Callum Purves: A lesson in co-governance from Northern Ireland

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland. It ended a decades-long conflict between Irish Republicans and British Unionists.

As a relative newcomer to New Zealand and someone who spent time working in Northern Irish politics, I have noticed political parallels between the two. Both are dealing with issues such as addressing the wrongs of the past, the politicisation of language, upholding minority rights and the best form of governance to do this.

Like the Treaty of Waitangi, Northern Ireland’s peace agreement took steps to acknowledge the different aspirations of its communities – in their case, British Unionists and Irish Nationalists – under a common framework.

The agreement is, however, much more prescriptive than the Treaty. One of its key components was the re-establishment of a devolved assembly and executive. The Northern Ireland Executive requires mandatory power-sharing with the First and deputy First Ministers appointed by the two largest blocs and all major parties are entitled to seats around the table.

The problem is that Northern Ireland does not have a government.

Since the agreement was signed, it has been without one for more than nine of 25 years. This is because, to form an Executive, both First and deputy First Minister roles must be filled and either bloc can collapse the government by withdrawing their nominee.

Unionists and Nationalists have done so multiple times, most recently Unionists over post-Brexit trading arrangements. Each time this happens, unelected civil servants take charge but without the ability to progress essential reforms. In some cases, the UK Parliament must step in.

Either community can also invoke a “petition of concern” to block policies even when they command majority support in the Assembly. While this was designed to protect the interests of each group, it is open to abuse and often enacted simply to stop legislation with which they disagree.

The ability to collapse the government and the petition of concern are examples of veto power – an inherent flaw in systems of co-government.

This veto power has fostered resentment and led to a growing rejection of the traditional dividing lines between Unionist and Nationalist. Assembly seats held by those designated as neither have grown from 7 per cent in 1998 to 20 per cent today. Co-government is, however, binary and struggles to accommodate this shift.

Mandatory coalition also leads to an undesirable situation where – when it was last functioning – 85 of 90 Assembly members were in government. There is effectively no opposition, and this lack of scrutiny has been a big factor behind local political scandals.

More concerning, however, are the implications for democratic accountability. Even if there are big shifts in how people vote in an election, the result is the same: a perpetual coalition. There is little prospect of a major party not being in government.

Given these many problems, four of the five main parties – including Nationalists, Unionists and Others – now want the system reformed although they struggle to agree on what that might look like.

While the agreement and the Treaty are different documents, recent proposals for co-governance of New Zealand public services bear striking similarities with the system in Northern Ireland.

Take the example of Three Waters. While we await the announcement of the promised refocus, the model as proposed would face similar problems to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Regional Representative Groups would have 50 per cent representation from each of mana whenua and local councils with the requirement for 75 per cent majorities where consensus cannot be reached. This would give veto power to both groups and all the problems that come with that.

Similar proposals to require the introduction of unelected mana whenua representatives on Regional Planning Committees and local councils undermine democratic accountability. It would mean that New Zealanders would not be able to effect meaningful change through elections. Like in Northern Ireland, however people vote would make little difference as the result would always be the same: a perpetual coalition with seats reserved but no ability to hold the representatives filling them to account. Over time, this would simply serve to foster resentment and rejection of the system.

The Northern Irish Agreement and its protection of the rights of all communities in law were undoubtedly necessary to bring an end to the bloodshed, but the system of government it delivered is neither democratic nor effective and is losing public and political support.

The lesson from Northern Ireland is, however well-intentioned, co-government rarely works in practice. It can bring government to a standstill, undermines democratic accountability, and often exacerbates the divisions it is designed to heal.

If New Zealand wants to avoid similar paralysis, it should think twice before embarking on this path.

- Callum Purves is the Taxpayers’ Union national campaign manager who has run campaigns for the Conservative Party in Scotland and Northern Ireland and served as a unitary authority councillor in Scotland.

First published by the NZ Herald on 13 April 2023