Continued Devolution or Direct Rule? Some Scenarios

Since 1707, Northern Ireland has had roughly 160 years of devolution/home rule and 151 years of unitary government/direct rule. The long time perspective helps to put the current difficulties over forming an Executive into context. First the history in brief, followed by some scenarios for what might happen next for the governance of Northern Ireland.

Since the 1998 Belfast Good Friday Agreement there has been one long period of ‘Direct Rule’, lasting for nearly five years, from 14 October 2002 to 7 May 2007. There were also a couple of 24-hour suspensions of the institutions in 2001 and a four-month suspension in early 2000. Prior to the Agreement, there were 26 years of Direct Rule between 1972 and 1998.

For comparison, although there have been periodic suggestions of reinstituting a Scottish Parliament, you could argue that Direct Rule in Scotland lasted from 1707 right up to the start of the devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999. But that’s a skewed way of describing it. For nearly 300 years, Great Britain operated as a unitary state, with a single central Parliament for England, Scotland and Wales.

Northern Ireland was exceptional during this period, because in the period 1707 to 1800, the separate Parliament of Ireland existed. The Act of Union took effect in 1801, and Ireland thereafter added 100 MPs to the House of Commons in London, which acted as a unitary Parliament for all of the UK. However, unlike Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland had its own ‘home rule’ legislature from 1921 to 1972, comprising a House of Commons and a Senate.

Historical home rule was of course different and less satisfactory in a number of respects from the current devolution arrangements. Likewise, unitary government is based on a different premise than the temporary suspension of devolution implied by direct rule. Unitary government is a common political model, the main alternative to which is some form of federalism. Despite its experiments in devolution—including the expanding number of regions involved in English devolution—the UK remains a unitary state.

It is important to recall that devolution is not a specific package deal. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have different powers under their respective devolution agreements. In each case, central government reserves various functions for Parliament. There is still ‘direct rule’ (aka unitary government) for social welfare, immigration, trade, defence and a host of other things. (For those who like the detail, here are links to the powers of the Welsh Assembly, the powers of the Scottish Parliament, and the Northern Ireland Devolution Agreement). What powers are devolved can change, and did change in Northern Ireland with the delayed devolution of police and justice powers for example.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire MP, has talked about Northern Ireland’s ‘glide path’ towards more UK intervention, starting with a budget passed by Parliament in London if the Assembly cannot pass one.

His latest statement (2 November 2017), suggests that he is handling devolution with kid gloves and is trying to make the smallest possible dent in the devolution agreement: ‘This Budget Bill would deal only with the current financial year. It would incorporate figures provided by the Northern Ireland Civil Service reflecting their assessment of the outgoing priorities of the previous Executive. It would not set out any spending decisions by me or the Government.’

He really emphasises the minimalism of his approach: ‘The Government’s strong desire would be for a restored Executive in Northern Ireland to take forward its own Budget. So this step is one that I am now taking with the utmost reluctance and only in the absence of any other option. I also want to be clear to the House that passing a Budget in Westminster does not mark a move to direct rule any more than the passing of legislation by this House to set a Regional Rate did in April.’

All that said, it remains plausible that Parliament in Westminster will be forced to slowly and gradually fill the vacuum if Northern Ireland’s political parties cannot agree on forming an Executive.

At this stage, I am going to state that it is implausible that the main parties will agree a deal to form an Executive in time to propose a budget to the Assembly. But I think there are a few plausible scenarios for what happens next.

(1) Parliament passes a budget for Northern Ireland, which buys the parties here time to reflect, regroup and successfully form an Executive, although this could well be after Christmas.

(2) Parliament passes a budget for Northern Ireland and, in the absence of an agreement to form an Executive, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) begins a gradual process of taking decisions on devolved matters. Periodic talks between the parties continue, and ‘devolution’ still exists, albeit in name only. The likely consequence of this is a legislative backlog for Northern Ireland and an unwillingness by the NIO to take controversial decisions, which will leave some public authorities and publicly-funded organisations limping along. Brexit-related decisions and other ‘political’ decisions will pile up, and the unwillingness of the NIO or Secretary of State to deal with them will leave Northern Ireland seriously disadvantaged. (Such an unstable state of affairs could last through most of 2018 but is probably unsustainable to get past the March 2019 Brexit deadline).

(3) Parliament passes a budget for Northern Ireland and, in the absence of an agreement to form an Executive, fresh elections are called for Northern Ireland for early 2018. (I still think this option is more democratic and should be exhausted before giving up on devolution).

(4) Parliament passes a budget for Northern Ireland and it becomes clear that the largest political parties (DUP and SF) are unable to come to an agreement about forming a stable Executive for the foreseeable future. Plus, electoral forecasts are that the parties would be returned in similar proportions if new elections were held. (Or, in another version of this scenario, elections are held in 2018 and afterwards the DUP and SF still can’t agree). At this point, Northern Ireland’s devolution agreement becomes shaky. Everything could limp along for a period, but the major decisions that arise from Brexit mean that the lack of devolution will be really problematic and ultimately the Prime Minister will be forced to lead on an alternative to the current devolution arrangements in Northern Ireland.

a. One possibility is for the rules of devolution to be extensively re-written—for example, to allow the Assembly to function as a legislative body but move executive powers to the NIO. This would at least allow public debate, scrutiny and votes on budgets/laws to take place, with the NIO or appointed ministers taking the role of the Executive.

b. Another option would be to scrap community designation and/or mandatory coalition, but bring in some kind of voluntary coalition Executive. The DUP have suggested weighted majority voting of 65% in the Assembly. This would be a safeguard against either major community dominating proceedings. Indeed, different weighted majorities could be proposed for different areas, to ensure cross-community support on legislation concerning the most contentious issues. At present, this would quite likely mean a DUP-led Executive with SF leading the Opposition. (Other changes to the Agreement could be made to underpin a move to voluntary coalition, such as giving the Opposition parties a bigger role in chairing committees, guaranteed speaking time and time to put forward private members bills).

c. Another option is for the powers of the assembly to be formally repatriated to Parliament in London. At this point, devolution is suspended until further notice, which means that the Belfast Good Friday Agreement will have run aground. While possible, I don’t think anyone really wants this right now. However, the only way to avoid it may be to modify the Agreement along the lines described above.

The Belfast Good Friday Agreement accounts for just 14 out of Northern Ireland’s 160 years of home rule since 1707. I think most people would agree that the current model of devolution is a significant improvement over what preceded it. But it isn’t perfect, and there is nothing wrong with tinkering with the devolution settlement if that’s what’s needed to get government in Northern Ireland up and running again.

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  • MainlandUlsterman

    the Troubles did not start in 1966. You seem to be picking that date solely because there were Loyalist murders in it, so you can claim “they started it”. 1967 was not a Troubles year in Northern Ireland. Some argue 1968 was and I can see that argument though don’t go with it. 1969 is the generally accepted date for the start of the Troubles, specifically the events of August that year.

  • Skibo

    It makes tough reading about Raymond but it only takes into account a single moment in time. One where is is distinctly clear that Raymond did not have his full faculties.
    His wishes would have been made completely clear before he ever entered into such a state.
    If the IRA outside the prison were running the negotiations, why did the negotiators for the British Government always put their correspondence through the prison?
    I take the private secretary’s comments on the McCresh’s families relationship with Raymond as a lack of understanding of the situation. as far as I was aware, the IRA ordered the prisoners not to go on hunger strike.
    It would not be too difficult to find enemies of Sinn Fein who would like to bring them down.

  • Roger

    Why would it be? Because Ireland has pulled off greater prosperity for all its provinces than UK has for UKNI. It could do the same for UKNI.

    UKNI: “largely structural economic reasons”. A United Ireland would offer UKNI a new structure to fit into.

    As for terrorism. Come on! That sectarian squabble was decades ago. It ended about the time Nelson Mandela was elected. Irrelevant. Not an excuse for UKNI being the poorest part of the former Ireland and one of the poorest parts of the UK.

  • Roger

    Track record shows your wrong. Mainland tax payers have been merrily subsidizing UKNI for probably about 70 years.

    It’s only a matter of time you say. UKNI is much beloved real estate and mainlanders are happy to keep paying for it.

  • Roger

    I presume you’re not inCluding DUP in terror merchant tag. If so, that’s all very one sided indeed. I’ve no time for the murderers. But remember Paisley was a man who led sectarian marches and booed Papal visits. And probably much worse. Yet his party is the biggest in UKNI. Tolerance for that attitude is prevalent. It’s certainly an attitude that embitters many. As indeed does the smugness of murderers like Adams et al.

  • Roger

    Loan to Ireland Act 2010

    There are periodic reports on progress on repayments published too. I think the last repayments are in a couple of years. But don’t remember exactly.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Come on, the DUP are unattractive in enough other ways, there is no need to pretend they are the mirror image of SF in terrorism terms

  • MainlandUlsterman

    It hardly helped – and there was 3 decades of it. The ways in which it has held NI back are myriad, from property damage to infrastucture damage to poor investment environment to draining of talent to people suffering from mental health issues. The deepening of ethnic divisions brought about by the IRA campaign and continued now by SF’s ethnic grinding offensive is bad for business as well as bad for society. There is no sugaring that pill. Nationalism has not covered itself in glory in the last 50 years and its attempts now to suggest the mess it contributed massively to is all someone else’s fault doesn’t wash.

  • james

    I would have no respect, whatsoever, for a lowlife like McCreesh – I’ll be honest about it – but it does seem by all accounts that at this stage he was little more than a gullible idiot whose fanatacism was coldly exploited by the Republican leadership.

    As I’ve said, no real difference from the chronic losers ISIS grooms and gulls into blowing themselves up for the pretentious illusion that they will be ‘famous’ ever more.

    Well, that doesn’t work out. I know McCreesh’s name because some mal-intentioned oik insisted on putting it on a decrepit sign in a rundown playpark – but think of him as a moron. I know the name of Sands – though I notice that at least some Republicans struggle to spell it.

    The names of the others are a mystery to me. Was there a Thomas..something?

  • Roger

    Lordy Lordy these are poor excuses for UKNI being the subsidy junky it is. So many today weren’t even born when all that ended. Ireland’s economy was a fraction then of what it is now. China’s economy was probably no 5 or something like that. It’s ancient history.

    As for your one sided take on grinding, we’ve discussed that before. But it’s not relevant to the economic underperformance any way.

  • Roger

    You must surely appreciate I’ve never entertosuch a pretense.

    My point is the same and you’ve not addressed it.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    and your point is it’s one-sided to be harder on the Unrepentant IRA Party than the other parties, when it comes to their failing to condemn Troubles terrorism? Really not sure I agree with that.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    so I’m suggesting a multi-factoral explanation of NI economic performance that includes its history of terrorism as a lag factor; and your argument is terrorism hasn’t been a negative factor and it’s all down to NI being in the UK? It’s really unclear in that how being in the UK has disadvantaged N Ireland. Reference to the Republic doing well is made without asking how it or NI would have performed if NI were part of the Republic. Frankly it’s pure speculation anyway; but the idea that the Republic would be better able to manage the NI economy and absorb the human costs of its ethnic dispute seems particularly wishful thinking.

    Should the ROI be in charge and things kicked off like they did in the Troubles, I expect they would within a few years be seeking external aid to manage it. Let’s hope that is never tested. The UK on the other hand was able to absorb decades of the paramilitaries doing their worst and then pump enough money and intelligence expertise in to see them off. I don’t think the ROI has that level of econmic power or intelligence expertise.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    They haven’t got a national health service, Roger. And shortly after I lived there they tumbled into an almighty collapse that required intervention from the international community. There was a massive exodus of young people. The GDP now is flattered by having a number big overseas behemoths domiciled there for tax reasons, little of whose business is really part of the Irish economy. It’s doing OK but it’s not some kind of genius economic model that can wave away NI’s economic issues with the swish of a wand.

  • Thomas Girvan

    Welll I’m no constitutional expert, but as a first recourse I asked Google “Is Wales a country?”
    Naturally Wikipedia came up.
    It is emphatic that it is.
    The principality aspect is a bit of a red herring, I believe,
    “Is Monaco a country”?
    Yes.

  • RWP

    That doesn’t mean the DUP would accept a settlement like the one I suggest!

  • Roger

    What on earth are you talking about. They don’t have a health service! That’s patently untrue. Life expectancy is higher in Ireland than in the UK.

    There were quite a few interventions during the financial crisis and the UK was bailed out by the IMF once too! UKNI economy is miles behind Ireland’s. Living standards are way higher. People have more money in their pockets.

    You surprise me with the paucity of proper analysis here.

  • Roger

    History of terrorism again…it’s akin to Ireland blaming some of its woes on damage done by the Black and Tans. It’s ancient history. It never counted for much in economic terms and is now entirely irrelevant.

    What’s unclear about it. UKNI is so far behind Ireland, it’s clear to all but those who will not see!

    Of course there is some speculation in all this. But it’s not speculative to compare how dismal UKNI’s economy is compared to Ireland’s and deduce from that that it’s not unlikely that the UK has done a poor job, relatively speaking, in managing the province’s economy.

    Ireland might have requested external aid had it been in charge. Ireland recommended the U.K. to do likewise in the 70s. Perhaps had they done so it wouldn’t have dragged on as long as it did. The intelligence you trumpet didn’t exactly bring things to a swift end….it was badly managed.

  • Skibo

    Conversation ended.

  • Skibo

    I believe the final date should be in around 2021, just in time for a the lead-in to reunification 😉

  • Skibo

    well the UVF did their very best to make 1966 the start of the troubles. Was there much bombing and killing before that?

  • Skibo

    The fact of it existing and trying to make it work is the same as proactively campaigning for it.
    The simplest way of having a moratorium would be to have a border poll. That would either put it to bed all together for me or give you a moratorium of seven years.

  • Skibo

    The issue will always be that the violence inflicted by the IRA was political violence directed at a constitutional issue and not crime for the sake of crime.

  • Skibo

    Some people look at “Brit” as an insult, some look at it as a title of respect. Same way as the N word is used in USA.
    Those from that community seem confident using it to describe themselves yet when others use it, it is seen as an insult.

  • Barneyt

    ah ok. I would have said Monaco was not a country. Time for me to google too I think.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    yup, that’s how it works. I can say it because I am one and I’m reclaiming the word; Republicans can’t.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “not for the sake of crime” – what does that mean? There were crimes. The fact that someone’s motivation for doing it is some crazy religious or political guff hardly makes it any better.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Yes, there was the border campaign for example which ended four years earlier. And if you ask the IRA they would say they have been permanently at war with the British state in Ireland since it was formed.

  • james

    Well, if you can’t tolerate an opinion you disagree with, yes, I think that is the end of the conversation.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    the defeat of the IRA was an intelligence victory above all – they were riddled with informers.

  • john millar

    “Lordy Lordy these are poor excuses for UKNI being the subsidy junky it is. So many today weren’t even born when all that ended. Ireland’s economy was a fraction then of what it is now. China’s economy was probably no 5 or something like that. It’s ancient history.”

    Where does the subsidy fall
    On Health? Education ?Social payments (Dole) ?, Social services ?

    Who are the major consumers ?

  • john millar

    “Brexit was the rise of English nationalism. If Northern Ireland continues with this spendthrift ways it is only a matter of time before the English choose to jettison us.”

    Can`t wait
    Reduce NI budget to the tax raised in NI
    Then wait for the whining

  • Thomas Girvan

    You’re not much kop at this geography melarkey, are you?

  • Skibo

    I will always find it difficult to discuss matters with anyone who feels the need to be insulting and derogatory of the dead.
    Do you do the same to the German soldiers who fought in WW1 and 2?

  • Skibo

    So it was a war then?
    We can continue to discuss the past if you wish or we can reset the game at 1998. It will require you accepting that I and other Republicans have a right to politically argue the case for reunification while I will accept that you and the rest of the Unionists can argue for the continuation of the Union.
    We can debate and nobody gets hurt baring a bit of pride every now and then!

  • Skibo

    It was political motivations that led to two world wars in Europe. Britain was never invaded at any time. Her principalities were of the coast of France.
    Britain did not go to war to defend her own territory.

  • Skibo

    So you want to be known as Brits but you don’t want Republicans calling you that?
    Does that make you an Irish Brit or a British Paddy?

  • Skibo

    MU there was some crazy political stuff going on in 1912 and resulted in the introduction of arms into the Home Rule debate for Ireland. Me thinks your political analysis of the use of violence for political aims must have come into being with the birth of Northern Ireland.

  • james

    The fact that someone who committed terrorist acts while alive is not changed by the fact they are now dead.

    German soldiers per se, no. Member of the SS who committed atrocities, yes, I would hold them in the same contempt as ex-IRA members like McCreesh or dead ISIS members.

  • Roger

    I’d have thought all of the above.
    As to who are the major consumers, the UKNI people.

    All ears here on where you’re going with this!

  • Roger

    The topic here is good governance. It took over 25 years to end the sectarian violence. That’s not some great achievement that the UK can point to in terms of its success in administering the territory.

    It may certainly have ended in part owing to intelligence. But it took over 25 years. That’s not the sign of a successful government. It was a prolonged failure. I doubt Ireland could have done worse. Though it’s true that we’ll never know.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    you’re coming perilously close to blaming the state for the paramilitaries’ terrorism. Wasn’t it the paramilitaries? It’s hardly anyone else’s fault the buggers subjected the rest of us to their sociopathic violence for so long. Don’t let them off the hook. Withstanding 25 years of that sh**, and coming out the other side having prevailed, *was* an achievement. Thousands of lives saved too from the murderers on both sides – there is much to be proud of in how the non-violent majority of people on both sides endured and survived the terror imposed by the half-witted sectarians in our midst.

  • Roger

    On I’m sure cession of UKNI to Ireland will happen well before then…

  • MainlandUlsterman

    it’s like any pejorative term aimed at a group of people – using it in an unreconstructed way to denigrate people is just dumb, ignorant abuse; but when the targets take the word and use it themselves, it’s very different. So I can say Brit, but they can’t.

  • Skibo

    It is a slang that I go out of my way not to use as I find it divisive in Northern Ireland.

  • Roger

    Phew. We are drifting. Let’s get back to the topic. Not blame. Rather governmental performance. You’ve said that had what’s UKNI been a region of Ireland rather than the UK the Irish government would have handled it worse / been unable to handle. I’ve disagreed and pointed to how poorly the UK handled the debacle. In a Europe in an era when terrorism in Europe was a pretty rare phenomenon, a UK region grabbed so many headlines over more than a quarter of a century for just that. That’s not an achievement. That’s an indictment of a government. It’s failure for so long to sort a domestic squabble out.

    Many people in UKNI can take pride in their role. But 25+ years for a government to sort it out is not a track record that a government should take pride in.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    that’s an incredible way of looking at it. As if the government could just wave a wand and make the terrorists stop. It’s quite revealing of the belief system though in which the terrorism was not really the terrorists’ fault but the government’s for somehow making them do it.

    When over a thousand state employees gave their lives in the security effort over the 25 years, I do find that attitude of pretty hard to stomach.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    thank you

  • Reader

    Skibo: Jeff SF and the SDLP did more to hold back the welfare cuts that any other parties in the North. They nearly brought the Executive down over it.
    Great achievement – guarantee Derry Living Allowance for life at the expense of the NHS…

  • Reader

    Skibo: Well if it was a war, then the conditions of war pertain to how you treat prisoners. If she was using the day to day legal legislation then there are rights and a principle of innocent until proven guilty.
    Well, since the hunger strikes took place after the end of internment, there’s one red herring gone.
    As for prisoners’ rights; the downside of being a POW is that you are locked up for the duration, and there’s no need for a trial. (just give your “name, rank and number”)
    The IRA weren’t any more keen on being POWs than on being ordinary convicts, so invented a new category to try to get the best of all worlds – PPOW – “political prisoner of war”. That wasn’t really displaying the courage of their convictions – that was just cherry picking.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    No, I am completely against it, whether in 1912 or now. I’m not impressed with all the ‘look what violence achieved’ arguments that try to say ‘it works so it’s OK’. I really don’t think it has worked for anyone. Look at the state of us now.

  • Skibo

    Violence didn’t work for Republicans either. It was not the violence that put them where they are now. It was the fact that they left violence behind them and moved the republican effort directly onto the democratic path.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    There are rules though governing the conduct of wars, in the Geneva Conventions and in the United Nations charter. The latter gives a nation that is invaded the right to defend itself and the right of allies to come to its assistance. This right was a long established customary rule anyway and Britain was justified in going to war against Germany both times on that basis.

    Abducting someone during peacetime in a democracy – imperfect democracy or otherwise – and shooting them in the back of the head is not an act of war, it’s an act of terrorism. Blowing up a pub likewise. Shooting a police officer or a soldier supporting the police likewise. The IRA and the UVF did not have the capacity to declare war because they were not representing states, they were representing only one line of political opinion with relatively small hinterlands of support. Neither had a majority even of their own community supporting their campaigns. If there are problems with a democracy as there were in the Westminster-style system of Stormont pre-1972, the answer is to campaign for reform, not tar and feather police informers. There is a complete non-sequitur between the things that needed reforming about the old Stormont and the actions of the Republican Movement in launching a vicious, extremely cruel anti-British terror campaign that killed thousands, in a majority British area.

    And even if we indulged the IRA’s self-serving fantasy ‘war’ excuse, they would then be guilty of thousands of breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Its leaders like Gerry Adams would need to be tried at The Hague for war crimes and could expect to die in jail.

    So it doesn’t work either way for SF.

  • Roger

    In your first sentence I’d swap the word “incredible” for “objective”.

    Your focus on blame rather than government performance seems, to me, to cloud over your reasoning.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Does it, fine.

  • Skibo

    What do you mean If there was a problem? Everyone and his dog knows there was a problem.
    The Civil Rights movement were battered off the streets. Live ammo was used! It was the acts of terror against the nationalist community that resulted in the IRA. They were virtually nonexistent before the civil rights movement.
    My God, Loyalists even tried bombing them selves to see if they could induce a reaction by the security forces against the Republican community. The most radical thing that the Republican movement did at that stage was put a tricolour in a window.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Are you claiming Republicans were merely responding in kind? If so, why did they carry on for 28 years and declare they were doing it to achieve a united Ireland, not ‘equal rights’ (which they had anyway)?

  • Skibo

    Violence begets violence and so the cycle continues. It is a bit like the saying “an eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind”
    It took brave men to approach both sides to put violence in the past. Religious on both sides set the wheels in motion before the Hume Adams talks.
    As for the equal rights that you say we had anyway, only recently have the levels of employment reached parity and unemployment levels are still striving to get there.

  • John Taylor

    Direct Rule and mothball Stormont, it is a dead Parrot and cannot be resuscitated even if there was a political will. The GFA was worse than the Treaty of Versailles. DR miles better. NI politicians cannot deliver.