Violent Conflict and Societies in Transition – QUB Politics Conference

Running back and forth from my office and Queen’s University, I did my best to attend the International Politics and Ethnic Conflict (IPEC) cluster’s annual graduate student conference at the School of Politics, International Studies & Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast. This conference was organised by lecturer, Neophytos Loizides, and included keynote speakers, Professor Tom Lodge (University of Limerick) and Dr Florian Bieber (Kent University).

In the end, I only managed to attend one of the graduate school panels and one of the keynote speeches. I thoroughly enjoyed these sessions.

Dr Bieber chaired a graduate student panel on “Democracy and power sharing in the Middle East”, with presentations by Katie Taylor and Andrew Mickhael.

Katie’s presentation was “Israel’s democratic credentials and the contradictory location of its Arab minority”. In my view, there is no denying the specific criticisms she highlighted, as part of Israel’s form of government being less than a liberal democracy. Yet I was more intrigued about how its demos hasn’t had a debate about what it means to be an Israeli citizen. For example, it is not allowed for a resident/citizen to describe him/herself as “Israeli”; you have to provide an ethno-religious category.

I suggested to Katie that her observations in this regard lend themselves to examining theories of citizenship; I was less convinced of criticisms of liberal democracy, as many acknowledged liberal democracies can fall short of the ideal, particularly when they operate under threat of survival.

Drew’s presentation was “Consociationalism as a mode of control: Excluding the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon”. His remark that the academic debate on consociationalism has been civil and at times uncivil was met with good humour. It made me think of a heated debate between Professor Adrian Guelke and John McGarry at a previous academic conference I attended.

Drew argued that the only substantive matter that united the Lebanese was the need to exclude the Palestinians in its state. That its rigid consociational structures persist as a “shared vision of catastrophe” (quoting Brendan O’Leary?). This made me think of the current situation in Belgium, where one man on the street suggested that their politicians can only operate in a constant mode of crisis.

As Palestinians in Lebanon, of c. 400,000, constitutes c. 10% of the overall population, its full enfranchisement and inclusion would upset the constitutional framework. Thinking of Northern Ireland’s d’Hondt mechanism for forming its Executive, for example, this would entitle a successful Palestinian-based political party to a ministerial seat. This is too much for the status quo, and partly explains the persistent adherence to the current system (and lack of a popular census in over 70 years).

Florian Bieber (Kent University) presented a keynote lecture, “Making consociationalism work? The failure of constitutional reform in Bosnia”. A major thesis was that contemporary consociationalism has been introduced by external actors, less the result of internal negotiations. He made many convincing arguments for this in his presentation.

Several afterwards remarked on a seemingly common comparison with Northern Ireland. But Bieber was right to point out a substantial difference. Whereas both political communities in Northern Ireland, Unionists and Nationalists, had alternative models of governance available to them if political negotiations failed (some form of co-authority sufficient enough to encourage Unionists to keep negotiating), in Bosnia the option of consociationalism was the only viable option; while Serbia may be pleased to absorb co-nationalists in Bosnia, external actors will do everything than can to prevent this.

Bieber concludes that what is required is an updating of Arend Lijphart’s original consociational theory, to incorporate the role of external actors.

Neophytos deserves congratulations for organising such a thoughtful and relevant conference event.

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