Northern Ireland, the Belfast Agreement, and the British Constitution
43 Pages Posted: 26 Jul 2004
Two approaches tend to dominate constitutionalism: A pragmatic empiricist approach, which is traditionally British, and a more ideological constitutional approach, more prevalent, for example, in the United States and Canada. The twentieth-century history of Northern Ireland demonstrates that the pragmatic approach, the then dominant Westminster model of British political and constitutional practice, was not a successful transplant in Northern Ireland between the 1920s and the 1960s. A tradition based on pragmatic empiricism was unable to cope with a major challenge to the legitimacy of government and the state. Since the early 1970s an approach based more on constructing a more explicitly ideological constitutionalism has been adopted in relation to Northern Ireland, concentrating on the development of explicitly normative principles and the construction of institutional arrangements designed to mesh these with local needs. To some extent British constitutional thought may also be in the process of modifying its pragmatism more generally and moving more towards a more defined and ideological constitutionalism. This development is still somewhat nascent in Britain, and ideological constitutionalism in the United Kingdom is, thus far, most clearly reflected in the Belfast Agreement between the British and Irish governments and most of the main political parties in Northern Ireland. Within the more consciously ideological approach to constitutionalism, there are several differing and competing approaches. It appears that even though both the Northern Ireland and British approaches to constitutional issues may be converging in adopting a more consciously ideological approach to constitutionalism, at the same time they may be diverging as to which ideology to adopt. On the spectrum between more communitarian and more individualist ideological approaches, Northern Ireland is located, perhaps, more towards the former than is Britain. Experience in Northern Ireland therefore raises many issues that go to the heart of the British constitutional tradition, both as it was and as it might become.
Keywords: Northern Ireland, constitutionalism, ethnic conflict, United Kingdom, Belfast Agreement, consociational democracy
JEL Classification: K10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation