100 years of the Government of Ireland Act: how it provided a model for Westminster-Edinburgh relations

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 is 100 years old tomorrow. David Torrance examines the legislation and its impact, arguing that a number of the constitutional conventions that regulate relations between Westminster and Holyrood have roots in those that applied to Stormont between 1920 and 1972.

Wednesday 23 December marks the centenary of royal assent for the Government of Ireland Act 1920 (the ‘1920 Act’). That this created the part of the UK known as ‘Northern Ireland’ and its border is well known, but its devolution settlement – a parliament, government, governor and prime minister – has largely faded from public consciousness.

As the historian Graham Walker has observed, Northern Ireland ‘serves as a reminder that devolution and constitutional change has a long, complex, and fascinating history, and did not just appear magically at the end of the twentieth century’ [1]. Indeed, this blog will argue that many of the constitutional conventions now associated with Holyrood-Westminster relations have antecedents in those which developed between Stormont and the UK parliament between 1921 and 1972. There was also one major difference, self-determination, analysis of which concludes this piece.

A ‘sound custom’ of non-interference

Speaking during Lords consideration of the Scotland Bill in 1998, Lord Sewel observed that ‘as happened in Northern Ireland earlier in the century’ the government would expect ‘a convention to be established that Westminster would not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters in Scotland without the consent of the Scottish parliament’. This would later come to be known as the Sewel convention.

The Northern Ireland precedent acknowledged by Lord Sewel was established in 1922 when Home Secretary Edward Shortt (who had responsibility for GB-NI relations at the time, as there was no Northern Ireland Office) advised withholding royal assent for a bill abolishing the Single Transferable Vote method for local government elections (a matter ‘transferred’ to Belfast). When Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister Sir James Craig and his Cabinet threatened to resign, assent was granted.

By 1953, a Treasury document could state that:

In practice the United Kingdom Parliament refrains from legislating on matters with which the Northern Ireland Parliament can deal, except at the request and with the consent of Northern Ireland. It is recognised that any departure from this practice would be open to objection as impairing the responsibility which has been placed on the Northern Ireland Parliament and Government.

HM Treasury, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man: A Treasury Paper, December 1953, page 9
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Politics, courts and the UK’s single market

image_preview.jpgBrexit is likely to pose numerous legal questions about how the various parts of the UK relate to each other once the UK leaves the EU. Deborah Mabbett argues that the recent Supreme Court decision on prorogation is therefore unlikely to be the last time the judiciary is called upon to decide a matter related to Brexit.

Even among those who welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision on the prorogation of parliament, there has been concern that it has entered into dangerous new territory. It might have been forced there by a Prime Minister who failed to observe convention, or by a parliament that resiled from its duty to remove a government which has no majority, but forced it was, and this is a source of concern and regret. Several commentators have argued that the decision paves the way for a nasty and unpredictable election structured around a populist opposition of courts and parliament versus ‘The People’, and indeed those who see Dominic Cummings as an evil genius fear that this was the intention of the prorogation in the first place.

For those seeking a calmer view, the Court is clear in its self-assessment that, far from entering new territory, it is firmly placed on ground it has held all along. It has upheld the rule of law, in the specific sense of imposing limitations on arbitrary authority. This is the daily bread and butter of administrative law, of which there is a great deal more than excitable commentators seem to realise. Below the public gaze, the courts have dug in their heels over countless daily exercises of executive power, including the mistreatment of immigrants, the removal of welfare rights and the denial of access to justice. True, the arbitrary power challenged in these cases is not exercised by the contemporary king—the Prime Minister—but by the agents and minions of the state. Escalating the level of scrutiny to the actions of high political figures makes the prorogation decision a matter of constitutional rather than administrative law, but law it is.

On what grounds can it be claimed that the Supreme Court’s decision is ‘political’? The domains of law and politics cannot be defined by their subject matter, which clearly overlap across great swathes of social issues. We must look instead for differences in method and modes of reasoning. The characteristic method of politics is the structured antagonism of government and opposition, organised around the general political orientations of left and right. The belief that the Court had made this kind of decision seems to be behind the claim of Toby Young and Douglas Carswell, among others, that the prorogation judgment calls for action to ferret out and expose the partisan leanings of the justices. Yet left and right partisanship was obviously beside the point in the decision. Continue reading

Is the UK-Scotland Supreme Court case the start of a new phase of constitutional conflict?

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The UK and Scottish governments are engaged in a legal dispute about the Scottish Parliament’s Brexit legislation, leading to the matter being argued before the UK Supreme Court on 24 and 25 July. Akash Paun fears this could be the start of a new phase of conflict between Westminster and Edinburgh.

In July, the UK and Scottish governments squared off at the UK Supreme Court in a case relating to the Scottish Parliament’s EU ‘Continuity’ Bill (the Continuity Bill) and whether or not it is constitutional, in light of the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998.

The purpose of the Continuity Bill is to ensure there is continuity in Scottish law after Brexit. It retains EU law in devolved areas such as the environment and food standards, and creates powers for Scottish ministers to amend the law so it can operate effectively outside the EU. It therefore has a similar purpose to the UK government’s European Union (Withdrawal) Act (the Withdrawal Act), which was passed at Westminster in June, controversially without Scottish consent for the devolution provisions.

The Continuity Bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament in March, but two of the UK Government’s senior Law Officers, the Attorney General and the Advocate General for Scotland, referred the bill to the UK Supreme Court in April. This is the first time a bill passed by a devolved parliament has been challenged in this way. A similar continuity bill for Wales was also passed in March, but it is now being repealed following agreement between Westminster and Cardiff over the terms of the Withdrawal Act. Both the Welsh and Northern Irish governments were represented at the hearing. 

This is a complex case, as more than one of the judges themselves remarked during the proceedings. Judgment is expected in the autumn, and the Continuity Bill could be ruled within or outside the competence of the Scottish government, or it could be referred back to Edinburgh for amendment, in order to make it compatible with UK law. Continue reading

The Wales Bill 2016: a marked improvement but there are fundamental questions yet to be resolved

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Amongst the recent political upheaval, the Wales Bill’s progress through the House of Commons has been somewhat overlooked. Alan Cogbill discusses how the version currently being debated has changed from last year’s much criticised draft bill. He suggests that the new bill is a significant improvement but still leaves fundamental questions unanswered.  

Amidst the excitement and despair of the EU referendum, leadership contests, and the new UK Government, a constitutional measure is hastening through parliament with relatively little attention. The Wales Bill, which puts the legislative powers of the Welsh Assembly on a new footing, and reframes the powers of Welsh ministers, was introduced on 7 June, and has already completed second reading and committee stages in the House of Commons.

The government’s 2015 draft bill ran into heavy criticism, in the Assembly, Commons, and outside. A joint Wales Governance Centre/ Constitution Unit report, which reviewed the draft bill in detail, found it severely flawed. In February then Secretary of State for Wales Stephen Crabb announced a re-think. It fell to his successor, Alun Cairns, to introduce the revised Bill.

The new bill has tried to respond to many of the criticisms made – although its authors have not resisted a little mischief. A new duty on the Assembly to require ‘judicial impact assessments’ of Assembly bills was seen in Wales as importing another (covert) fetter, but it appears not; Alun Cairns said on second reading that appraisals would not give rise to any ‘veto’ by the UK.  The bill is deliberately declaratory in high constitutional matters, but whether it needs to highlight a small and inconsequential item of inter-government relations seems questionable.

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Making ‘reserved powers’ work for Wales

A ‘reserved powers’ approach to devolution in Wales would offer a number of significant advantages, but applying such a model will not be straightforward. Drawing on research conducted with the Wales Governance Centre and the Constitution Unit for a report published this week, Alan Trench outlines the key challenges.

The debate about a ‘reserved powers’ model for the National Assembly has to be one of the most obscure legal issues to enter public debate.  The basic idea is straightforward: that the powers of the National Assembly should be defined by setting out what it cannot do, rather than by defining ‘subject areas’ where it does have power to pass laws.  The idea is scarcely novel – it was mooted by the Richard Commission in 2004, and repeated by the Silk Commission in 2014 – but it has acquired political legs following the St David’s Day process with all the parties agreeing to adopt it.

A ‘reserved powers’ approach would offer a number of significant advantages.  It would mean that Welsh devolution works in a similar way to that in Scotland and Northern Ireland – important both symbolically and as a way of making it clearer to the public how a devolved UK works.  It also offers a way to resolve the puzzle created by the UK Supreme Court’s jurisprudence about devolution, and particularly its judgment in the reference about the NHS Recovery Of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases (Wales) Bill, [2015] UKSC 3, by enabling the Assembly to legislate for all matters save expressly those reserved to Westminster.  In broad terms, the Scotland Act 1998 provides a valuable model – not necessarily so much in the list of reserved matters in Schedule 5 as in the provisions of the Act for identifying the scope of those reservations and interpreting them in the courts.   At present, the list of proposed reserved matters suggests a list of matters Whitehall departments do not wish to see devolved, unsupported by any wider rationale or principle.  That is not the right way to proceed when drafting a constitution.  It needs some clearer and stronger basis, rooted in a conception of what the UK needs to do at the centre (and why), and what is best done by devolved governments.

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