The 1998 Agreement was fundamentally about power-sharing.
It was agreed that, in a society fundamentally divided along sectarian lines, a huge minority of the population could not be left permanently locked out of power.
It is not totally unreasonable for Labour or the Conservatives to govern entirely with 40% of the popular vote because the division between them is not rigid; sometimes people will switch in bigger numbers to one than the other; we know therefore that, over time, Labour and the Conservatives will share power – nationally and locally. Because of the swing, neither is locked out of power permanently. Overall, over time, at national level, they share the vote and share the power.
This is not the case in Northern Ireland. There is a broad trend from Unionist to Nationalist, but that trend is unchanging. It is tied to the broad trend from Protestant to Catholic. To hand one side or other absolute power on the basis even of 60% of the popular vote would be to lock the other side out permanently. 60% of the vote would deliver 100% of the power – all the time. That leaves the 40% with no democratic options – an obvious outrage.
In short, look up the meaning of the word “democracy” and you will find zero mention of the word “majority”. On the contrary, democracy is about giving voice to all the people.
All of that is why power-sharing has been advocated by anyone with any sense since the early 1970s. The reality of a 60/40 (now actually more like a 48/42) share of the vote is converted into a 60/40 share of the power, meaning that democratic options exist for the entire population. There is absolutely no prospect of power-sharing at Stormont ever ending.
Why, therefore, is it not applied in local councils?
Challenged on this, even educated Unionists all too often revert to the argument of the tyranny of the majority. “We’re the majority in Lisburn and Castlereagh, therefore we get to run them”. This is a democratic outrage. Minority interests – holding up to a third of the overall vote – are thus permanently locked out of power not just two thirds of the time, but all the time. This is what happened in Northern Ireland as a whole from 1921 to 1968, and we all know what followed. The solution was power-sharing in Northern Ireland – just as it should be in Lisburn and Castlereagh.
Of course, not for the first time Unionists are not just being immoral and undemocratic, they are also being plain stupid. An event last week analysing census trends noted that Northern Ireland will have a Catholic majority by 2027. Will Unionists be shouting for absolute majority rule then? You bet they won’t. So why are they now?