Yale University

In Northern Ireland, Ideological Binaries Give Way to Ebbs and Flows of Democratic Backsliding by Emil Friedman @ Yale University

The story of modern democracy in Northern Ireland is a story of intense path dependency. And at the start of that path was the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement of April 1998, which introduced two critical factors which would shape Northern Irish politics for the following 20 years.

The first factor was “a sense of underlying lack of resolution” following Northern Ireland’s attempt at peace in 1998 (Hayward 2014, 11), because the Good Friday Agreement was less a permanent reconciliation and more a temporary fix, weakly patching together two wildly different conceptions of what Northern Ireland’s identity ought to be. On one side were unionists — those who wanted Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom — and on the other side were nationalists — those who wanted Northern Ireland to be part of a single Republic of Ireland. Because of the tenuous nature of the Agreement, which called for a devolved system of government, Northern Ireland experienced “recurrent crises over decommissioning, demilitarization, executive formation, policing, [and] public symbolism” (Todd 2015, 3). These would set the stage for slow yet steady evidence of backsliding with respect to both political leaders and voters.

It was the presence of the starkly opposed unionist and nationalist factions which led to a broader, second factor in the background of democratic backsliding in Northern Ireland: binaries. These binaries went further than unionist versus nationalist: They accompanied Protestant versus Catholic and British versus Irish (Hayward 2014, 11). The reality that in most political contexts there were precisely two sides to an issue explains the consociational model prescribed by the Good Friday Agreement. Based on that model, power is shared between the two sides, a function which causes “group solidarity and elite leadership” (Hayward 2014, 15). It was this factor of clear binaries in the cultural and political fabric of Northern Ireland, alongside the “non-agreement” Good Friday Agreement, which constitutes the underlying context of obvious examples of democratic backsliding among both leaders and citizens of Northern Ireland.

Given the obvious cleavages in Northern Irish politics, leaders had plenty of motivation to exploit the country’s binaries for short-term political gain. Since “success in building up strength of force on one side or the other is rewarded at the institutional level” (Hayward 2014, 16), leaders can gain simply by exacerbating the divide between their side and the other. In other words, since leaders have no true incentive to practice true deliberative democracy, the project of cross-community collaboration is foisted entirely on citizens by elites, who instead prefer crafting mutually beneficial power-sharing schemes to compromising on single issues. Among other problems, this arrangement simply isn’t durable. When an entire government is run by two distant though relatively equal factions, the balance is bound to tip one way or another eventually. And, in the meantime, intense period of polarization serve as catalysts for declines in institutional credibility, voter participation, and open dialogue.

That isn’t to say that leaders haven’t faced the opportunity to move from the binary-exploitation method to consensus-building. In 2013, even the vote itself to create the “Northern Ireland Civic Forum,” which would have offered chances for crossing-the-aisle compromise, was split perfectly down unionist/nationalist lines (Hayward 2014, 26) — an ironic though depressing referendum on the prospect of progress toward deliberative democracy in Northern Ireland.

This tenuous form of governance has had two frightening effects on citizens’ relationship with their government. The first is voter apathy; put simply, voters have less incentive to participate in their democracy when the very functions of a healthy democracy — debate, compromise, transparency on the part of elites — are nonexistent. The second effect is extremism, a natural consequence of two clear-cut sides, which only contributes to pulling the unionist and nationalist sides further apart (Hayward 2014, 12). Both of these factors evince gradual though unabashed backsliding in Northern Ireland’s democracy.

The extensive challenges to democracy in Northern Ireland go on. After 2014’s Stormont House talks, which did end with some areas of agreement between nationalist and unionist sides, slow but steady steps toward a more deliberate democracy were promptly ended with the Brexit vote, underscoring the immense difficulty in pulling a democracy back from backsliding in a relatively tumultuous broader political context. Gang violence has increased in the past two years, now at the point where paramilitarism poses a legitimate threat to Northern Ireland’s government and thus may undermine the credibility of its precious but flailing democracy. Recent polling of Northern Irish citizens shows that a majority considers its government to have “achieved little or nothing, while failing to provide a say for ordinary citizens,” underscoring two symptoms of democratic backsliding: lack of efficiency and lack of transparency (Wilson 2016, 11-13).

Perhaps that will change. The demographics of Northern Ireland are rapidly shifting: The proportion of Protestants is eroding, and “rising immigration from other parts of the world … will contribute to the formation of a ‘middle block’ of unpredictable political orientation” (Coakley 2008, 109). It is, to be fair, possible that changes in the makeup of Northern Ireland’s population will force binaries to break, introduce new voices to government (despite the presently high barrier to entry, courtesy of Northern Ireland’s elite class), and lead to a new era of vibrant democracy in Northern Ireland.

More likely, however, is that the trend will go the other way; democracy will continue to backslide. Post-Brexit, scholars fear that the Irish border will once again spur renewed tension between Northern and Southern Ireland, a reality that will “increase vulnerability of settlement in Northern Ireland to external events and shocks” and distract from intra-Northern Ireland consensus building, a key method of reversing democratic erosion (Todd 2015, 7). Meanwhile, as the ethnic makeup of Northern Ireland continues to shift, “attitudes against minority ethnic communities are hardening” (Wilson 2016, 5), which will serve to stratify Northern Irish citizens and potentially marginalize a growing proportion of the population from participating in their government.  

Finally, the most important question with respect to the future of Northern Ireland’s democracy — when its consociational, binary-based government will allow for opposition and compromise — remains unresolved. Today, three parties, the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP, and Alliance, together represent a coalition that could potentially challenge the broader nationalist and unionist sides in elections, a glimmer of hope in an otherwise stagnant political scene (Wilson 2016, 11-13). But in a country where binaries continue to define politics, the chances of that sort of reform coming to fruition are, frankly, slim.

Path dependency implies that history — even recent history — matters. The modern history of Northern Ireland, shaped primarily by a durable, almost impossibly polarized ideological binary, not only shaped the context for democratic backsliding at both the citizen and institutional levels, but exacerbates how fundamentally difficult it will be for the country to correct its course. And while some signs point toward a brighter future, the new uncertainty introduced by Brexit, demographic changes, and potential new political parties render Northern Ireland’s democracy nothing more than a work in progress.



Coakley, John. 2008. “Has the Northern Ireland Problem Been Solved?” Journal of Democracy (John Hopkins University Press) 98-112.

Hayward, Katy. 2014. “Deliberative Democracy in Northern Ireland: Opportunities and Challenges for Consensus in a Consociational System.” In Democratic Deliberation in Deeply Divided Societies, 11-34. Macmillan Publishers Limited.

Todd, Jennifer. 2015. “The Vulnerability of the Northern Ireland Settlement: British Irish Relations, Political Crisis and Brexit.” Etudes irlandaises 61-73.

Wilson, Robin. 2016. Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report. Community Relations Council.

(Photo by Jon Sullivan/Pixnio, Creative Commons Zero license.)

1 Comment

  1. Wyeth Taylor

    April 29, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    I agree with almost everything you stated in this blog post, and found it to be very well-written, and a clear explanation of a complex issue. I found your analysis to be particularly interesting because I studied abroad in Ireland this past fall, and had the opportunity to not only take several classes on the history of the conflict between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland but to visit Belfast as well. You did a great job of overviewing the basis of the conflict, and unfortunately I agree with may of your predictions about the trajectory of Northern Ireland’s future as well. The Brexit decision will undoubtedly have many implications for Northern Ireland, one of the most notable being the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and there is really no simple solution to that problem. When I traveled to Northern Ireland we were able to drive right over the border without being stopped or showing passports, and it hardly felt as though we were crossing over into an entirely different country. Although tensions in Northern Ireland are nowhere near where they used to be, the “peace walls” and murals are a lasting testament to the conflict the Brexit complications will likely reignite to some degree. As you mention in your post, the changing demographics in Northern Ireland may impact the decision somewhat, but is unlikely to have much of an impact on future peace. However, along with creating further friction Brexit could also give Northern Ireland an opportunity or reason to attempt either independence or to reunite with the Republic of Ireland rather to remain in its current state of limbo.

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