From The Socialist, No. 26, July 2007.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.
The idea that power sharing, as now exists at Stormont, will end the conflict and lay the national question once and for all at rest, is not borne out by international experience.
What is now happening in Gaza and the West Bank is bit one of many examples of agreements reached between political and militia leaders that have very quickly unravelled.
A year and a half ago, Hamas scored a narrow victory over its Fatah rival in the Palestinian Authority elections. Clashes broke out and civil war seemed on the cards. The Hamas and Fatah leadership, tried to avert this by setting up a “Government of National Unity” with a Fatah President and a Hamas Prime Minister.
But, while the Hamas and Fatah leaders shared power, the conflict on the ground between rival militias and sections of the security apparatus linked to each group continued. More than 620 people died in these clashes.
Now the conflict has gone a stage further with Hamas able to exploit divisions among Fatah and seize control of Gaza. The Palestinian Authority has now effectively dissolved into two separate entities. Gaza run by Hamas and the West Bank run by Fatah and with a new, more openly pro-western government appointed by Fatah President, Abbas.
Palestine is not the only case of leaders of political parties/militias who sit together in government while the forces broadly under their control carry on the conflict. Basically this is what is happening in Iraq, where the supposedly “national” government made up mainly of Shia and Kurdish groups, but with some Sunni participation, is suspended in mid-air while rival militias, including those linked to the parties in government carry on with, not one, but a while number of bloody inter-ethnic conflicts.
The Rwandan civil war and genocide of 1994 that left 800,000 dead was preceded by a deal between the Hutu dominated government and the Tutsi based Rwandan Patriotic Front on power sharing.
In the case of Cyprus the withdrawal of the British and the gaining of independence in 1960 was followed by several uneasy power sharing deals between Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders. This all collapsed when, in 1974, an attempted coup orchestrated by the military junta then in power in Athens provoked civil war, Turkish invasion and the partition of the island.
Power sharing is not a step to the elimination of divisions along ethnic/religious/national lines. Rather it is an accommodation between the forces that are the architects and expressions of these divisions as to how they can carve things up between them.
In some cases, as in Palestine, they can sit together in Cabinet while the forces they control continue to aggressively flex their military muscles on the ground. Or, where for example, a conflict has reached a situation of temporary stalemate, representatives of contending groups can share power relatively peacefully for a period.
The common factor is that in all cases power sharing is a recipe for maintaining division, not for achieving “reconciliation” or for bringing divided communities together. Whether it quickly flies apart or whether it can be maintained in a relatively stable form for a time will be determined by the intensity of the conflict on the ground, and not fundamentally by whatever political pirouettes are performed by those who take their seats in government.
Even if power sharing arrangements survive for a lengthy period, this does not necessarily indicate any resolution. The Lebanon, through its troubled history, has had a number of power sharing administrations. The longest lasting and, in its first period, the most “stable” followed the National Pact of 1943.
This was an agreement between the largest Christian and Muslim groups which set a fixed ratio of seats in the parliament and guaranteed that the President would be a Christian and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim. It was later added that the post of Speaker of the Parliament would go to a Shia.
Demographic changes, particularly the numerical growth of the Shia, the most oppressed of the main religious groups, eventually eroded the basis of this accord. The influx of Palestinian refugees and their armed presence in the refugee camps was a further destabilising factor. Eventually in 1975 it all came to pieces in the civil war that lasted for 15 years.
During the 1990s a new power sharing administration was set up but, in reality, it was not the authority of this government, but the presence of Syrian troops, that held the county together, Now, with the Syrian troops withdrawn, and the growing power of the mainly Shia based Hezbollah, there is a question over how long the current uneasy “peace” will last.
Northern Ireland’s politicians defend themselves from the accusation that the current power sharing arrangements only institutionalize sectarianism and thereby perpetuate the conflict in some form, by saying that these are temporary measures which should give way to “normal” politics “as soon as possible”. The politicians who drew up the 1943 Lebanon pact likewise declared it to be a temporary arrangement.
Power sharing between right wing sectarian politicians is not a solution; nor is it a step to a solution. A socialist approach would guarantee the rights of all minorities, but would be based on the unity of the working class and all the oppressed in a common struggle for a society in which both poverty and discrimination, whether on grounds of race, nationality, religion, culture or sexual orientation, become things of the past.
Last updated: 23.11.2013