Different Levels of Devolution to Be Found in Northern Ireland

10 October 2016

The history of these isles, which we call Great Britain and Ireland, has produced a peculiar and unique situation of governance throughout the nations of which the islands consist. England, as largest and most populous territory in the region, has been the dominant power for centuries; annexing or merging with the Celtic nations of Wales, Scotland and Ireland between 1536 and 1800.

Following the independence of the Irish Free State and partition of the island of Ireland, we have the country that is known today as The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as well as the independent Irish Republic. Over the course of this essay I will examine the different levels of devolution to be found within Britain and Ireland, identifying similarities and differences between the types of devolution granted at present as well as possibilities for further devolution of power.

Within the United Kingdom, power has been devolved from Westminster to the outlying capitals of Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff in different ways, according to a region’s particular characteristics and idiosyncrasies. However devolution, described as “a limited form of decentralisation” (Grant, 2009), has been seen as giving power over their own affairs back to the people of each of the smaller nations, who in many cases may have felt some sense of marginalisation by rule from London.

This being the case, there are certainly aspects of devolved power which have been granted to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with little variance. Administrative devolution has occurred in all three territories, with local government being given authority over running services, allocating funds and organising administration. Practically this means that areas such as Health, Education, Housing and other areas are equally the domain of each outlying government throughout the UK.

With this fact acknowledged, one can then examine other “devolved government arrangements … that are markedly asymmetrical” (Jeffrey & Wincott, 2006). Of the three nations with devolved powers at present, Wales is the one which has least expressed desires for separation or independence; this despite a strong sense of Welsh cultural and national pride, with the flourishing Welsh language as a focal point and a Welsh nationalist party in Plaid Cymru. Indeed the 1997 devolution referendum in Wales, pushed by the Labour government, was passed by a mere 7,000 votes, with only 50% voter turnout.

The tiny margin of victory despite government support along with the low turnout figures suggests an antipathy, certainly at the time of the referendum, amongst the Welsh electorate towards the idea of self-governance and devolution. This fact, along with the view that Wales as a nation is most inextricably linked with England, has resulted in Wales agreeing to a low level of devolution with the Welsh Assembly. The sixty member Welsh Assembly which was set up in the wake of the 1997 referendum has been described as a “strange anatomy” (Rawlings, 2003).

The Assembly has control over the spending and allocation of the Welsh budget, as handed down by Westminster, but with no taxation or primary law-making powers (Grant, 2009). However, the introduction of devolution in Wales does seem to have reinvigorated the public debate over transfer of powers. By 2003, the preferred option (38% from four options) amongst the Welsh people was clearly for more devolution powers, in the form of a Welsh Parliament (Wales, 2006).

Scotland has achieved a different, more extensive form of devolution than Wales; not least due to the fact that it is much bigger physically and in terms of population as well as being further geographically removed from London. However the rise of support in Scotland for a devolved form of administration in the 1980s and 1990s coincided with a number of factors which either increased self-confidence as a Scottish nation or else disaffection with the Westminster government.

The main reason for rising nationalist sentiment was the monopoly on power in Britain which was held by the Conservatives over the course of most of these decades, despite having very little support north of the border. The Tories put in place a number of policies which were deeply unpopular in Scotland such as the Poll Tax and the closure of the shipyards and other industries. The discovery of North Sea oil, as well as membership of a European Union that was booming by the 1990s also gave many Scots’ confidence in their ability to manage their own affairs.

As such, the referendum of 1997 was a huge endorsement of devolution with almost three quarters of voters in favour of devolving power to Edinburgh and 60% approving tax varying powers (Pattie, Denver, Mitchell, & Botchel, 1998). While some state functions such as defence, foreign affairs and overall fiscal policy are reserved by Westminster, the ability to vary taxes is one of a number of key contrasts between the devolved administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh.

As well as the ability to vary taxes by up to 3 pence on the pound, the Scottish government also takes responsibility for justice, policing and administration of certain EU laws within Scotland, among other roles. Today we can see the apparent success of this devolution in the eyes of the Scottish people with the debate switching from devolution to independence, with the Scottish National Party amongst the chief advocates of an independent Scotland. While polls seem to show that full independence remains unlikely in the time scale offered, “[t]he real option here is option three ‘devo max’” (Jenkins, 2012) for most Scottish voters.

Such an option would give Scotland full fiscal autonomy as well as power over nearly all aspects of Scottish life. If included as an option in a referendum, devo max would appear to be the preferred option for a majority of the Scottish electorate. Northern Ireland is a unique situation due to the widely documented history of sustained conflict between the two major, broad religious/political groupings of Protestants/unionists and Catholics/nationalists.

The legacy of ‘The Troubles’ has been a deeply divided society which has remained the case up to the present day, with “segregation still exist[ing] across politics, schooling, housing and education. ” (Nolan, 2012) However, following the Belfast Agreement in 1998 and the successful referendum endorsing the peace process, a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive were formed in 1999. The distinctive political dimensions in Northern Ireland mean that “many of the features of Northern Ireland devolution follow consociational models” (Jeffrey C. 2009), in other words many of the features of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive are in place in order to manage conflict between the two broad groupings existent in Northern Ireland. As majority rule cannot be considered, Northern Ireland uses the d’Hondt system whereby power in the Executive is divided on a highest averages basis and the number of seats on the Executive controlled by a party corresponds to the amount of assembly seats gained, “thereby realising the proportionality principle which is one of the underpinning characteristics of consociational democracy” (Wilford, 2009).

Now that security concerns have subsided so that Justice powers can be devolved (currently under the stewardship of cross community Alliance Party) Northern Ireland’s Executive has authority over its own affairs to a greater extent than Wales but perhaps not so much power as that of Alex Salmond’s Scottish government. While the Executive in Northern Ireland does have the power to pass, amend or repeal laws directly related to the region (which Wales does not) it does not have the same level of fiscal control as that of Scotland.

Recently there have been calls from both unionist and nationalist parties for greater control of fiscal powers, particularly regarding the rate of corporation tax – the rate is much higher in the UK than in the Republic of Ireland. While in recent years the devolved system at Stormont seems a cause for optimism, one must recognise that “[a]ny appraisal of devolution in Northern Ireland over the past decade has first to acknowledge that it has been a disjointed affair. ” (Wilford, 2009) Indeed Stormont was suspended from 2002-2007, however it is hoped that the current session will allow Northern Ireland to make progress as a devolved region.

The two previously unmentioned territories in the region, namely England and the Republic of Ireland, are different in that they each host the capital city of a sovereign nation. While this may suggest that the appetite for devolution would not exist in the two countries, proposals involving some degree of decentralisation have been suggested. The Republic of Ireland had an overall population of less than 4. 6 million as of 2011, with around two fifths of all citizens living in the Greater Dublin area.

These facts, coupled with Ireland’s relatively small size geographically, would not offer any great comfort for proponents of devolved government. However the more realistic debate in the Republic had been the decentralisation of government departments to various cities and towns throughout the state. Indeed government plans to spread the wealth and jobs created in Dublin were underway from as early as 2003, “10,300 public servants, including the headquarters of eight departments, were to be dispersed from the capital to 3 locations in every other county in the State” (McDonald, 2011) However the plan was shelved soon thereafter, due to the diseconomies of scale and co-ordination problems that such a decentralising plan would entail, but at an overall cost to the taxpayer of €338 million on costs such as the acquisition and development of sites that were never to be used. The evidence from the plan would seem to suggest that decentralisation, and certainly devolution, would be unsuitable in the Irish Republic.

England, on the other hand, is by far the largest and most populous country on the islands constituting Britain and Ireland with a population of over 50 million and, when taken as a country subdivision, ranks number one globally in terms of GDP. England’s capital city of London also serves as capital for the greater United Kingdom, perhaps a major factor in the view that “the English think that Westminster should have most control over them” (Jeffrey C. , 2009) in contrast to the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Attempts at some form of regional, elected government within England were comprehensively rejected when 78% of the electorate in the North East of the country voted ‘No’ in a referendum on the implementation of such government in 2004 (Grant, 2009). The results of that ballot seem to have removed the issue of English devolution from the agenda for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the major issue involving England and the topic of devolution is what has become known as the ‘West Lothian Question,’ regarding “inequities of representation of the Scots and English after devolution” (Jeffrey C. 2009). Due to the autonomy that has come with devolution, Scottish MPs have law making powers over areas of English policy due to UK-wide Westminster being England’s only form of government. English MPs, on the other hand, have no powers over Scotland in the areas that have been devolved; leading to what former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith called a “democratic monstrosity” (Carrell, 2012) From the evidence gathered I feel confident in concluding that devolution has generally been a success in the UK.

While the divergent characteristics of each region necessitate asymmetrical devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland it seems to be an adaptable process with further devolution powers possible in each of the three territories. Scotland, as a larger country with more aspirations towards self-sufficiency, has clearly been afforded a greater level of devolved power than the Welsh, who presently seem content with a low level form of devolved government.

Northern Ireland’s exceptional circumstances as a post conflict region have of course called for a different approach to devolved government. With the apparent stabilisation of the region in recent years, calls for increased fiscal powers and a better functioning Executive offer optimistic signs of progress. England, and certainly the Republic of Ireland, would not seem to offer fertile ground for any such devolved administration in the foreseeable future.

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