OpEd

Northern Ireland explained: Lessons for Kosovo

The example of Northern Ireland is interesting, but there are big differences with Kosovo in terms of the internal and external context. Kosovo has something to learn from other cases and to think that the case of Northern Ireland can give Kosovo valuable lessons about what should be done and what should not be done. In this sense, the international community is trying to pacify the Western Balkans through a comprehensive agreement with Serbia, which refuses to recognize Kosovo. In this sense, the party that needs to be pacified is Serbia, which continues to claim that Kosovo is its territory and openly says that it is preparing for a new war

Prime Minister Kurti's untimely visit to Northern Ireland is related to the subsequent statements of the Great Britain's special envoy for Kosovo, Stewart Peach, and the British ambassador in Belgrade, Edward Ferguson, with which the agreement for Northern Ireland, otherwise known as like the Good Friday Agreement, was promoted as an example of how difficult situations can be resolved and how Kosovo and Serbia should take an example from that agreement. 

It is not known what the specific purpose of Prime Minister Kurti's visit to Northern Ireland was - was it a visit to get to know the Northern Irish model or something else. However, it seems that this example has moved Great Britain as an allied state to seek creative solutions between Kosovo and Serbia that would pacify the Western Balkans. 

Although the Good Friday Agreement has managed to end the decades-long violent conflict between pro-British Protestants and pro-Irish Catholics, it should not fascinate Prime Minister Kurti or the opposition, because it has major flaws that have been thoroughly analyzed, perhaps more thoroughly than any another case, in studies on divided societies. Also, there are big differences between Kosovo and Northern Ireland, both in the internal and external context. 

The first difference between Northern Ireland and Kosovo is the political, demographic and regional context. The demography of Northern Ireland and the political orientation of its demographic segments differs radically from that of Kosovo. According to the last census of 2021, in Northern Ireland there are 46% Catholics, most of whom are in favor of the union of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, while 43% are Protestants or of some other Christian religion, which are mainly for that Northern Ireland remains part of Great Britain. In this way, for the first time, Catholics turned out to be more numerous than Protestants, although they still do not make up the majority of the population of Northern Ireland. It is worth noting that, according to the Good Friday Agreement, the final status of Northern Ireland, i.e. whether it will remain part of Great Britain or join the Republic of Ireland, is expected to be decided by referendum. 

The regional context between Northern Ireland and Kosovo also differs greatly: while Northern Ireland's first neighbors and guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement are two liberal democracies (Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland), the first neighbor with which Kosovo must to reach agreement is an autocratic regime with a fresh past of war of aggression and genocide which it continues to deny.

It is also worth noting that the Northern Ireland model is implemented with great difficulty, despite the more positive context in which Northern Ireland is compared to Kosovo. Due to problems in the functioning of the institutions and in the implementation of the co-government agreement, since its establishment in 1998, the Assembly of Northern Ireland has been suspended eight times, or 40% of the time of its operation. The last time the Northern Ireland Government and Assembly was suspended was in January 2017 and was reinstated in January 2020 after a suspension period of 1.097 days.

In the sense of the institutional arrangement, Kosovo and Northern Ireland have in common their arrangement of consociational co-governance which consists of four main pillars:

Electoral system: While Kosovo has a proportional system with open lists and twenty guaranteed mandates for non-majority communities, Ireland has a proportional system of a different type. This system is called Single Transferable Vote or Single Transferable Vote (STV), in which voters, divided into many constituencies, can vote for more than one candidate who may come from different political parties. As the Northern Irish segments are approximate in size, there are no guaranteed or reserved seats for any community. Since 2017, the number of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly has fallen from 108 to 90. The Irish model of elections could perhaps be attractive to Kosovo because it could help people vote for candidates and parties that are not belong to their ethnic community making the first, second, and so on choices. In Kosovo, this could help in the modernization of political forces, even though in Ireland the ethno-nationalist parties have the main power, while the civic-oriented parties do not enjoy such great support from the voters. However, it is worth trying the electoral model of Northern Ireland, which is characteristic of countries with a British heritage, also in Kosovo. It is a bit more complicated in terms of administration, but it is a proportional electoral system and Kosovo already has 24 years of experience with free elections and the capacities to administer the STV electoral system could be easily built.

Executive co-government: In Northern Ireland, the governing cabinet is formed according to the proportional model. The party with the most seats takes the position of prime minister, the second the position of deputy prime minister, and in this way the ministerial positions (12 sosh) are divided according to the D'Hondt proportional formula. The problem in Northern Ireland is that in the executive cabinet, which is dominated by the main Protestant and the main Catholic parties, there is a veto. The Deputy Prime Minister, who is equal to the Prime Minister, can use the veto on executive decisions, and this is not suitable for Kosovo, where executive decisions are made by majority vote. Also, the shortcoming of the Northern Ireland model is that the opposition is limited to Catholics and Protestants, and since the main Catholic and Protestant parties participate in the executive, the assembly is left without serious opposition. In Kosovo, with an overwhelming Albanian majority and more political parties, the opposition is not necessarily ethnic, so the Irish-North model of executive co-governance is not appropriate.

The right of veto: Even in Kosovo, as well as in Northern Ireland, there is the right of veto, even though in Kosovo the right of veto is held by non-majority communities, while in Northern Ireland, the right of veto is held by all. While in Kosovo the right to veto parliamentary decisions is defined as requiring a double majority of 50% for laws affecting the vital interests of non-majority communities and a double majority of two-thirds for any constitutional change, in Northern Ireland there are three types of parliamentary veto. 

The first is the Petition of Concern, which can be applied by 30 deputies and which has the effect of not making a decision. Petition of Concern can be applied for any issue and has been applied 158 times between 1998-2016 for issues such as marriage equality, welfare reform or the question of investigating ministers, which had nothing to do with vital interests. This has had a stifling effect on the Northern Ireland Assembly and its use has been so frequent and frustrating that one political commentator has called it "the dirtiest word in politics". 

The other two types of veto are Parallel Consent and Weighted Majorities, which are required for all decisions of the Northern Ireland assembly. This model is not suitable for Kosovo, but it has also frustrated Northern Ireland and all stakeholders, including Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. In Kosovo, as an exchange for the establishment of the Association of Serb-majority municipalities, it should be required that the right of veto of non-majority communities be reduced to 40% for laws of vital interest and removed completely for constitutional changes, or at least that the requirement for a double two-thirds majority is reduced to 40%.

The last is autonomy. Neither Kosovo nor Northern Ireland have provisions for territorial autonomy, but both grant functional autonomy to their communities. In Kosovo, for the Serbs, this autonomy is regulated through increased powers for municipalities with a Serbian majority and with the acceptance that the education system for the Serb community is linked to the education system in Serbia, as well as accepting the financing of certain institutions directly from the Serbian state. While there is still no statute of the Association of Serb-majority municipalities, it cannot be said what effect it will have on the exercise of the increased powers of Serb-majority municipalities.

In conclusion, the example of Northern Ireland is interesting, but there are big differences with Kosovo in terms of the internal and external context. Kosovo has something to learn from other cases and to think that the case of Northern Ireland can give Kosovo valuable lessons about what should be done and what should not be done. In this sense, the international community is trying to pacify the Western Balkans through a comprehensive agreement with Serbia, which refuses to recognize Kosovo. In this sense, the party that needs to be pacified is Serbia, which continues to claim that Kosovo is its territory and openly says that it is preparing for a new war. In this sense, the international community must make it clear to Serbia that a new war will not be tolerated. The first short-term step in the pacification of relations between Kosovo and Serbia is the recognition by the five non-recognizing countries of the European Union, while in the medium term it is the acceptance of Kosovo as a member with full rights in NATO, an act through which it would be decided the security dilemma in the Western Balkans.