well. But then I saw on the Northern Irish Assembly’s YouTube channel that ministerial questions were still taking place in the assembly, so I shall have to read up more on this Northern Irish consociation and educate myself as to how all the intricacies of this system work. In Canada (in all jurisdictions except Northwest Territories and Nunavut), the UK (at Westminster), Australia (except in the ACT), and New Zealand, we would say that the tenure of the prime minister determines the tenure of the ministry itself. But this does not seem necessarily to be the case in NI.

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