There’s a wonderful, fascinating irony developing – for political anoraks at least – in the devolved regions of this United Kingdom. Just a few days after David Cameron’s initial talks with Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP about devo-max for Scotland it appears that devolution in Northern Ireland is about to be handed back.
Devolved institutions that pander to nationalist factions rarely survive long. In Northern Ireland any administrative progress is made near-impossible given the need for cross-community agreement for anything important. Such agreement is typically impossible. Hence nothing gets agreed. Indeed given the truism that Orange and Green are like chalk and cheese it sure seems strange that we have a system of government that requires consensus from people who clearly can’t stand each other.
In Scotland everything in the garden is lovely because there is only one nationalist party. But nationalism isn’t really an ideology. And the SNP is not at liberty to set its own budget unless it gets fiscal autonomy. When it does, it’ll have a lot less to spend. No Barnett formula then. But the dividing of the spoils will result in schisms in the SNP and a return to Scotland’s preferred basis for political discussion: ideology. In short, the politics of left and right will ultimately return to replace the Groundhog Day tedium of the border question – regardless of whether Scotland remains in the Union.
Because the only thing that really matters in politics is power – especially power over money. The NI Executive has no power to insist on bigger budgets because it’s remote and isolated from mainstream political discussion. As Sammy Wilson pointed out yesterday in the Assembly (I paraphrase) the Conservative Party has no elected representatives here so why should it care?
The Northern Ireland Assembly looks a bit like a government but isn’t. It has no control over its budget, has no tax raising powers, and has no participation in major decisions that affect its budget. And really, what point is there in government without power and without influence and without budget?
That’s why direct rule is a much better option. Decisions will be reached quickly. Northern Ireland will essentially become an outpost of England as far as important legislation is concerned. Local MLAs can be stood down saving us quite a few quid. Local quangos can continue to be closed. Welfare reform can be enacted.
After all, our public services can only function if we get money. Westminster decides how much money we get. If our devolved administration merely gets in the way of that money being spent it should be closed down and, ideally, never re-opened.