‘Sharing Responsibility’ and the future of Northern Ireland

By Tony Novosel

In the 1978 comedy Animal House, a group of students embark on a drunken road trip in a fellow student’s car. The result? A totalled car and a very distraught student. Seemingly to comfort him, one of the older students puts his arm around him and then calmly says, “C’mon Flounder. You can’t spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes.  You fucked up. You trusted us.” 

When asked to explain Brexit and Northern Ireland, especially the Protocol, I always reference this scene. It illustrates the naivete of political unionism and the DUP historically in their dealings with the Tories and now with Boris Johnson.  Like Lord Carson in 1921, who recognized, after partition, “What a fool I was. I was only a puppet and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power’, they recognize the Tories have used them, with no regard for the Union, to stay in power and achieve Brexit. So, in 2021, when unionists and loyalists should be celebrating Northern Ireland’s centenary, they find their place in the UK under threat once more.   

The final scene of Animal House then reflects the tragi-comic chaos of the DUP’s in-fighting and implosion, accompanied by fierce unionist/loyalist attacks on the Northern Ireland Protocol. In the movie a group of students plunge their university town into chaos after deciding, in the words of their leader, that “this situation [their expulsion from the university] absolutely requires a really futile gesture be done”.

Unionism/Loyalism’s response against the Irish Sea Border, and a Protocol that occurred largely because of the DUP’s sabotage of May’s Brexit deal and unionism’s misplaced faith in Boris Johnson, reflects this final scene. With no clear alternative to the Protocol and some having withdrawn support for the Belfast Agreement, a cycle of demonstrations, threats and potential violence echoes the movie’s ‘really futile gesture’. Interestingly enough, the film at one point depicts a band marching blindly into a cul-de-sac. Alex Kane points out the futility of these actions in the Belfast Telegraph (04/02/2021):

Constantly upping the ante may give the impression of standing up for their rights, but it too often looks like doing something just to be seen to be doing something.

My advice: look at 1968, 1972, 1974, 1985, 1993, 2013. Learn lessons from how unionism responded then and don’t repeat the mistakes.

What lessons?  Well, for one, according to Kane “a simple lesson from history: never lead people into a cul-de-sac” (Belfast Telegraph, 10/06/2021).  For another, and most important for the rest of this essay, the realization that there is not one unionism, if there ever was.  Kane cites the emergence of small ‘u’ unionism that supports the union but is “derided [by hardline unionists] for their views on secularism, abortion, same-sex marriage, the Northern Ireland protocol and laissez-faire attitude to the Irish language” and “find themselves alienated from ‘party political unionism’”.  In other words, these people are looking to a different brand of politics that is about more than just the border.   

Recently Claire Mitchell reviewed Susan McKay’s new book Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground in the Irish Times (5/06/2021). Mitchell claims that McKay “leaves no stereotype [of Northern Protestants] unchallenged” and points to the emergence of progressive and forward-looking Protestants when she claims that McKay’s “book reveals a gravitational pull to the future”.

Peter Shirlow’s written remarks for Sinn Fein’s 2017 Ard Fheis reinforce Kane’s and Mitchell’s analysis. Shirlow told Sinn Fein:

That Protestants under the age of 40 and those who do not vote, are firmly pro-union. That group are more pro-choice, more likely to not be offended by a relative marrying across the sectarian divide and more supportive of integrated education than Sinn Fein voters.

He also wrote “that the majority of those who described themselves as Protestants were supportive of equal marriage” and even more surprisingly that “the share of those who supported marriage equality and voted DUP had grown to around 40%”.

Recognizing these trends amongst unionists, particularly young unionists, Doug Beattie, the new leader of the UUP, took some promising first steps. Echoing Mitchell, in an article in the Belfast Telegraph (17/5/2021), Beattie declared:

We need a modern, forward thinking, progressive political party that takes the values of the Ulster Unionist Party and brings them into the 21st century and beyond. That’s what we have to look at, that’s what we have to work towards, that’s what I’m going to be driving to, more young people, more women, more representation, more diversity.

He then recruited former Progressive Unionist Party Councillor Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston – Protestant, working class and openly lesbian – to join the UUP.  He also scouted the socially liberal Independent Unionist Claire Sugden (she declined). 

The attempt to create a modern, progressive form of unionism that more accurately reflects the diversity of the unionist and loyalist communities is a noble enterprise.  However, under the present political system, this will not really matter, unless the UUP can become the largest unionist party.  This is because, as Malachi O’Doherty in the Belfast Telegraph (25/05/2021) points out:

We don’t have a single party that can muster even a third of the seats in the Assembly, yet we have a system that says two minority parties must lead our Executive and get first pick of ministries. That has to change.

The question is “How?” 

In 2015 I asked if we should revisit the historic PUP document Sharing Responsibility to move beyond the stasis of mandatory and now minority party power sharing. ‘Sharing Responsibility’ was a concept of pluralist governance developed by the PUP and its forerunners, eventually codified in a series of manifestos from 1977 onwards. Since 2015, a more diverse electorate has emerged and as a recent Belfast Telegraph survey (03/05/2021) reveals, young people no longer fit neatly into unionism or nationalism. However, as O’Doherty points out Northern Ireland is governed by two parties on those old lines. Therefore, I would argue that we revisit the various versions of Sharing Responsibility when considering the construction of a political system that embraces and represents all in Northern Ireland. Here, we see how engaging with unionism’s overlooked progressive tradition can help inform responses to the political logjam of today.     

Progressive Unionist proposals for a new administration, 1979

To begin building this new system, the Assembly should be, in the words of the 1985 version, ‘broadened both in representation and areas for debate and resolution’. Sharing Responsibility proposed 153 members, but that does not mean it has to be that number.  It could, however, be a starting point for discussion. 

The next and most important change would be to end mandatory power sharing. Naturally, this would end the current system of MLAs designating as either ‘nationalist’ or ‘unionist’, creating a situation where parties would have to form voluntary coalitions based on social, economic, and political issues. An ‘opposition’ could emerge on the same basis.  As no one party would get a majority in the Assembly, this would have to occur. It would also ensure that one party could not block legislation as the DUP did on equal marriage and continues to do on abortion legislation.

Sharing Responsibility proposed that the First Minister be chosen in the same manner as the Lord Mayor of Belfast. Another possible option would be to select the leader from the majority coalition. If that occurred, then the position of Deputy First Minister would go to the leader of the opposition. If an opposition coalition did not emerge then that position would go to the largest party in opposition.  

The committees or cabinet posts would then be filled based on the principle of proportionality. The 1985 version of Sharing Responsibility proposed replacing the cabinet style of government with committees and a central committee to oversee the work of the committees chaired by the minority leader. This would prevent the domination of one party or coalition and ensure the participation of all parties and members in committee work. 

Each committee would then ‘co-opt’ trade unionists, educators and citizens from other constituent groups. These non-voting members would represent all facets of civil society, putting forward ideas to the committees and thus ‘sharing responsibility’ for society. 

The PUP’s document also called for a Bill of Rights based on the European Convention on Human Rights.  They believed that adopting a Bill of Rights would ensure that the government would define and protect the rights of all citizens of Northern Ireland.

Finally, desiring and anticipating the changes discussed above, in particular within the unionist community, and the development of politics beyond ‘orange’ and ‘green’, the 1986 version of Sharing Responsibility called for ‘integrated non-sectarian comprehensive schooling’. It stated that the present education system was ‘a basic barrier to reconciliation’ and that ‘At all times the education system must be geared to providing that which is best for the education of children in an integrated society’.  

Putting in place such a system could potentially bring out those who don’t vote because they don’t have any reason to vote. It would end minority party rule in Northern Ireland and the ongoing political stasis and periodic crises that comes with it. Finally, the system would more accurately represent the diversity of the Northern Ireland electorate and their concerns beyond the border.

Now more than ever, it is time to revisit Sharing Responsibility, and recognize where we can learn from the past political ingenuity of unionists and loyalists marginalized by the mainstream.     

(Image: Wikimedia Commons; Scan from Proposed Democratic Devolved Administration for Northern Ireland, Progressive Unionist Group, 1979)

Dr Tony Novosel is Senior Lecturer Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh. He has worked on the politics of paramilitary loyalism for many years and is the author of Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism (Pluto Press, 2013).

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