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Failure of devolution in Northern Ireland

Mike McCartney

27th March 2023

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. 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 approximately 40% of the time it has been in existence (since 1998). Meanwhile, member software 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.

The latest stalemate has led to a call the week from the former Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Bertie Ahern, for a radical shake up of the power sharing executive in order to stop one of the main parties (the DUP and Sinn Fein) from unilaterally causing its collapse. Such a major change to the fundamental framework underpinning the Good Friday Agreement is unlikely any time soon.

In the immediate term the ongoing difficulties mean that the politicians elected to the devolved assembly have been unable to go about tackling the various crises, as is the case throughout the rest of the UK, facing Northern Ireland such as the continued increases in the cost of living, and hospital waiting lists.

Which is surely one of the main reasons for devolving power from central government in the first place? 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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