A Primer on Devolution

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A Primer on Devolution: How the Tories Are Screwing Us and Screwing the Union

by Leila Gordon

In the 2017 general election, the Conservatives did not win the parliamentary majority, yet here they are, propped up by Northern Ireland’s hardline, socially conservative, homophobic, and sexist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Remember this the next time Americans lambast the Electoral College; at the very least American bipartisanship means that Trump wouldn’t be able to bribe the libertarians with an obscene amount of money into joining forces  instead of spending that money on enacting policy. Still, Jeremy Corbyn has managed to inspire a socialist revolution when critics like JK Rowling and the Times’ Hugo Rifkind said he couldn’t. People chant his name at music festivals, which is 90% heartwarming and 10% demagogue-y.

Let’s not forget about that DUP deal so quickly. The deal which has seen Northern Ireland receive £1bn, while the NHS, schools, children, legal aid providers, social care, public sector workers, and anyone who’s not a millionaire continue to get nothing. Shortly after Theresa May formed a government, Gerry Adams, president of the nationalist, republican Sinn Féin party, called the deal a breach of England’s obligations under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought to an end the 30 years of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as ‘The Troubles.’

The Good Friday Agreement, both an international agreement between Britain and Ireland and a multipartite agreement between most of the major Northern Irish political parties, ended decades of strife in post-Irish-secession-Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement gave Northern Ireland back its suspended devolved powers, and laid out a framework in which Northern Ireland could continue to be under the umbrella of both Ireland and England. Northern Ireland had chosen, by democratic majority, to remain a part of England. If that ever were to change, both states would immediately do everything in their power to bring reunification into fruition, and this is memorialised in both states’ constitutions (to the extent that there is a British constitution). And because it was the will of the Northern Irish people, both states must exercise what the Good Friday Agreement spells out as “rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions” to realise this will.

Gerry Adams is right: partnering with the unionist DUP when Britain’s role is to exercise “rigorous impartiality” is not only a departure, but a blatant disregard for the agreement and Northern Irish history. Moreover, as it stands the union of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales is on a bit of a precipice. In May 2016, after the Scottish referendum, but just before Brexit, parliament released a report entitled “The Union and Devolution.” The report warned that Westminster’s “casual,” “piecemeal,” and “asymmetric” approach to devolution, in which the government doles out political power to individual states based on how much of a fuss they kick up, is not doing much for the UK’s prospects of remaining a “viable state.” It also highlighted that devolution policy-making has invariably been reactive and nation-disparate, with no thought to a long-term or coherent strategy. Handing over a billion pounds to a unionist party not only destabilises the Good Friday Agreement but threatens the already precarious, imbalanced union. To answer the 2016 report’s question of what future strategy looks like: it looks like the Tories pushing the union over the edge just to maintain their mandate.

Devolution is presented to us as a benevolent partnership, but remove the Conservative-tinted glasses and asymmetry quickly becomes inequity. The amount of political power that England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales each have is not equally distributed, and while each country’s stake varies, England unquestionably has the most. England is the metaphorical sun that Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales revolve around; England is parliament and parliament is England, which makes “union” somewhat of a misnomer. The proof is in the pudding: if England is the only nation without a devolution settlement, it’s probably because they were the one giving them out. Even without Westminster coupling up with Northern Ireland, the union faces two theoretical roadblocks: 1) that England, famously, has no written constitution and 2) that parliamentary sovereignty – whereby parliament is the supreme legal authority in the UK, with power to create or end any law- is already at odds with devolving legislative power to individual nations. The former means that, hypothetically, anything can happen, but the latter means that parity will never happen in a political system where parliament always has the last word. So, devolution dangles a carrot of self-governance that can never be fully realised.

And as for the sly intimation by recent governments that we’re all on a level playing field? It’s not only presently but historically untrue, masking the circumstances by which the union came to be. Even if one was to accept that England, Scotland, and Wales were in some sort of benevolent partnership, before we had Islamist terrorists running people over on bridges and white supremacist terrorists running people over outside mosques, we had Irish republican terrorists blowing up pubs. The widely propagated narrative is that the IRA equals bad. But a quick rewatch of the Daniel Day-Lewis films, in which he plays run-of-the-mill Irishmen associated with the republican struggle, seamlessly reframes the Troubles as a pursuit of freedom in the face of English oppression. Because one man’s terrorist is another’s… teenage crush.

England has a long and violent history of colonising countries, and Ireland, Scotland, and Wales aren’t much of an exception. While these three nations are not colonies per se, the power dynamic within the union smacks of continued imperialism, with devolution serving as a placating measure. Of course, where Scotland and Wales are concerned, there isn’t the same violence, sub-humanisation, and utter pillage that’s inherent in the colonising project. Instead of being totally subjugated like colonised countries, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales were subsumed into England to create one large state. The line here is that they’ve all chosen to be subsumed, that it’s the will of the people; they can walk out at anytime. In reality – though it’s easy to look back at the Scottish Referendum now and think more power to ‘em – disentangling from the union is a difficult process.

Ireland, Scotland, and Wales were all conquered by England – a fact which is easy to dismiss given that conquest was a viable form of territorial expansion back then. There was no UN and no inadmissibility of territory acquired by force. But the fact remains that Wales was conquered, Ireland was conquered, and Scotland was – and this is low-key contentious – duped into a peaceful transition into the union. Wales’ primary form of contention was surrounding the suppression of their language, and the nationalism that arose in the 19th century was a response to an erosion of Welsh cultural values. Scotland felt walked over: they were promised more political power than they received. And Ireland, occupied since 1169, fought tooth-and-nail, over centuries, for self-determination and civil rights while the English parried with a divide-and-rule strategy, which culminated in the chiefly nationalist, Catholic south seceding in 1949 , while the chiefly unionist, Protestant north remained in the union with its own parliament. That is, until England suspended Home Rule and any concept of human rights during the Troubles. The crux here is that these nations never asked to have their existing parliamentary systems replaced with England’s, yet England went ahead and did just that. And presumably, due to all nations involved being white and therefore not victim to the same racist violent domination as their black and brown counterparts, they replaced battle with the boardroom; in the place of violent struggle negotiations would occur and Acts would be passed. With that said,  Ireland, Scotland, and Wales certainly saw themselves as occupied. As a result, rebellion and revolts in what Oxford professor R.R. Davies called the “First English Empire” would dot the subsequent centuries.

Fast forward a few thousand years and here is Tony Blair, the patron saint of neoliberalism who, despite later admitting his ambivalence towards devolution, snowballed this unravelling. From the late ‘60s onwards Labour was continually losing seats to the Scottish National Party, and – after a few letter bombs from the Scottish National Liberation Army known in the press as the ‘Tartan Terrorists” –  in the 1997 general election Blair ran on a platform of devolution. Following a resounding victory for his New Labour vision, he devolved powers to Wales and Scotland, creating  a National assembly for Wales and a Scottish parliament in 1999, legislatures which are subordinate to English parliament. Only years later, in 2015, did Blair acknowledge this failing. However, he apologised for undercutting British national identity and British values – an empty platitude if there ever was one – when he should have been apologising for creating political chaos just to preserve his own power. He defended himself too; he claimed it had to happen. Scotland and Wales were kicking off, demanding control over their own governmental apparatus, harnessing the popularity of national parties like the SNP and Plaid Cymru. With this, Blair established a precedent of responsive devolution policy-making. When the Scottish hold a referendum, the government hand over more power. When Scotland has a strong, wonderful, well-liked female leader at the helm of a nationalist party, the government hand over more power. Wales, you’ll have to step your game up.

Here’s where things currently stand: both Northern Ireland’s assembly, as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, and Scotland’s parliament have full legislative control over a number of devolved matters. Broadly speaking, both can legislate on local matters, but can’t get into the meat of foreign policy, homeland security issues, or international relations. Both have a first minister, and Scotland has a built-in procedure for giving consent to parliament to legislate on a devolved matter, should the occasion arise. Scotland can also amend UK legislation that affects them. Wales has a National assembly, with increasingly enhanced legislative power. After a 2011 referendum, the assembly has law-making abilities on 20 devolved areas, including local services, social welfare, planning, and culture. It is key that all three nations have ministers, a legislative apparatus, and a legal system. These are the building blocks of an executive, legislature, and judiciary; the key tenets of democracy. It is important to note, however, that the line is emphatically drawn at the capacity to enter into relations with other states. Crucially, this is the only missing criterion for a recognisable state under the Montevideo Convention in international law. Blair ostensibly gifted the roots of a successful Westphalian nation-state, while ensuring that statehood was just out of reach.

Simplicity in the Northern Irish government is also, apparently, just out of reach. The Good Friday Agreement, with its British and Irish drafters so dedicated to the concept of impartiality, created a supremely complicated power-sharing experience, which boils down to demanding a balance between nationalists and unionists in the assembly at all times. Given that nationalist and unionist interests must be represented in every assembly vote, it’s a wonder they get anything done. There’s a first minister and a deputy first minister of different loyalties who work in tandem. Which begs the question: like choosing a university course at 17, do the Northern Irish have to decide whether they’re unionist or nationalist?

With a laborious commitment to power-sharing in the Northern Irish national assembly, a unionist party in government is at best an oxymoron and at worst gives every Northern Irish citizen grounds to judicially review the British legislation that incorporates the Good Friday Agreement. You can’t have a unionist Northern Irish first minister without a nationalist deputy first minister, yet you can have a unionist party supporting the whims of a Tory government; supporting the whims because they were given a billion pounds to do whatever the Tories say. Northern Irish politics weren’t so stable even before the deal: the government was suspended at the beginning of the year because the DUP and Sinn Féin couldn’t reach a power-sharing deal, while Sinn Féin deputy minister Martin McGuinness resigned because of DUP corruption in running a renewable heat incentive scheme.

So, Northern Ireland is complicated. It has a history of religious exclusion, political oppression, and struggle for civil rights, which is why Theresa May and the Conservative party’s jumping into a DUP partnership seems like a reckless and short-sighted idea. The decision might have made sense had the English not pretended they were a neutral party. It might have been different had England just straight up admitted they wanted to extend their influence throughout the British Isles. Instead, they  have  promoted the illusion, in the Good Friday Agreement and in the discourse around devolution, that they function as mentors here to mould national identity – when, in fact, England’s role has invariably been that of the oppressor.

Devolution is also complicated. It’s about adapting to modernity; it’s about British identity (or so Blair told us). From Scottish independence to the dismantling of the NHS to Brexit to Jeremy Corbyn, what it means to be British is constantly being questioned. When Theresa May signed that metaphorical check to the DUP, she did three things: she undermined England’s obligations as an impartial guiding hand in respect to divisions in Northern Ireland, she undermined the Northern Irish government, and she undermined England’s obligation to each nation in the union. She gave funding to Northern Ireland that now Scotland and Wales will want too, and when they don’t get it (because there’s no magic money tree) they’re going to look at the asymmetry (read: inequity) around them and see the glaring injustice. The façade of devolution will be pierced. Edinburgh and Cardiff have already invoked the Barnett formula, a mechanism which determines the quantity of money distributed to each nation and ensures funding remains egalitarian amongst all nations. They requested an extra £2.9bn and £1.67bn respectively, and commented in no uncertain terms on the unfairness of the DUP transaction. There’s the possibility of a fresh Scottish referendum as early as 2018, and with May’s flimsy statesmanship so far (her handling of the Grenfell Tower fire, for example) there’s no telling what she may stir up.

The confused 2016 report asserts that, on the one hand, parliament is going to stick with devolution, providing there’s some strategy involved, and on the other, states the importance of  having a strong union going forward – good luck with that. Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales weren’t content in the 12th century, they weren’t content when they faced Blair in the ‘90s, they weren’t content after they faced Blair in the ‘90s, they weren’t content post-Brexit, and they certainly aren’t content after the 2017 general election (unless you’re DUP leader Arlene Foster), which definitely doesn’t make for such a strong and stable union. The wilful blindness that Theresa May exhibits is a self-defeating disregard for keeping the union together. We can add this to the long list of things the Tories have screwed us on, but it may end up being a blessing in disguise. Maybe it’s time England finally lost its last vestiges of empire?

Published 13th August 2017

This work by Novara Media is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

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