< April 2023 newsletter

A lesson in co-governance from Northern Ireland

Callum Purves writes –

“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 deal with.”

He writes that the recent proposals for co-governance of New Zealand public services bear striking similarities with the system in Northern Ireland, pointing out that the model as proposed under the Three Waters legislation would face similar problems to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“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.”
“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 Northern Ireland governing system established 25 years ago – known as consociational democracy - is set up as a power-sharing style of government that relies on the cooperation of different social groups. This arrangement has not delivered the normalised, shared, and de-polarised democracy which was promised by political leaders and pro-consociation theoreticians. It has serious flaws, many of which have become apparent over time. 

As the parties representing each community can block or veto any bill if they consider it to be a threat to their sectional interest, (petition of concern), the system has proven to be highly unstable. 

Today, Northern Ireland is without a functioning power-sharing government following the collapse of its devolved Assembly last May due to a stalemate between the political parties. Indeed, it has suffered from the collapse of government for 40% of its existence. 

Callum writes – 

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

Callum Purves is the NZ 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. 


Electoral Reform Society: Why does the Northern Ireland Assembly keep collapsing?

Dr Drew Mikhael: Northern Ireland reforms ‘ethnic veto’ to help get its legislature back to work

Open Edition Journals: Democracy in Northern Ireland Since the Good Friday Agreement: A Post-Brexit Reappraisal


The article was published in The New Zealand Herald: A lesson in co-governance from Northern Ireland, 13 April 2023 (paywalled)

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