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In the News

Devolution: developments in Northern Ireland

Mike McCartney

5th February 2024

What does this mean for the success of the post-1997 constitutional arrangements?


1. What historic moment took place in Belfast recently?

2. Who was appointed as the first nationalist or republican First Minister of Northern Ireland?

3. What does Michelle O'Neal's appointment symbolize?

4. What agreement made Michelle O'Neal's appointment possible?

5. How has Michelle O'Neal shown respect to the royal family and cooperation with colleagues who cherish the union?

6. Why did the DUP collapse Stormont two years ago?

7. Who was nominated as the Deputy First Minister?

8. How did Emma Little Pen acknowledge the devastation caused by the IRA?

9. What common goal did Michelle O'Neal and Emma Little Pen express?

10. What challenges did the return of Stormont aim to address?

Correct answers:

1. The appointment of Michelle O'Neal as the first nationalist or republican First Minister of Northern Ireland.

2. Michelle O'Neal.

3. A moment of equality and progress.

4. The Good Friday agreement.

5. By showing respect to the royal family and cooperating with colleagues who cherish the union.

6. Protests over Brexit trade rules.

7. Emma Little-Pengelly.

8. By mentioning the devastation caused by an IRA bomb.

9. Delivering for all in Northern Ireland.

10. Public service pressures and the need to start fixing things.

So how does this relate to the A Level course?

This is an obvious example when assessing the impact of devolution

When looking at the post 1997 constitutional settlement and the impact of devolution, the arguments are well worn and go something like this...

The arguments for and against devolution have been trotted out serval times on this blog site. And they go something like this:

The points in favour can roughly be summarised as follows:

  • Democracy has been enhanced within the UK since government is much more region sensitive:, e.g. the congestion charge in London
  • On a separate but related note, the new legislatures act as policy laboratories - e.g. the Scottish first smoking ban
  • The electorates within the devolved regions accept devolution and express the view that it is the preferred system of government.
  • Despite increases in support for the nationalists in Scotland support for independence has never been a sustained majority
  • Within England the vast majority want Scotland and Wales to remain in the Union, thus there has been no English ‘backlash’.
  • The use of proportional electoral systems in the new assemblies has resulted in UK politics becoming much more pluralistic.
  • Devolution has boosted the representation of women in comparison with Westminster.

The points against can roughly be summarised as follows:

  • Devolution is an expensive luxury in terms of the costs of setting up and running the devolved bodies.
  • The raft of different policy measures that have emanated from the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have been made possible simply as the result of the unequal distribution of public funds within the UK as allocated by the complex Barnett formula
  • Far from reinvigorating democracy, voters appear to be ‘underwhelmed’ (Curtice) by devolution.
  • Questions still remain about whether devolution will lead to the break up of Britain.
  • Participation in elections to the new arenas has been a disappointment.
  • There is tension and confusion regarding the roles of the elected representatives for different tiers of government
  • That Labour’s devolution plans did not appear to be fully thought through has become evident.
  • Devolution has not resulted, as proponents had hoped, in a new form of politics, free from the tales of corruption which are so often associated with Westminster life.

We can see that the first argument against can be attached to what has been going on in Northern Ireland. Or, more accurately, what has not been going on until recently. Looking at the establishment of legislative devolution in the round, we can look at the cost of, say, building the Scottish Parliament, or the number of expensive, unelected special advisers that the Mayor of London has. But Stormont is a special case because it has been dysfunctional for a large part of its existence. Prior to the most recent collapse in February 2022 as a result of the DUP's disagreement with the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Assembly in Belfast had been suspended on five separate occasions. This means that as a result of the collapse of the power sharing executive, it had been unable to effectively perform its legislative function for over 40% of the time it has been in existence (since 1998). Meanwhile, members of the assembly (MLAs) and ministers have been able to receive their salaries and pensions, costing voters millions of pounds - in defence of politicians in the province, their remuneration was cut after the two most recent suspensions of activity.

This latest step is surely a move in the direction. But there continues to be heated debate in the province, Tis time over the issue over a possible referendum on the issue of a united Ireland. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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