Tom Griffin of the London-based Irish World looks at the current state of devolved politics in Britain and Northern Ireland and argues that ” Today, devolution is the only real integration, because ironically, Britain itself is becoming more nationalist and less unionist”Devolution is the only real integration now
by Tom Griffin, 27 May 2005 edition
Do unionists want Northern Ireland to be run from Westminster or from Stormont? The choice between devolution or integration is an old dilemma.
In the early 1970s the fall of Stormont and its replacement by direct rule was seen as a victory by many nationalists. In the 1980s, many unionists felt that strengthening the link with Britain meant being playing a fuller part at Westminster.
In the 1990s, the pendulum swung again and the return of Stormont became the prize for unionism in the Good Friday Agreement.
Now, there are signs that unionists are looking to integration once more. The DUP is calling for a more accountable direct rule, and the defeated Ulster Unionists are considering a closer relationship with the Conservative Party.
These developments, are however, in many ways at odds with what is happening in Britain itself, where devolution is if anything deepening.
The extent to which Northern Ireland is out of step is demonstrated by the fact that Secretary of State Peter Hain will supervise the extension of new powers to the Welsh Assembly, at the same time as he presides over direct rule in Belfast.
However, the most interesting straw in the wind is what is happening in that quintessential British institution, the Conservative Party.
Just as that moment the UUP is considering moving closer to the Conservatives, Tories in England and Scotland are beginning to move further apart.
Michael Howard was forced to sack his new shadow Scottish Secretary James Grey last week. Scottish Tories demanded his head after he called for the abolition of the Scottish Parliament.
His call reflected the fact that the current devolution settlement is biased against the Tories. They won the popular vote in England, but Labour’s majority over them is inflated by Scottish MPs who can vote on English issues that do not affect their constituents.
What the James Grey affair underlines, is that the Conservatives cannot overcome this disadvantage by seeking the end of the Scottish Parliament. Their only realistic option is to seek similar treatment for England.
The Tories are already committed to a form of English devolution, through a somewhat incoherent proposal that only English MPs should vote on English matters at Westminster.
The favourite to succeed Michael Howard, shadow Home Secretary David Davis, has talked in the past of going for a fully fledged English Parliament.
This has obvious advantages for English Tories, who would have a good chance of power in such an institution.
However, it also enjoys support from a faction among Scottish Tories who believe that they suffer electorally from being seen as not Scottish enough. They want to break away from the English Party altogether, in order to forge a separate identity.
There has even been a report in the Scotsman that senior Scottish Tories want to drop the word ‘unionist’ from the title ‘Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party’, in order to appeal to nationalist-minded Scottish voters.
Indeed, in Scotland as in England, the Tories are beginning to realise that it is in their interest to be more radically devolutionist than Labour.
The logic is compelling. The current Scottish Parliament controls public spending on areas like health and education. However, tax-raising powers remain with Westminster. There is a clear incentive for Scottish voters to back Labour at Holyrood and guarantee higher spending without the risk of higher taxes.
This will only change if Scotland gains fiscal independence, and has to fund its own spending out of its own revenues, which is exactly what some Tory members of the Scottish Parliament are now advocating.
Of course, part of the reason these issues have come into focus is because the Tories are still so far from regaining power at Westminster. However, the election has also weakened Labour’s ability to sustain a settlement which is so obviously biased in its favour.
Change can only really move in one direction, towards deeper and more consistent devolution. This is bound to have implications for Northern Ireland.
The arrival of ‘home rule all round’ in 1997 contributed to the political imperative that led to the Good Friday Agreement. If England and Scotland gain more autonomy, the pressure on Northern Ireland to move out of its current state of political dependency will grow accordingly.
Today, devolution is the only real integration, because ironically, Britain itself is becoming more nationalist and less unionist.
Living History 1968-74
A unique, once-in-a-lifetime 10-week course at Stranmillis University College Belfast featuring live, in-depth interviews with leading figures from this tumultuous era in Northern Ireland’s cultural and political history.
Live interviews with: Bernadette McAliskey, Austin Currie, Brid Rogers, Baroness Blood, Dennis Bradley, Baroness Paisley, Lord Kilclooney, Tim McGarry, Danny Morrison, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and others…