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NORTHERN IRELAND: Coalition by Compromise

3 minute read

Ireland has traditionally been the graveyard of British political reputations. During his nearly two years as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw has occasionally sounded as if he too were headed for an early political demise. But last week Whitelaw ebulliently returned to Westminster with a diplomatic triumph. Five months after the election of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, Whitelaw had fashioned a delicate agreement that promised to end 50 years of Protestant domination in the torn province and, for the first time, give the Catholic minority a genuine share in its government.

The bluff and amiable Whitelaw, 55, had closeted himself at Stormont Castle for the past six weeks for long sessions with party leaders, drawing on the considerable store of personal good will he has earned in Ulster in order to achieve an understanding. The agreement was finally sealed in a late evening bargaining session, though in usual Ulster fashion the pact momentarily tottered at the brink of angry dissolution.

The problem: how to fairly divide the executive spoils between the three moderate parties that together control the Assembly majority—former Prime Minister Brian Faulkner’s Protestant Unionists, the Catholic-oriented Social Democratic and Labor Party and the nonsectarian Alliance Party.

Novel Sight. In the end, the dilemma was resolved by an ingenious arithmetical solution. Instead of the twelve-member executive council that Whitelaw had originally envisioned, he and the party leaders settled for an eleven-member coalition Cabinet. It will be headed by Protestant Faulkner as Chief Executive, and include five other Unionists, who will be responsible for finance, commerce, the environment, agriculture and information. The S.D.L.P. emerged with their leader, Gerry Fitt, as Deputy Chief Executive, and three other key portfolios. The eleventh Cabinet member will be Alliance Leader Oliver Napier.

In order to make the 6-4-1 Cabinet split in the Unionists’ favor more palatable to the S.D.L.P., Whitelaw and the political leaders agreed to add four non-voting members, in effect junior ministers. Two of these additional posts went to the S.D.L.P., and one each to the Unionists and Alliance. The result was a 15-member administration in which the majority Unionists would be outnumbered by a coalition of the S.D.L.P and Alliance members. Thus, both sides could in effect say that they had won.

The question now is whether the new executive body can keep up the spirit of compromise. Extremists on both sides predictably scorned the agreement. The Rev. Ian Paisley, a leader of the Protestant Loyalists, called it a “sellout.”

Nonetheless, there was the novel sight of those archfoes, Brian Faulkner and Gerry Fitt, defending each other —as well as themselves—on television. Said Faulkner with a flourish: “In the last six weeks I have seen more constructive debate around that conference table than I have seen in 25 years in politics. Gerry Fitt and I will both work as a strong team, both determined to see that the executive works.” Therein lies Ulster’s best chance to stop the bloodshed between warring Protestants and Catholics.

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