Within government, power‐sharing refers to a coalition of two or more political parties which form the Executive. Such coalitions may be the outcome of either pre‐ or post‐election bargaining between or among political parties. In deeply divided societies, such as Northern Ireland, power‐sharing is associated with the model of consociational democracy. Consociationalism is theoretically suited to deeply divided societies where majoritarianism, or single party government, is deemed—or has been demonstrated—to be unworkable. Such has been the case in Northern Ireland since the introduction of direct rule in 1972.
Power‐sharing between or among rival ethnic blocs is an integral characteristic of consociational democracy. It refers to the inclusion in government of political leaders and parties that represent the divided communities—in the case of Northern Ireland, of nationalist and unionist parties. Since 1972, power‐sharing has been a consistent feature of successive attempts by UK governments to restore devolved government to Northern Ireland. Following the 1998 Belfast Agreement, it led to a four‐party Executive Committee, comprising the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, and Sinn Féin, allocated by means of the d'Hondt rule.
Power‐sharing is no guarantee of government stability, nor of wider social stability. Without the underpinning support of electors drawn from rival ethnic blocs, and a preparedness on the part of political leaders to practise the politics of accommodation, such a coalition may prove to be fragile. This was precisely the fate of the 1973–4 power‐sharing administration in Northern Ireland. It was toppled by unionist and loyalist protestors, opposed to the inclusion in government of nationalist representatives.