The Irish government is pursuing Northern Ireland’s interests more actively than the UK government

Northern Ireland has been on the sidelines of the UK general election campaign, despite continuing political deadlock and the major unresolved questions resulting from Brexit. Brian Walker suggests that this reflects a general disengagement with Northern Ireland from the May government, which has taken the view that the North’s political issues are for their politicians to sort out. The Irish government can now be said to be pursuing Northern Ireland’s interests more actively.

Northern Ireland is accustomed to being tucked away on the sidelines of a UK general election. While it is part of the constitutional nation, it is barely part of the political nation, if that is defined by electing members of the UK government. (Scotland look out!). Its electoral cycle and political interests can fundamentally clash with those of the government at Westminster.  ‘Westminster will always put its own interests first, even if ours are about life and death’, is a familiar refrain. The snap 1974 ‘Who Governs Britain’ general election did for the first fragile power sharing Executive within weeks of its formation when voters returned a full house of MPs bent on bringing it down.  Power sharing did not return for a quarter of a century.

The collapse of the 2016 Assembly

Power sharing suddenly collapsed in the New Year under the impact of the Remain referendum result locally, which put the minority coalition partner Sinn Fein on the winning side and provided them with a test run for a bigger challenge. Devolved government remains in limbo, at least until after the snap general election on 8th June. In Ireland many nationalists rate Brexit as creating the biggest crisis since partition almost a century ago. Unionists and the British government are more circumspect.

Before the EU referendum, the Assembly had seemed to be going quite well. It had survived two terms with deadlocks but avoided collapse. Nationalists seemed broadly content with the constitutional status quo. The Sinn Féin vote had dipped and the DUP were comfortably ahead by ten out of 108 seats. A Fresh Start agreement brokered by the British and Irish governments at the end of 2015 ended a deadlock over welfare cuts that had lasted a year. It even led to behind the scenes talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin to settle a new style budget, as they campaigned for the Assembly election of 2016.

But the combination of a regional Remain majority, a bitter row over holding the DUP First Minster Arlene Foster responsible for a botched renewables heating scheme and the fatal illness of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness created enough combustible material for Sinn Féin to pull out of the Assembly early this year, obliging the British government to call another election. The campaign unleashed a flood of resentment at what republicans regarded as DUP majoritarian behaviour and lack of respect for Irish culture. In particular, they pointed to the failure of unionists and the British government to implement totemic equality measures like the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights provided for in the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish Language Act provided for in the St Andrew’s Agreement.

Unionists as usual saw Sinn Féin as exaggerating minor grievances to advance the republican cause but were thrown on the defensive over resisting Sinn Féin’s demand for Foster to be suspended from office. A nationalist ‘surge’ in turnout in the Assembly election that followed in March, bluntly to ‘stick it to Arlene Foster’, brought Sinn Féin within two seats of replacing her as First Minister, as the overall nationalist result overturned the unionist bloc majority for the first time. The Sinn Féin boycott won the endorsement of their voters.   Northern Ireland had turned a chapter. The Westminster election on 8 June will be another sectarian contest to gain advantage in the existential question of Irish unity, ahead of the interparty talks on the Assembly’s future which it is hoped will resume immediately afterwards.

The political scene – changing utterly?

There are profound doubts that the talks can succeed anytime soon. It remains a sticking point for Sinn Féin for Foster not to return to office until a public inquiry rules on her conduct in about a year’s time. Moreover, when the prospect of a hard border began to emerge, Sinn Féin quickly saw the political possibilities. A re-erected border would not only be a throwback to an unlamented past; it offers a potential new route to a united Ireland. Perhaps the time has come for Sinn Féin to abandon the frustrations of power sharing in a coalition of opposites, and build on the nationalist-dominated Remain majority to create momentum for a united Ireland within the EU, launched by a border poll, followed if necessary by another poll in seven years time as the Good Friday Agreement permits?

‘She doesn’t care’

The May government’s response to the Assembly breakdown is strikingly different from the close involvement of the Blair years, when peace through paramilitary disarmament and disbandment was the main objective. Without such a big issue to compel her attention, Theresa May has followed the Cameron precedent and has remained immune to appeals from local politicians and civil society to intervene personally. ‘Leave it to themselves to sort out’ is the mantra. This UK government displays less sensitivity to the Northern Ireland implications of key policy issues than the old days of the peace process. For instance, motivated it would seem by the Prime Minister’s frustrations over deporting Abu Qatada and a visceral dislike of European courts, the Conservative manifesto looks forward to a review of the Human Rights Act when the Brexit process  has concluded, even though the HRA is entrenched in the Good Friday Agreement and any change is strongly opposed by Northern nationalists and her Irish government partners.

May’s former junior minister at the Home Office, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, paid more attention to his party than his ministerial interests when he spoke out in favour of halting prosecutions of soldiers for actions long ago, giving support to a Conservative backbench campaign first sparked by what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than Northern Ireland. It therefore came as no surprise to local opinion when Sinn Féin rejected him as a mediator in interparty talks to get the Assembly going again. Brokenshire has remained on the sidelines, his role largely limited to extending time limits for the fitful and so far unproductive talks without an active chair, an agreed agenda or any obvious sense of direction. His main leverage is to threaten another Assembly election in what would be Northern Ireland voters’ twelfth trip to the polls since the Westminster election of 2010. In fact creeping direct rule restored by primary legislation is the more likely option if the talks drag on much beyond the summer Orange marching season.

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We need to talk about the London question

In this post Tim Oliver considers how London is talked about in UK politics, how we can assess claims that London has become too powerful and distinct from the rest of the UK, and how London’s place in the UK can be managed. He suggests that there are three broad approaches that can be taken to the ‘London question’: the status quo, separating the UK and/or England from London and devolved government for London.

Anybody calling for more talk about London inevitably receives looks of exasperation from people elsewhere in the UK. Surely we already talk about the metropolis enough? Despite repeated calls for change, the UK’s economy, politics, media and much more remain imbalanced towards the capital city. It is that dominance – or sometimes the perception of dominance – that makes it all the more important that we talk about London’s power and place in the UK and how to manage it.

To come to terms with London’s place in the UK, this blog post briefly considers three issues connected to several questions. First, how is London talked about in UK politics? Second, how can we assess claims that London has become too powerful and distinct from the rest of the UK? Finally, how can London’s place in the UK be managed?

London calling

Samuel Johnson may well have said that ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’, but today people outside London might well be tired of hearing about the place (Londoners are equally sick of hearing that quote). London is talked about in UK politics in eight broad ways.

First, it has been described as the UK’s dark star, sucking in people, resources and energy from across the country. The bright lights of London have long drawn people from across Britain and the wider world. ‘That great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained’ was how Dr John Watson described Victorian London. Today that appeal has reached levels where the rest of the UK lives in the shadow of London. This is in large part because London is a global city that has become the UK’s undiscovered country. Other areas of the UK might have diverse populations and needs, but it’s London’s size, status as capital city, distinct outlooks (being home, for example, to the ‘metropolitan elite’) and unique needs (in housing, transport, health, security, global links and so forth) that can make it one of the UK’s most distinct political spaces.

As the UK’s most diverse and resilient economic area, London can appear to be what keeps the UK economy afloat. With 12 per cent of the UK’s population, London produces 23 per cent of UK GVA, about 30 per cent of all UK economic taxes, and on its own would be the EU’s seventh largest economy and one of the richest countries in the world. At the same time, London can be seen as the UK’s biggest financial drain. Government investment pours into London to the detriment of elsewhere. For example, £1500 more is spent on transport spending per Londoner than on people in the North of England. The rest of the UK also picks up the tab when London’s economy overheats or the City of London’s attitudes and policies help cause a global financial crisis that plunges the rest of the country into recession followed by a period of austerity.

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Devolution in England: a review

On Monday 10 April Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics (LSE) spoke at a Constitution Unit seminar on devolution in England. The talk covered the history of English devolution, international comparisons, and some thoughts for the future amidst the current Brexit-dominated political landscape. Kasim Khorasanee reports.

English devolution – the delegation of powers, responsibility, and accountability from central Whitehall/Westminster government to sub-national levels – has had a fitful and uneven history. Its inevitable comparators are the devolution processes to Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales which took place from the late 1990s onwards. All three received national devolved governments and legislatures. More recently, Scotland and Wales have been the subjects of significant fiscal devolution. England, on the other hand, appears to have been left out in the cold – having no devolved government outside London, and both fewer MPs and lower public expenditure per head of population than other parts of the UK. Professor Travers explained that historically this trade-off was seen as necessary to maintain the Union – it was felt that an assertive England would dominate any federal union, for example its budget would be significantly larger than a federal UK government’s. However, devolution to the other UK nations had stirred something of a burgeoning sense of English identity.

English devolution – a brief history

Taking us on a canter through the history of English devolution, Travers began with Labour’s aborted attempts in the 1970s. The Kilbrandon Report (1973) recommended regional devolution within England, as well as legislatures for Wales and Scotland. The Layfield Report (1976) emphasised the importance of local accountability and responsibility for financial matters. Both failed to be implemented, and attempts at Scottish and Welsh devolution played a key part in the fall of the Labour government. The ensuing Conservative government in the 1980s brought to an end a number of significant devolved entities – metropolitan counties, the Greater London Council, and the Greater Manchester County Council. It was under Tony Blair’s Labour government that devolution received its new life. However, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland received devolved assemblies, regional devolution within England was stopped short by the North East referendum (2004). But the North East was offered ‘nothing like’ the powers devolved to Scotland and Wales. An opposition campaign, illustrating their point with a life-sized white elephant, convincingly defeated the devolution proposal by 78 per cent to 22 per cent. This left the idea of regions ‘doomed – possibly forever’. In terms of new elected bodies, the only significant change was hence the resurrection of London-wide government, with the establishment of the Greater London Assembly and London Mayor in 2000.

City regions and fiscal devolution

Travers flagged that ‘city regions’ have since taken over as the focus of English devolution efforts. He drew a parallel between Tony Blair’s presidential governing style, and his push for city regions to be led by further directly-elected mayors. This enthusiasm was carried on by David Cameron, who continued to build on his predecessor’s policy. City regional mayors were made a condition of greater devolution to combined authorities. Travers emphasised that the current legislative framework for English devolution envisaged highly ‘bespoke’ devolution across the country. In doing so he highlighted that this could result in wide – seemingly random – disparities in the functions devolved to different city regions. One area which appeared quite resistant to change, however, was fiscal devolution. Although the aforementioned Layfield Report, and more recently the London Finance Commission’s reports (2013 & 2017), called for localised responsibility for taxation, central government has traditionally been highly reluctant to implement this. Travers acknowledged that responsibility for local business rates was being devolved to local government by 2020, but pointed out that it was being offset by the phasing out of the central grant to councils.

To put the UK’s lack of fiscal devolution in context Travers drew on international comparisons. He cited OECD statistics setting out the UK’s sub-national tax-raising as 1.6 per cent of GDP. By comparison Sweden, Canada, and Germany all had figures of over 10 per cent, the OECD average sitting at 8.8 per cent. The UK was very much an outlier in this respect (see below).

Similarly there are far fewer taxes devolved to London when compared with other capitals such as New York, Berlin, Tokyo, and Paris. In sum there would have to be far more radical change than currently envisaged to bring the UK into alignment with OECD trends.

Current government policy

From speaking to civil servants, Travers identified that Theresa May’s Conservative government intended to shift its emphasis away from devolution. The current ongoing processes for the May 2017 elected mayors, the 2018 mayoral election in Sheffield, and the potential for a ‘North of Tyne’ combined authority and mayor, were the extent of the devolution policy horizon. In a piece of analysis which drew chuckles from the audience he cited the number of UK budget mentions of the phrases ‘devolution’, ‘Northern Powerhouse’, and ‘mayor’ between March 2013 and March 2017. There was a spike in mentions after the coalition – between 2015 and 2016 the average number of mentions of the three phrases per budget document was 31, 14, and 13 respectively. However this dropped sharply in Philip Hammond’s March 2017 budget to eight, one, and zero mentions respectively.

Mayors and communal identities

Travers suggested that the experience of London indicated that the introduction of directly elected mayors for city regions across the UK could have significant implications. As well as having a generally higher turnout compared to local elections, London’s mayoral elections have helped cement the idea of London as a political unit in people’s minds. Devolution can reinforce a sense of difference from the whole, and Travers drew attention to the fact that the three significant ‘Remain’ regions in the EU referendum – Greater London, Northern Ireland, and Scotland – were also the subjects of significant devolution (though the balance of votes in Wales was for ‘Leave’). In the case of London this sense of civic identity had not yet gained enough momentum to push for Scottish or Welsh-style devolution. However, Travers did note an increase in the number of news articles discussing London independence. He suspected that the incoming 2017 elected mayors would – as London’s mayor had historically done – lobby for increased powers once in office. As a body the mayors could hence potentially become a lobby for English devolution. Given the consistent electoral popularity of London’s mayors, and some of the high profile candidates for the incoming May 2017 mayoral elections, these positions might also increasingly prove a staging ground for national political careers.

Reflections

In considering why England was so centralised Professor Travers reflected on a variety of explanations – the historic power of the Crown, the end of Empire, and the conflicts with local government across the 1970s and 80s. Ultimately, he expressed uncertainty about the reason, but suggested that national politicians in the UK appear to instinctively have little faith in sub-national government. Ultimately the future of English devolution is tied up with wider forces – the fate of the Union, austerity and the financing of the state, and the Brexit process.

About the speaker

Professor Tony Travers is a Professor at the LSE, and Director of the LSE London research centre

About the author

Kasim Khorasanee is a Research Volunteer at The Constitution Unit

Following Monday’s deadline, the future of devolved government in Northern Ireland remains uncertain

The legal deadline for forming a new Northern Ireland Executive has passed without agreement between the parties. This could have important political and legal consequences, including the return of ‘direct rule’. For the time being, however, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has decided to give the negotiations more time. In this addendum to his earlier blog post, published on Monday before the UK government’s statement, Alan Whysall discusses what might happen over the coming weeks.

Monday’s deadline for forming a new Executive in Northern Ireland passed without an agreement. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland spoke afterwards, and again in parliament on Tuesday. As predicted, he decided to give the negotiation process more time, until after the Easter recess (the Commons returns on 18 April). He will then ‘as a minimum’ bring forward a Westminster bill to regularise finances (see below). The bill would also allow an Executive to be formed, if political agreement emerges. But otherwise, the government would have to ‘consider all options’. Since he made it clear further elections were unappealing, this appears to mean direct rule, though he deplored the prospect.

In most such political deadlocks worldwide, there is at least a caretaker government of some sort: but not in Northern Ireland. No–one is at present empowered to give direction to the Northern Ireland civil service. The Head of the Service set out the nature of that uncomfortable position in a letter to staff. There would be business as usual, but no new initiatives, whose legal legitimacy must be doubtful. Such an arrangement clearly cannot go on for long, and unexpected events could cause real difficulty.

And there will be great budgetary prudence. In the absence of a budget voted by the Assembly, the Finance Permanent Secretary has powers to release certain limited funds, but no more than 95 per cent in cash terms of last year’s budget; moreover, there is no authority at present to raise the principal local tax, the rates (a property tax analogous to Council Tax).

Where do the talks now go? The process to date, and the British government’s role in it, has been criticised for incoherence and lack of inclusivity; for the absence of the Prime Minister; and for lack of full partnership between the two governments. And various participants (not just nationalist) have suggested the British government cannot be an impartial chair, especially in the light of Brexit. Continue reading

Following the break down of talks in Northern Ireland, what now?

Northern Ireland’s political parties have failed to reach an agreement that would allow a new power-sharing Executive to be formed by today’s deadline. This will have important legal and political consequences, possibly including the re-introduction of ‘direct rule’ from Westminster. These issues are looked at here by Alan Whysall.

Political negotiations have been going on since the election of 2 March, which was brought about by the decision in January of Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin (who has since died) to resign as deputy First Minister. Yesterday, however, Sinn Féin said that the talks process had ‘run its course‘, and they would not be making nominations to Executive offices today. They did not say where the political process might go from here, but professed commitment to the devolved institutions returning.

Sinn Féin have significant grievances that they say must be resolved before a new Executive is formed. They have an effective veto on that happening since, as the largest nationalist party, they must nominate the deputy First Minister. Among their demands has been that the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, should not become First Minister until the report of an inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive affair that was the ostensible trigger for the election, potentially a year away. That condition would be very hard for the DUP to meet. Latterly, though, they have given precedence to their demands of the British government in relation to what they assert are ‘existing commitments’ as to ‘rights’ of various sorts.

Some may question whether Sinn Féin want to be in devolved government at all at the moment. There is a range of grievances that their base genuinely feel. But in large measure, this may be on account of Brexit. Brexit is the first development since 1998 with a significant effect on the operation of the Good Friday Agreement which was not agreed by both sides of the community in Northern Ireland. It would be extremely uncomfortable for Sinn Féin to be in government, carrying out British rule in Ireland, as hard-line Republicans would put it, while Brexit was being implemented, potentially including barriers of whatever sort (and anything will be an irritant politically) being introduced at the land border within the island.

Northern Ireland views on Brexit appear to have had no impact on the approach in London. A political stand-off against the British government might gain more traction. It may also play well for Sinn Féin politically north and south of the border. But renouncing a role in government in Northern Ireland in favour of British ministers, for an uncertain but perhaps protracted period, is not attractive for them either.

At all events, by today, the main parties in the Assembly elected on 2 March ought by law to have nominated a First and deputy First Minister. They are also scheduled to fill the other ministerial posts in the Executive, and the Assembly Speakership. The Assembly was due to meet at 12 noon for the purpose, and the legal shutters are deemed to come down at 4pm. If the parties do not appoint the FM and DFM by that time their powers disappear and the Secretary of State comes under an obligation to set a date for another Assembly election. There is legal authority that he does not have to do so immediately however, and there is speculation that he might hold off for a while, seeking to reinstate negotiations. He appears likely to make a statement in the Commons tomorrow.

Like his predecessors in similar situations, the Secretary of State has been playing up the prospect of a further election as a threat. In fact that might rather appeal to both of the two big parties, who might hope to pick up seats from smaller ones. But there is no sign that an election would do anything to facilitate political agreement. The arithmetic would not change radically. The campaign would probably intensify the reversion of the political debate in Northern Ireland to the old unionist-nationalist, them and us, stand-off, and away from the era of working together which Martin McGuinness personified.

If there are no Executive appointments, and no elections, some Westminster primary legislation will be needed after today. That might be to permit the selection of an FM and DFM, if there is a late breakthrough; or give more time for negotiation if the prospects radically change. And in those contexts there might be powers to fix aspects of Executive business in the short term, since there are no ministers at present, nor any budget for the new financial year.

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A second Scottish independence referendum without a s.30 Order? A legal question that demands a political answer

In this blog Stephen Tierney argues that the legality of a unilateral referendum organised by the Scottish Parliament is a grey area. He also offers personal reflections from his experience as a parliamentary adviser at the time of the 2014 referendum and contends that a referendum held without an agreed process would have been damaging then and would be damaging now. It is incumbent upon both governments to ensure that a political solution to the current dispute is achieved and that, in particular, such a divisive issue is not left to the courts to settle. 

The Scottish Parliament today concludes its debate on whether to request from the UK parliament a ‘s.30 Order’ under the Scotland Act 1998. This would provide unequivocal authority for the Scottish Parliament to hold a second independence referendum. Westminster is likely to refuse this request for the time being at least, raising the question of whether the Scottish Parliament can legislate to hold a referendum without such consent.

In 2012 I argued that there was a plausible case to be made that the current powers of the Scottish Parliament do indeed allow it to legislate on the subject of an independence referendum; a view shared by several colleagues. The argument was that a consultative exercise, asking the electorate if they favoured an independent Scotland, could be legally permissible. Crucial to the legality of such a referendum, however, would also be its legal inconsequentiality; it would not bind the UK government to give effect to a pro-independence outcome.

I still consider this argument to be valid; the relevant devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament have not changed since that time. But I went on to serve as Constitutional Adviser to the Scottish Parliament Referendum Bill Committee which helped shape the bills (here and here) which regulated the 2014 referendum. What became clear to me was that, regardless of whether one was a Yes or a No voter, it was far better in terms of fostering a conducive environment for debate that a referendum, without the consent of the UK parliament, was not attempted. The fact that the 2014 referendum was the product of the Edinburgh Agreement between the Scottish and UK governments is central to how commentators now look upon that referendum as a valid and deliberative, if not uncontentious, exercise in popular decision-making.

In this blog I will briefly set out the zone of legal uncertainty, one which does suggest that the Scottish Parliament’s powers in this area are potentially broader than is often claimed. My main goal, however, is to make a plea for political restraint by both governments in recognition that this is fundamentally an issue of politics and not of law, and that in the interests of a healthy, democratic political process, it is incumbent upon the two governments not to allow an uncertain area of law to become a political football.

I would emphasise that this is not a call for unilateral self-restraint by the Scottish government and Scottish Parliament; both sides must work to ensure that this matter does not end up before the courts with potentially disastrous consequences for the reputation of the UK’s Supreme Court and the health of our democracy.

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A second independence referendum in Scotland: the legal issues

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday declared the Scottish government’s intention to hold a second referendum on independence by spring 2019. In this post Stephen Tierney discusses the steps that have to be gone through before this is realised. He suggests that although a referendum is not inevitable the Scottish government are not bluffing about it – if, as seems likely, it can gain a majority in the Scottish Parliament to request a s. 30 Order, and can convince Westminster to grant this, then the path will be set for a referendum process that could see Scotland leave the UK just as the UK leaves the EU.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday announced the Scottish government’s intention to hold a second referendum on independence between the autumn of 2018 and the spring of 2019. The move comes ahead of the start of Brexit negotiations under Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union, expected to be triggered by the end of the month. The next two years are set to be consumed by two parallel processes that will see the UK leave the EU and could also see Scotland leave the UK in an effort to remain within the EU.

Can the Scottish Parliament hold a referendum without the consent of Westminster?

Whether the Scottish Parliament can unilaterally hold an ‘advisory’ referendum on this issue has never been finally resolved. But it seems clear that the Scottish government does not propose to test this issue; instead it will seek the consent of Westminster to a so-called s. 30 Order, thereby ensuring that the UK government will have to accept the referendum result.

A s. 30 Order would involve a temporary transfer of power from the UK parliament to the Scottish Parliament to allow the referendum to go ahead, along similar lines to the 2014 process. The Scottish government indicated its intention to go down this route in its white paper, ‘Consultation on a Draft Referendum Bill’ published in October last year, and this was also confirmed by the First Minister today when she stated that she will ask the Scottish Parliament next week for permission to request a s. 30 order.

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