Unity in times of crisis? How power sharing societies respond to Covid-19

by Henry Jarrett, University of Exeter

Parliament Buildings, or ‘Stormont’; the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

On 20 March 2020, Northern Ireland First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, stated that tackling the Covid-19 pandemic is not an ‘orange or green issue’ and that the Executive is united in its approach to the outbreak . For many this comes as a welcome deviation from the traditional divisions of unionism and nationalism that have dictated politics in Northern Ireland since its establishment in 1921.

Unity at times of crisis in divided societies is not, however, a new phenomenon. As part of the Indian independence movement of the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, for example, members of many different religious and ethnic communities united to achieve an end to British colonial rule. Similarly, during the Arab Spring protests of the early 2010s, people of different groups and with often opposing positions came together to bring about regime change in several states in the Middle East and North Africa. In both of these cases, however, this consensus largely dissipated once the objective had been realised. So, can it be argued that crises can achieve unity in societies where power is shared between groups? And is Covid-19 such a crisis? 

Power sharing governments often struggle to be formed and are generally limited in their ability to effectively agree upon policy. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, just 30% of legislation proposed between 2006 and 2010 was signed into law, while the Northern Ireland Assembly has only recently emerged from a three-year suspension largely caused by ethno-national disagreement. Perhaps more than any other issue in living memory, the Covid-19 pandemic requires a fast response that can only be achieved through unity in power sharing societies and attention will now turn to analyse if this is being realised. 

Despite Foster’s call for Northern Ireland’s response to the pandemic not to be dictated by unionist and nationalist division, when schools in the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) remained open, Michelle O’Neill — Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein leader in the region — broke ranks with the Executive and argued that they should immediately be closed . While this was ostensibly a policy standpoint, many were quick to highlight that its implementation would bring Northern Ireland in line with the Republic of Ireland, where schools had already closed, and O’Neill herself stated that ‘we live on one island, we need one approach to this situation. We need to work together and be aligned’. 

Although there are likely to be genuine health concern driven reasons for O’Neill to promote this policy (which was indeed implemented in the UK soon after), it is also possible that she is using the pandemic as a vehicle from which to continue to promote the Sinn Fein objective of Northern Ireland’s increased alignment with the Republic of Ireland and eventual Irish unity. This example is evidence to suggest that the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is not at present bringing about a bona fide united response from the unionist and nationalist power sharing government in Northern Ireland. 

Power sharing governments are limited not only in their ability to provide a unified response to crises but also in their ability to respond swiftly enough. This is evident in the case of Malaysia — divided between the ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian communities — which has been criticised for its slow response to the outbreak. Writing in Foreign Policy, Varagur argues that the political crisis caused by Mahathir Mohamad’s decision on 24th March to resign as prime minister delayed the country’s response to Covid-19 until after a new power sharing executive had been established . Although such delays are common in power sharing societies due to the fragmented nature of politics, they are particularly problematic within the context of a fast-moving pandemic. 

Lebanon faces similar obstacles. Since October 2019 the state has experienced widespread protests due to high unemployment, economic stagnation and corruption attributed to the ineffectiveness of its sectarian political system. Like in Malaysia, the Lebanese government has been criticised for its response to the outbreak, which is argued to be the result of claims that the country is unable to afford a shutdown similar to those implemented in many European states at a time of economic strife . The examples of Malaysia and Lebanon show that power sharing politics is often marred by political infighting and public protests that impact upon the ability of governments to effectively respond to crises, and the Covid-19 pandemic is no different. 

Covid-19 represents one of the greatest challenges for generations for governments of many states worldwide. It is, however, important to recognise that not all are able — or indeed willing — to respond equally. In many societies with power sharing we have until now witnessed  executives being unable to agree upon a unified approach or being limited in their response by factors related to the nature of sectarian politics. With the pandemic ongoing and showing few signs of abating at present, it remains to be seen if political actors in these societies can see the bigger picture of crisis management.