The sovereignty conundrum and the uncertain future of the Union

Brexit has led to numerous clashes between London and the devolved governments, raising fundamental questions about the very nature of the United Kingdom, in a context where the European Union is no longer available as an ‘external support system’. Michael Keating argues that we need to find new constitutional concepts for living together in a world in which traditional ideas of national sovereignty have lost their relevance.

Since the Brexit vote, there have been repeated clashes between the UK and devolved governments. Some of these concern policy differences, notably over the form Brexit should take. Some reflect the inadequacies of mechanisms for intergovernmental relations. There is an inevitable rivalry between political parties at different levels. Beneath all this, however, are fundamental questions about the nature of the United Kingdom as a polity and where ultimate authority lies, especially after 20 years of devolution.

On the one hand, there is the classic or ‘Westminster’ doctrine, according to which sovereignty resides with the Monarch-in-Parliament. In the absence of a written, codified and enforceable constitution, this is the only foundation of authority. In this view, Westminster has merely ‘lent’ competences to the devolved legislatures, which can be taken back at any time, however politically imprudent that might be. Westminster may not often exercise this power but it provides a trump card in any conflict with the devolved authorities.

This is a powerful doctrine but at the same time an empty one since it rests on a tautology. Westminster is sovereign because, by dint of its sovereign authority, it says it is. The point was illustrated in the debates on the 1978 devolution legislation when an alliance of unionists and nationalists defeated a clause asserting that Westminster remained supreme, the nationalists because they did not want it to be true and the unionists because it was redundant. Westminster sovereignty is a myth, that is a story that may be true or false but works as long as people believe it. When the spell is broken, as it has in recent years, its supporters have to fall back on other arguments. There is a historical argument, that parliamentary sovereignty is rooted in constitutional practice; a normative argument, that in an age of universal suffrage, it really amounts to popular sovereignty; and an instrumental argument, that it allows for powerful and effective government. All are open to question. The historical argument is based on English practice and challenged in Scotland. The normative argument assumes that there is a single UK people with one channel for expression, rather than multiple peoples, the smaller nations having more inclusive electoral systems. The instrumental argument needs to be proven empirically rather than asserted.

Continue reading

Northern Ireland on the brink, again: the responsibility of London

As political tensions rise and riots erupt, or are provoked, on the streets of Belfast, the suggestion is now widely heard that the Northern Ireland institutions may again collapse before long. But London appears at present to have a limited grip of the Northern Ireland situation, suggests Alan Whysall, and if it does not change its approach markedly, it – and others – may face great grief soon.

Lessons of history

London governments were hands off in Northern Ireland until the late 1960s. Meanwhile conditions developed there that provoked protest, which was then hijacked by terrorism. Over several decades they painfully learned again about Ireland, the need to give its affairs at times a degree of priority, and the importance of working with Dublin. That approach led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and an intensive cooperative effort between the governments to implement it and keep it on the road.

Since 2016, matters have changed. In settling the UK’s approach to Brexit, it has generally been regarded as a side issue, to be resolved once the grand lines of the withdrawal plan were settled. The May government, under much pressure from Brussels, Belfast and Dublin, eventually recognised that the architecture of Brexit must accommodate Northern Ireland concerns. In 2019, however, policy shifted from the May backstop to the Johnson Protocol, and there is a strong perception that Northern Ireland has chiefly been valued as a battleground for the government’s trench warfare with the EU.

The build-up to the recent violence

Brexit is of course not the sole cause of what is now going wrong. In various ways, the underpinnings of the Agreement have been weakening for eight or nine years; and a number of factors led to the Executive collapsing in early 2017. But the tensions that Brexit has provoked, and the necessity to create a border somewhere – across the island, around the two islands, or between Great Britain and Ireland (the inevitable choice, because the other two are unfeasible) have seriously envenomed matters.

Nevertheless, Julian Smith, the last Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, developed a strong rapport with all the main Northern Ireland parties, and the Irish government, and was able to reach the New Decade, New Approach agreement to bring the institutions back early last year. But he was promptly sacked, apparently for having offended Number 10, a step widely seen in Northern Ireland as indicating the government’s general lack of concern for its affairs. He was replaced by Brandon Lewis.

Continue reading

Northern Ireland in its centenary year: reviving the promise of the Good Friday Agreement

Yesterday’s blogpost suggested that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement settlement might be facing its greatest threat ever. Some now see a border poll, and early Irish unity as the answer. Here, Alan Whysall, a member of the Unit’s Working Group on Unification Referendums on the island of Ireland, gives a personal perspective. He argues that a majority for unity is probably not imminent; a fixation on the ‘union versus unity’ debate may be profoundly damaging; and that whatever the preferred constitutional outcome, the key requirement now is to revive the Agreement, and people in Northern Ireland need to take the lead on that.

The Constitution Unit has published, for consultation, the interim report of its working group on the possibility of a border poll and processes around it. We take no view on whether there should be a poll, or Irish unity.

This work is necessary given the absence of explicit provision in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement about the shape of a united Ireland or the route to it. The debate on unity is already happening: it needs to be well informed and to address all the key issues involved in unification. It has so far barely engaged with them.

There is now a strong campaign in favour of an early border poll. Sinn Féin seeks early government preparations, though the SDLP (which is setting up a Commission on the issues), and the parties in the Irish coalition government (which is leading with its Shared Ireland initiative), believe the time is not yet right for a poll. 

But in Northern Ireland, those advocating unity are to all appearances the only people with a plan – even to audiences who might think it flawed.

Unionism appears divided and bewildered. Unionist commentators, starting in 2018 with the former DUP leader Peter Robinson, have occasionally suggested preparation for a border poll. But unionism is not yet rising to the challenges of a poll. At present in Northern Ireland most parties seek to appeal to their own side of the community. In the unity debate, each side needs arguments, and the people to make them, who can reach into the centre ground and the other camp. 

Continue reading