Published date01 March 2015
Date01 March 2015
doi: 10.1111/padm.12111
This article considers non-legislative committee scrutiny at the Northern Ireland Assembly. The
core question is: How is such committee scrutiny diminished through the consociational/power-
sharing context? The question is assessed in terms of three phases – selection, obtaining evidence,
and evaluative – and through eight specic claims. Consideration is also given to the context of the
absence of a formal opposition, ways in which politicians can circumvent consociational constraints,
and connections to the current reform agenda at the Assembly. Overall, the study identies signif-
icant support for the claims in terms of practice at the Assembly and suggests that these ndings
offer opportunities for other scholars to develop further the literature on consociational governance.
There is also a clear association with wider issues of the balance of power between legislatures and
executives more generally.
There is substantive scholarship surrounding power-sharing consociational forms of gov-
ernment (Lijphart 1977; Horowitz 1985; Norris 2008), including discussion about conso-
ciational arrangements in Northern Ireland (McGarry and O’Leary 2004; Coakley 2009).
There is also a large academic literature about governmental scrutiny through legislatures
(Hazan 2001; Rahman 2008; McKay and Johnson 2010). However, despite scholarly recog-
nition that consociational systems can weaken legislatures (Horowitz 2000; Andeweg et al.
2008; Salamey and Payne 2008), academics have neglected the impact on one crucial mech-
anism – the legislature’s committees.
Here, this deciency is addressed through analysis of the impact (diminutive effect) of
consociational arrangements on the capacity of departmental committees in the Northern
Ireland Assembly (NIA) to scrutinize the powerful, primarily the government. Central
is the impact of consociationalism on core elements of committee scrutiny, specically
through three phases: an initial selection period; acquisition of relevant information; and
core evaluative processes.
The central research question is, therefore: How do consociational arrangements oper-
ate to weaken committee scrutiny? Here, the Northern Ireland case study is used to test a
series of claims about consociational impact derived from interpretations of the academic
literature on parliamentary/assembly committees and consociational theory. Specically,
these claims draw on ndings that consociational effects operate on committee scrutiny
in terms of two overarching mechanisms: rst, through negating capacity to reach agree-
ments and engage in evidence-centric processes, phenomena that arise directly from the
deep social and communitarian divisions; and second, as a consequence of a weakening
of the legislature, in comparison with the executive, that has been recurrently observed by
scholars of consociationalism (Horowitz 2000; Salamey and Payne 2008).
I draw on the extensive literature to generate a potential starting point on themes appli-
cable internationally concerning similarly deeply divided societies. This generates a poten-
tial starting point from which to develop comparative scholarship about parliaments and
assemblies and consociationalism, thus contributing to debates surrounding the merits of
Michael Cole is in the Management School, University of Liverpool, UK.
Public Administration Vol.93, No. 1, 2015 (121–138)
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
consociational solutions. Furthermore, in studying relationships between Assembly com-
mittees and the Executive, the study also offers a contribution to the much wider academic
debate about the balance of power between legislatures and executives more generally (see
Lijphart 1984; Flinders 2010).
This article is divided into seven main elements. First, consociationalism is discussed
and placed within the context of legislatures. Second, consociational committee scrutiny
is addressed and eight distinctive claims are specied. Third, the Northern Ireland context
is outlined and the relevance of consociationalism to its governance highlighted. Fourth,
methods, specically the use of interview and secondary data, are outlined. Fifth, evidence
about the operation of the NIA’s committees is discussed. Sixth, these ndings are related
to the claims and wider themes of consociationalism, particularly the status of opposi-
tions; the implications for reform agendas; and the capacity of politicians to circumvent
consociational limitations. Finally, conclusions are drawn and a wider research agenda
Consociational democracy concerns the government of deeply divided societies. It has
been dened through four characteristics: executive power-sharing through a coalition
comprising politicians from the key interest groups; commitment to proportionality con-
cerning representation of the main groups and distributive policies; mutual vetos over
decision-making; and a degree of segmental autonomy (Lijphart 1977).
Since the publication of Democracy in Plural Societies (Lijphart 1977) a shift has occurred
from describing to prescribing consociational democracy. It has been suggested that
consociationalism was more effective than majoritarian democracy or integrationist
strategies in stabilizing deeply divided societies (Lijphart 1977). Consociationalism has,
however, attracted academic criticism; for example, through obstructing the evolution of
political parties not tied to the sectarian chasm and, therefore, in terms of the acceptance
of ‘intractable and persistent’ (Norris 2008, p. 28) community divisions.
Scholars have made clear connections between consociationalism and legislatures.
First, studies have identied the coexistence of conciliatory approaches towards sectar-
ian accommodation with the persistence of intensive sectarian identities and agendas
reective of those deep societal divisions (Salamey and Payne 2008). This juxtaposition
encouraged the evolution of a polity in which government through recurrent cross-party
agreements coexisted with continuing confrontational political cultures driven through
persistent and intensive sectarianism (Dierickx 1978).
Second, scholars such as Salamey and Payne (2008) argued that such power-sharing
promotes strong executives and weak legislatures. The core theme is that requirementsto
secure cross-community agreements are associated with reduced parliamentary scrutiny
of, and or independence from, the executive. The central thrust of institutions is to agree
agendas and policies amongst elites rather than subject such compromises to parliamen-
tary challenges that might unravel them. Consociationalism thus intensies signicantly
the trend of broad executive control over policy-making and the legislative process
observed more widely (Norton 1981; Flinders 2010).
Third, consociationalism has been associated with diminished executive solidarity
through which ‘ministers may question and criticize each other or vote against motions
presented by a fellow member of the executive’ (Dacks 1986, p. 351). Fourth, scholars such
as Horowitz (2000, p. 256) have linked consociationalism with non-existent oppositions
Public Administration Vol.93, No. 1, 2015 (121–138)
© 2014 John Wiley& Sons Ltd.

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