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The European Union and Beyond

From Peace to Polarisation? The Fate of Power Sharing in Northern Ireland

Conflict Resolution
Matthew Whiting
University of Birmingham
Matthew Whiting
University of Birmingham

Twenty years after the Belfast Agreement, the conflict may be over but Northern Irish politics remains deeply divided. Indeed, it is commonly accepted that Northern Ireland is more polarised today than at any other time since the peace process was completed. There has been a series of repeated crises over identity politics, the legacy of the conflict, and even welfare politics, and the Northern Irish Assembly is currently non-functioning due to inter-party divisions. This fate of power-sharing in Northern Ireland has important implications for two important wider debates. Firstly, it can inform debates over whether power sharing is a valuable tool to end entrenched conflict or whether it merely manages conflict whilst incentivising elites to engage in polarisation, outbidding and the pursuit of destabilising identity politics. Secondly, Sinn Féin in power can inform wider debates about whether of rebels-turned-politicians can provide good governance once they come to power or if their institutional legacy as rebels hinders this. Despite the commonly accepted claim that Northern Ireland is deeply polarised today, there is actually very little quantitative evidence to examine the extent and degree of polarisation over time. Therefore, this paper examines a range of quantitative measures of different aspects of elite and mass polarisation in Northern Ireland from 1998 until the present day. It draws on elected officials’ voting patterns in the Assembly, manifesto coding, wordscores analysis of party leaders’ speeches, and latent measures of mass polarisation based on responses to the Northern Irish Life and Times Survey and other opinion poll data. Using this data, this paper quantifies rates of polarisation over time to track when Northern Ireland has been less or more polarised, at what level (elite or mass), and the relationship between elite and mass polarisation. In addition, it disaggregates polarisation to see what type of issues dominate politics in a post-conflict and power-sharing setting (constitutional, economic, welfare, etc) and how rates of polarisation vary according to issue-area. Ultimately, this quantification will be used to identify the factors that drive polarisation in Northern Ireland and to examine any possible role of former rebels and power-sharing institutional designs in contributing to this.
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