Owen Polley: Devolution is a disaster for the Union and has always been

One of Northern Ireland’s abiding political mysteries is why unionists, in political parties at least, have become so devoted to devolution.

Monday, 16th August 2021, 3:06 pm
Updated Monday, 16th August 2021, 3:12 pm
Since power-sharing at Stormont in 1998, unionists have supported profound differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country. Yet last year unionist parties naively seemed elated that devolution was back rather than furious Sinn Fein had got their way

Originally, the parliament at Stormont was created to distance the province from the rest of the United Kingdom. The theory was that ‘home rule’ in 1921 for both parts of the island would solve the ‘Irish question’.

While it didn’t work out like that, it did entrench our status as a ‘place apart’ that was not included fully in mainstream British politics.

Since 1998, our system of power-sharing failed to tackle any of the major problems with the economy, infrastructure and an unreformed public sector that blighted Northern Ireland for decades.

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Now, while England, Scotland and Wales move toward relative freedom from Covid restrictions we retain many aspects of lockdown, thanks to the influence of politicians at Stormont.

The unionist parties may be shy about admitting it, but this is because the Republic continues to be one of the most cautious countries in the world when it comes to reopening.

Nationalist parties see everything through an all-island lens and their ideological commitment to this idea means we cannot relax our rules to the same extent as the rest of the UK.

These problems are not confined to coronavirus.

Thanks to the government’s capitulation to the EU, Northern Ireland’s economic links with Great Britain have been sacrificed to protect seamless trade with the Republic of Ireland, through the Northern Ireland Protocol. In Thursday’s News Letter, the economist, Esmond Birnie, estimated that this arrangement is costing our economy nearly £1 billion per year.

The protocol is not a direct outcome of devolution, but it illustrates a broader trend and the existence of Stormont makes it difficult to rectify.

Unionists signed up to the Belfast Agreement, with all its unpalatable baggage, because it rested on the principle of consent. The signatories acknowledged that: ‘The present wish of a majority of people in Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, ... Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish.’

In other words, we must remain a full part of the UK, until a majority of voters in the province decides otherwise, through a border poll.

Despite this principle, some of the most basic aspects of our place in the United Kingdom have been diluted to placate nationalists.

Yet, at the start of 2020, unionist parties rushed to reinstate Stormont and now react with horror at the idea that it might collapse again.

The Belfast Agreement made no provision for joint authority or a hybrid state, but nationalists and the Dublin government have been allowed to act consistently like that is what is already in place.

Unionists could be relaxed about these attitudes when they had little impact on day to day life, but the protocol and lockdown have made it clear that nationalism is in fact getting its way.

You will remember that when Sinn Fein derailed power-sharing for three years, it was rewarded with a promise of Irish language legislation in the shape of the New Decade, New Approach deal. Naively, unionist parties seemed elated that Stormont was back up and running rather than furious that the Shinners had got their way.

They scarcely mentioned the fact that Dublin was allowed to trash the Belfast Agreement’s three stranded structure by interfering in Northern Ireland’s internal affairs and co-authoring the document. One particularly naive unionist MLA even thanked Simon Coveney on Radio Ulster for meddling in our business!

Edwin Poots, who was briefly leader of the DUP (you may have missed it), went so far as to laud the NDNA’s “cultural package”, which included an Irish language commissioner and other language provisions, for its fairness and balance.

This attitude sums up unionism’s colloquial and short-sighted attitude to devolution.

An unbalanced package would have created one expensive set of obligations, whereas a balanced package created a whole nest of expensive obligations. But Poots thought an Ulster Scots’ commissioner and an ‘Office of Identity’ was something to celebrate, regardless of the broader consequences.

In the decades following Northern Ireland’s creation, the UUP dominated unionism and the party became attached to the original home rule parliament at Stormont. There is a compelling case, though it is frequently overstated, that rather than focus on creating a modern, integrated part of the UK, some ministers misused their powers, allowing nationalist grievances to fester and deepening opposition to the Union.

Since the introduction of power-sharing in 1998, unionists have supported profound differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country. These included sensitive moral issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, but also everyday matters, like libel reform and Corporation Tax powers.

This type of exceptionalism made it easier to justify treating us differently from the rest of the UK when it came to serious questions like the procotol, that weakened our place in the Union.

Devolution has never worked well for unionism and it is now doing particular damage. Unfortunately, it is firmly established in Wales and Scotland and it is unlikely to be going anywhere in the short-term.

Nevertheless, unionists’ enthusiasm for self-government is baffling and entirely misplaced. They should at least be aware of its negative consequences and chastened by their self-defeating attachment to it in the past.

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