To devolve or not to devolve? The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and devolution

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, published last week, is likely to have sizable implications for the future of devolution in the UK. In this post Michael Keating considers these, suggesting that the provisions of the bill may move the UK closer to a more hierarchical model of devolution, in which the broad principles are set in London and the details filled in across the nations.

One of the many contentious details of Brexit is what will happen to those competences that are currently both devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and also Europeanised. As the United Kingdom has a ‘reserved powers’ model of devolution, all powers not expressly reserved to Westminster are devolved. This means that in a range of fields including agriculture, fisheries, the environment and parts of justice, powers are shared between Europe and the devolved level, with no UK departments and common UK policies only in so far as there are common EU policies.

After Brexit, if nothing were done, these competences would revert to the devolved level. There is a broad recognition that there will need to be some UK-wide frameworks in the absence of European ones, and a linkage between the UK and devolved levels. Agricultural support and fisheries management are devolved but international agreements in these fields are reserved. If future international trade agreements include agriculture, there will be a need for provisions on permissible levels of support and subsidy. Agreements in fisheries will include the management of stocks. There will need to be arrangements for a level playing field across the UK in industrial aid and agriculture support. Environmental policy spills over the borders of the UK nations, calling for cooperation.

The question is about what form these frameworks will take and who will be responsible for making them. At one end is the position of the Welsh government, which has argued that devolved competences should remain devolved and that common frameworks, where necessary, should be negotiated among the four UK nations. This would be done through a UK Council of Ministers modeled on the EU Council of Ministers. Another suggestion has been that the UK would lay down broad frameworks for policy, while leaving the powers otherwise devolved. The UK government has recently been suggesting that this would merely reproduce the existing arrangements, in which the devolved bodies are bound by EU frameworks. They implement, rather than make, policy and would not, therefore, lose powers.

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A new approach to deadlock in Northern Ireland

After Northern Ireland’s political parties missed the latest deadline for reaching an agreement to restore devolved government, the current Assembly crisis is now the longest for over a decade. In this post Brian Walker suggests a new approach that might help to break the deadlock.

Standing back, it’s easy enough to see why the latest Assembly crisis is the longest and most intractable for over a decade. Unusually in recent times and in sharp contrast to the heady days of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), this breakdown is set against a background of momentous upheaval which, typically, the local politicians have rushed to exploit for their own causes. For the DUP, Brexit revives the prospect of a physical border which in whatever final form confirms the fact of the Union. For Sinn Féin the prospect of Northern Ireland remaining in the EU as part of a united Ireland opens up a new route to the elusive old destination. Both parties now enjoy uncertain leverage in the two parliaments of their allegiance where minority governments uncertainly rule.

If Sinn Féin’s narrative of a people’s surge of rebellion against DUP intransigence is not entirely convincing, it cannot be denied that events outside have given fresh impetus to the struggle for Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. Internally, the frustrations of power sharing by which the winning parties are always denied the fruits of clear victory might otherwise have been contained, had it not been for a remarkable coincidence of the green energy fiasco and the fatal illness of Martin McGuinness. For Sinn Féin the chance of exploring whether Assembly elections could become one more useful stage in an unending series of mini-referendums to create momentum for a border poll was too good to miss. In the short run the tactic has not delivered, but the contest may become all the keener with the impending emergence of a Catholic voting majority. All election victories look like becoming marginal from now on and the prospect of a well functioning Assembly all the more uncertain. Or so it appears at the moment. As recently as May last year it all looked rather different.

The shortcomings of the UK government

Faced with the collapse of the Assembly, the British government’s attitude  was curiously passive until almost the last minute, compared to the close engagement of earlier years when in a high pressure environment prime ministers presided, ears were constantly bent and many draft proposals circulated. Even after making due allowance for mediation fatigue, this looks like a fundamental error, though whether out of calculation or incompetence is unclear. It is not enough to claim – rightly – that the government have bigger things to worry about: they usually do. For under the guise of respecting devolution (interestingly also the reason given for denying Northern Irish women abortions on the NHS in England and now overthrown), a Conservative pattern of relative disengagement since 2010 has weakened the British government’s authority and exposed a loss of touch. Secretary of State James Brokenshire’s impartiality was compromised from the moment he complained about legal action against ex-soldiers in January. He appeared to care more about the Tory cause of shielding them from possible prosecution than his essential role as a minister.

As an organising principle for the talks, the split between devolved and non- devolved matters, with the former chaired by the apolitical figure of the head of the civil service, was a pointless distinction.  While insisting on the sovereign power’s prerogatives, Brokenshire exercised them very little. The present government’s line on Brexit already placed them on the opposite side from nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland whose ultimate aim is to dismantle ‘the precious, precious Union’ they are pledged to defend. Might that have been a reason for letting the locals get on with it? The Secretary of State’s role as the judge of a majority in favour of a border poll is  therefore unlikely to survive unchallenged.

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Decoding the Conservative-DUP agreement

The confidence and supply agreement between the Conservatives and DUP was signed yesterday. Akash Paun discusses how it will work in practice, the financial commitments that have been made as part of the deal and the implications for the coming years.

The government yesterday confirmed details of its ‘confidence and supply agreement’ with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The negotiations dragged on for over two weeks, but a deal of some kind always seemed probable. Holding the balance of power is a dream outcome for smaller parties. The DUP, therefore, had nothing to gain and a lot to lose by bringing down the Prime Minister and triggering another election.

Today’s announcement keeps Theresa May in Downing Street, for now at least. But how much do we know about how this arrangement will actually work?

How it will work in practice

The agreement commits the DUP to support the Government on explicit confidence motions and key votes on the Queen’s speech later this week. The status of the Queen’s Speech vote as a confidence test is a matter of some debate.

Further, the DUP will back the government on formal ‘supply’ votes through which the House of Commons authorises government to spend money from the Exchequer, but also on Budgets and other financial legislation. Beyond that, the deal includes a promise to support the government on Brexit and national security legislation.

This is a broader set of commitments than we might have expected. And in exchange for their support, the DUP will surely expect meaningful rights of consultation on the development of policy whether through the planned ‘co-ordination committee’ or other informal channels.

International experience shows that smaller parties in such deals often grow frustrated at their limited ability to influence government policy. This is a challenge even in formal coalitions, but in this instance the DUP will have no ministerial positions, civil service support or automatic access to confidential information. People are naturally interested in the policy substance of such inter-party deals, but getting the governance of the deal right is just as important if it is going to last.

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Following the general election, where now for Northern Ireland?

The general election result has done little to halt the steady unravelling of the political situation in Northern Ireland, and may accelerate it. In this post Alan Whysall discusses the implications of the confidence and supply agreement between the Conservatives and DUP, expected to be agreed in the coming days, and what might happen next.  

As Theresa May reaches out to Northern Ireland for support, the political situation there has been steadily unravelling. A pact with the DUP – which has been on the point of emerging for several days, and may appear today, or may not – is unlikely to stop the unravelling. It could accelerate it – not necessarily, but unless there are changes in outlook in Northern Ireland politics, not least from the British government, we risk losing many of the gains that have followed from the Good Friday Agreement.

The unravelling started a while ago…

Earlier blogs have outlined the increasing disarray in Northern Ireland politics since the turn of the year, here, here and here. The following is a brief summary for those who have not kept up.

Sinn Féin, which along with the DUP had constituted the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, pulled the plug on it in January. Ostensibly this was because of financial scandal involving the First Minister, Arlene Foster of the DUP, in an earlier ministerial life. But the underlying causes had more to do with the way that the DUP treated nationalism, and Brexit.

An election to the Northern Ireland Assembly followed in March. It was highly polarising. Although there have been existential crises in the life of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, elections have generally been conducted in a spirit of renewed commitment to work together. And voters increasingly came to like and expect that language – even if there was increasing disillusion at the performance of the devolved institutions.

There was little talk of working together in this Assembly election, however. The reversion in recent months to rhetoric redolent of the days before the Agreement has been marked. Arlene Foster’s spirited attacks on Sinn Féin in fact contributed to a strengthening of its vote – the overall nationalist vote had been flagging in recent elections, but now dramatically bounced back. There was also some strengthening of the middle ground, but the more moderate Unionist and nationalist parties the UUP and SDLP did less well.

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The 2017 election manifestos and the constitution

Over the past two weeks the political parties have published their manifestos for the snap general election. In this post Chris Caden and Fionnuala Ní Mhuilleoir summarise the constitutional content, covering proposals relating to Brexit, the possibility of a constitutional convention, devolution, House of Lords reform, electoral reform, human rights and freedom of information.

Theresa May’s surprise election announcement left the political parties with the challenge of putting together manifestos in a matter of weeks. The Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru all published their manifestos in the week beginning 15 May. UKIP followed on 25 May and the SNP on 30 May. With much of the election debate centring on whom the public trust to lead the country through the biggest constitutional upheaval in recent history, Brexit is unsurprisingly covered by all the parties. Attention on other constitutional issues has wavered somewhat as a result, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats both propose a constitutional convention to review aspects of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. The manifestos also lay out a variety of options in areas such as House of Lords reform, devolution, electoral reform and human rights.

Brexit

Negotiating Brexit is a major theme for all parties. The Conservative Brexit commitments include ending membership of the single market and customs union so that a greater distinction between ‘domestic and international affairs in matters of migration, national security and the economy’ can be made. This means negotiating a free trade and customs agreement between the UK and EU member states and securing new trade agreements with other countries. Theresa May’s party aims for a ‘deep and special partnership’ with member states. A successful Brexit deal would entail regaining control of borders, reducing and controlling net migration, but maintaining a ‘frictionless’ Common Travel Area for people, goods and services to pass between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The manifesto controversially maintains that ‘no deal’ is better than a bad deal for the UK.

Labour also accepts the referendum result, but rejects ‘no deal’ as a feasible option and envisages something more akin to a ‘soft Brexit’. The party would scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit white paper and replace it with an agreement maintaining the benefits of the single market and customs union; the government’s proposed ‘Great Repeal Bill’ would be replaced with an EU Rights and Protections Bill to ensure no changes to workers’ and consumers’ rights, equality law or environmental protections. The party pledges to immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals in the UK and UK citizens in EU countries, and would also seek to remain part of various research and educational projects such as Horizon 2020, Erasmus and the European Medicines Agency. Additionally, membership of organisations like Eurojust and Europol would be retained. Labour commits to no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Unlike the Conservatives and Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens pledge a second referendum after a Brexit agreement is concluded, which in each case would include an option on the ballot paper of staying in the EU. Preventing a hard Brexit is the first priority for the Lib Dems and as a result the party promises to fight for the continuation of UK membership of the single market and customs union. It also pledges to protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens abroad, to maintain UK participation in the Erasmus+ programme and other EU-funded schemes, and to retain the European Health Insurance Card. The Greens set out a similar agenda.

The SNP wishes to mitigate what they see as the damage of Brexit with the proposal that Scotland should remain in the single market. The party seeks additional powers for the Scottish government including powers that will be repatriated from Brussels to the UK like agriculture, fisheries, environmental protection and employment law. Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, pledges to make sure ‘every penny’ of European funding for Wales is replaced by the UK government and that the Welsh share of the money promised by the Leave campaign (referring to the £350 million for the NHS) is delivered. It also demands that the UK government seeks the endorsement of each UK devolved legislature before any trade deal can be signed.

UKIP supports leaving the single market, the customs union and the European Court of Justice. The manifesto outlines that no ‘divorce’ bill should be paid to the EU and that Brexit negotiations will be complete by the end of 2019.

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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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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