The public policy challenges facing Northern Ireland

Following the report of its Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, the Unit will in the coming weeks publish a discussion paper on the wider political options for Northern Ireland. In the first part of this blog, Alan Whysall, the author of the paper, sets it in the current political context, and discusses the public policy challenges facing Northern Ireland. The second part, which will be published later today, considers longer term destinies, and what can be done to encourage more realistic debate, and ultimately constructive politics, in Northern Ireland.

Introduction

Politics will resume in Northern Ireland after the summer in deep conflict. But much of the political debate is totemic, neglecting the realities of public policy in Northern Ireland now.

The unreality of the debate reflects the unwinding of constructive politics, such as was seen in the better days following the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement of 1998.  

And the increasing talk of broader constitutional destinies is cast in vague and general terms, reminiscent of the Brexit debate; on one side, it often obscures serious issues that constitutional change would raise; on the other, it takes little account of the changing nature of Northern Ireland society.

The discussion paper

The discussion paper will aim, in a neutral spirit, to point up pressing immediate issues that need to be analysed and acted on; and key aspects of the debate about potential destinies.

And it will ask how a spirit of constructive political endeavour can be restored.

Is it practical to think of a renewed Agreement?

The paper will offer some tentative answers to the questions it raises, but it really does need to spark a discussion. Political tensions may once again reach breaking point before very long: and answers to the questions may be needed.

Finally, the paper asks who is to drive the effort towards changed debate and politics. The British and Irish governments have often sought to keep the Northern Ireland political system on the rails, and to impart new impetus. But at present their differences may mean they are challenged in doing so.

So the paper also asks whether others in Northern Ireland can help.

Dealing with the here and now

The Northern Ireland Protocol

The Northern Ireland Protocol looms over Northern Ireland politics. Brexit has been profoundly disruptive. It was the first major change in the arrangements established after the Good Friday Agreement that lacked the cross-community support by which the Agreement was reached – indeed Northern Ireland voted Remain. Hard Brexit inevitably meant more borders somewhere in or around Ireland. The Protocol is the outworking.

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Devolution in the UK: the growth of the English variant

John Denham discusses how England is becoming more centralised by a Prime Minister keen on ‘unfettered leadership’, arguing that the model of elected mayors is losing its attraction to central government. This extension of the powers of the Union state over England might well be described as the ‘English variant’. It faces unique and significant policy and political challenges.

In the early months of 2020, there seemed to be a sharp contrast between Conservative policy towards the governance of England and its approach to the devolved nations. Its 2019 manifesto had promised ‘full devolution across England so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny’. Across the Union the government was already setting out its intention to intervene more directly in the affairs of the devolved nations. This so-called ‘assertive unionism’ – an attempt to refashion some form of more unitary UK state – had been foreshadowed when Boris Johnson had declared his intention to be Minister for the Union and in an influential report by Policy Exchange.

The commitment to publish a Devolution and Recovery White Paper for England was set out in July 2020 (in a speech by then local government minister Simon Clarke which has now been removed from government websites). But by the turn of 2021, in the wake of a bruising confrontation with Greater Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham, it was clear that ministers were losing interest in English devolution. The Devolution White Paper has been dropped, to be replaced by a ‘Levelling-Up’ White Paper. There is little detail on the new approach, but all the signs are that it will bring an intensification of centralisation that will extend the powers of Whitehall rather than localities. The funds intended to drive ‘levelling up’ have either been centralised at an England level, as with the English Towns Fund, or as part of UK wide funding programmes for ‘Shared Prosperity’ and ‘Community Renewal’ funds.

The early sharp contrast between Conservative plans for England and for the rest of the Union are now being replaced by something that looks much more consistent. Instead of a fundamentally different approach to English governance, England is becoming more, rather than less, centralised and, in many cases, integrated into Union-wide investment programmes. This extension of the powers of the Union state over England might well be described as the ‘English variant’. It has features that are unique to England, but at its core is the same idea of the centralised Union state.

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Deliver us from EVEL? Is the government right to abolish ‘English Votes for English Laws’?

Following reports that the UK government is considering abolishing the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ procedures in the House of Commons, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny argue that, although EVEL has some flaws as a solution to the ‘West Lothian Question’, abandoning it will also leave open bigger questions about how England should be represented within British parliamentary government.

According to a recent report in The Times, the UK government is preparing to abolish the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ standing orders in the House of Commons. This suggested that ministers have already been consulted on the move and look set to lend it support. The change would also need to be approved by MPs, but only a single vote in the Commons would be needed to make this important constitutional change.

That such a move is being considered by the current government is surprising and unexpected in equal measure. Proposals for various forms of EVEL, as an answer to the infamous ‘West Lothian Question’, have been championed by the Conservative Party ever since the advent of Scottish and Welsh devolution in the late 1990s, and have featured in every one of its general election manifestos between 2001 and 2015. Despite agreeing to an independent commission, the Liberal Democrats ultimately blocked this reform during the period of coalition government. It was only in October 2015, once the Conservatives held power alone, that the change was implemented. Few would have expected that a government with such a strong focus upon English voters outside large urban areas would seek to repeal it.

One part of the explanation for this may be an increased willingness of the current Conservative government to disown elements of the Cameron legacy. But it also reflects the influence of a rising current of ‘neo-unionist’ sentiment within the party, which believes that the imperative to secure Scottish consent, in the wake of growing support for a second independence referendum, is more important than English grumbles about the West Lothian anomaly. This is perhaps ironic, since EVEL was envisaged by its architects as a means of assuaging discontent with the Union, by protecting against a situation in which MPs from outside England’s borders could make the difference on England-only legislative decisions.

What is also notable about the idea of repealing EVEL is that little sense of how it has operated has informed this declaration of intent.

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